OPINION: Playing with Fire

Close observers of the Oslo process know that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is taking serious risks as he attempts to force the PA to meet its commitments under the signed accords. In a full-length article in the September 1997 edition of Commentary, Washington DC attorney and Mideast specialist Douglas Feith outlined "A strategy for Israel" in which he clarified some of the dangers. Excerpts:

Although Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were coy about the matter, it is understood by all concerned that Oslo's destination, from the beginning, has been Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu declares often and emphatically that he will never agree to a sovereign Palestinian state, though he is amenable to a self-governing Palestinian entity subject to constraints to protect Israel's security and other interests. David Bar-Illan, a high-level adviser in the Prime Minister's office, explains: [You] can call it anything you want. You can call it autonomy-plus or a state-minus. What Netanyahu is talking about is limited sovereignty. It cannot have an army of a quarter of a million people; cannot produce its own nonconventional [or] conventional weapons; cannot make alliances with radical regimes like Iraq and Iran; cannot control the airspace over Israel, etc.

Nor, Bar-Illan added on another occasion, can it be a regime "that will import millions of people who call themselves refugees and park them on our doorstep".

If the Israeli government maintains its opposition to a new, sovereign Palestinian state, either the Oslo "final-status" negotiations will deadlock beyond redemption (as they may do anyway over a number of other issues, like Jerusalem) or the PA will decide to accept, for the time being, whatever diminished form of statehood Israel is willing to offer. Many in Israel and abroad would judge the former outcome a diplomatic disaster for which the Netanyahu government should be held responsible. But from the perspective of Netanyahu and his supporters, the latter outcome could be even worse.

The reason is this: any "final-status" arrangement that provided for a new Palestinian state, even one with limited sovereignty, would inevitably lack finality. The state would cover less than the whole of the territories (which are anyway less than 25 percent of the "sacred Arab land" between the Jordan River and the sea). It would not include all of eastern Jerusalem (and might not include any of it). And its sovereignty would be severely limited in various ways. (All this would be true, it bears noting, even if Labour had done the negotiating, at least, if Rabin's and Peres' frequent statements on the matter are to be credited.)

The premise of Oslo's "final-status" provisions is that Israel will offer at least minimum satisfaction of Palestinian national aspirations. Oslo can produce a stable peace, therefore, only if Palestinian nationalism turns out to be a small-beer phenomenon. If, on the other hand, that cause is as robust and ambitious as it appears to be, the Palestinians will not be assuaged by the kind of hemmed-in, hands-tied, semi-independent entity envisioned by the Labour-party architects of Oslo, much less the one envisioned by the current Likud-led government.

When PA leaders speak within their own community, they do not lecture their people, as they do the Israelis, on the virtues of trading land for peace. On the contrary, the PA makes a point of embellishing its stationery, public monuments, TV broadcasts, and schoolbooks with maps that designate Palestine as covering not only the West Bank and Gaza Strip but all of Israel. Arafat's domestic speeches reinforce the point by declaring that Oslo implements the 1974 Palestine National Council resolution which approved negotiations as a means of dismantling Israel in stages. Unless Palestinian leaders drastically change their own and their community's thinking, a mini-state can be expected to serve as a base from which the "final status" arrangement will be challenged at the first opportunity.

As for limitations on sovereignty--including demilitarisation, restrictions on military relationships with other states, and limits on the so-called Palestinian "right of return"--the PA may promise to respect these as the price of Israeli recognition; but once a new state comes formally into being, how long before it defies them? Like arms-control treaties, peace agreements between democratic and non-democratic parties are often deemed of great significance until they are signed and ratified, whereupon demands that the undemocratic party adhere to their terms are commonly dismissed as legalistic and impractical.

The same means now used by the Palestinians to pressure Israel--terrorism, rioting, Arab economic sanctions, diplomatic condemnation--will also be available post-"final status". So will the means now used by Israel's neighbouring states, including threats of renewed war. What will have changed--and it is an important change--is that Israeli forces will no longer be able to act directly against security threats originating from the territory of the new state without violating the internationally recognised sovereignty of an independent country.

To be sure, if one assumes that a mini-state of their own will satisfy the Palestinians' national ambitions and neutralise their anti-Zionism, then security concerns are beside the point: Israel need not defend itself against neighbours who actually are at peace with it. But so long as Palestinian politics remains dominated by a hostile, violent, and lawless leadership, Israel cannot assume that "peace" will serve as the basis for its security. Even without the machinery of a state, Oslo has enhanced the Palestinians' capability to exploit anti-Israel violence for political ends. A state would give them a much greater capacity than they now have to facilitate terrorism against Israel, conduct anti-Israel diplomacy, assist or join enemy armed forces in the event of war, and destabilised local states (such as Jordan) that cooperate with Israel.

In short, if consummated in the form of a new Palestinian state, Oslo over time is more likely to result in war than in peace.

The writer served during the Reagan administration as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence and as a Middle East specialist on the White House National Security staff.


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