The following is the edited text of a discussion held November 28, 2000, at the Sadat Forum at Brookings, cohosted by Richard Haass, vice-president and director of Foreign-Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, and Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland.
SHLOMO GAZIT, former chief of Israeli Military Intelligence
I will begin with a summation: First, I am an optimist. The way I see it, the peace process – the political process – is not dead. On the contrary, what we see now in the recent outburst of violence, the so-called al-Aqsa intifada, is not the breakdown of the process; it’s a continuation of the process by other means. The turning point was not Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount. The turning point was the Camp David meeting in July, which made Chairman Arafat reach the conclusion that the Israeli offers didn’t present an acceptable solution – and if these were the most moderate, most flexible, most forthcoming Israeli proposals, from a left-wing prime minister, then it was a non-starter. Arafat’s intention and goal was not to give up Camp David, only to change the rules of the game: returning to the use of force and violence. Not with any expectation that he could force Israel to change its position, but with a hope that the use of force would bring an international intervention that would be more favorable to the Palestinians.
At present, we are in a kind of a tug-of-war between the two parties. The question is, which party will have more patience? Which party can hold on longer in that war of harassment, pressures, stress, casualties and so on. What will come first? Will it be Palestinian fatigue or an Israeli military blunder that will allow the invitation of an international intervention?
I am a strong believer that we are in the very last phases of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I have not mentioned the word “peace.” I do not believe that peace is in the cards between Israel and our Arab neighbors in the foreseeable future. We can only speak of a political settlement, and this is a lot. This does not mean that at the moment we reach an agreement and the document is signed it will not be called a “peace treaty” between Israel and Palestine. But it will not be “real peace,” anymore than the treaty of Versailles was real peace. We are not going to see in the Middle East the kind of relationship developing between Israel and our neighbors that the United States has with Canada or that we now see in Western Europe. For this we shall have to wait decades or even generations. But the political settlement is very close, and it is a vital precondition for the transition in the future to real peace.
EDWARD ABINGTON, former U.S. consul-general in Jerusalem; political consultant to the Palestinian National Authority
I would agree with General Gazit that Camp David was the proximate cause of the uprising, though I still believe that the two sides came tantalizingly close to an agreement. If you look at what was discussed there, it’s easy to see what the outlines of an Israeli Palestinian agreement have to be. Whether it will happen is another question. I credit Ehud Barak with real courage in terms of what he put on the table in Camp David. For the very first time, the two sides sat down and seriously discussed the issues that had been taboo before: how to share Jerusalem, how to deal with the refugee question, how to deal with settlement borders, and the nature of the Palestinian state and its relationship with Israel.
The way it ended was unfortunate and partly responsible for the violence that we’re seeing today. Essentially, Clinton and Barak put Arafat in a corner. They said, take it or leave it. If you leave here without taking it, then everything is off the table; there is no agreement until everything is agreed to. I think Arafat was not prepared to conclude a deal at Camp David. The Palestinians proposed to Clinton a two-week adjournment so that the parties could go back and consult, which is Arafat’s normal practice when considering important decisions in the peace process. He wanted to hold consultations with the Arabs, with Mubarak and others. He wanted to go around to the Security Council members. He suggested that they come back to Camp David and see what they could do. When I talked to Yasser Abd Rabbo and Saeb Erakat after the Camp David summit, they were saying, we have a deal; there’ll be another summit; we can wrap up the remaining issues. I think the Clinton administration made a serious mistake when on the day that the summit ended, President Clinton blamed Arafat for the failure of the summit. It confirmed in the Palestinian mind that the United States and Israel were ganging up on the Palestinians to accept a deal that wasn’t good enough.
We hear that no Israeli prime minister has gone as far as Barak. That’s absolutely true. I give great credit to Barak for his courage and the vision that he laid out. But it wasn’t quite enough. Any deal that takes place between Israelis and Palestinians not only has to be acceptable to the Israeli body politic, it has to be acceptable to the Palestinian body politic. Arafat is autocratic, but he has to have Palestinian public opinion with him. He rules by consensus, not fiat. I think he genuinely felt that what was on the table was not good enough – in terms of Jerusalem, the refugee issue or territorial contiguity in the West Bank. Having said that, I still feel that the Palestinian negotiators thought there was a good chance they could wrap this up by the close of the year, that by sitting down with the Israelis and by continued American intervention, it might be possible to produce a framework agreement.
Unfortunately, it all unraveled after Camp David. And there are things that are taking place in the current fighting that are extremely disturbing. Increasingly, Palestinians see settlers as fair game; they’re out to shoot and kill them. I cannot overstate the deep resentment that Palestinians feel toward the settlements and the settlers. They view the ongoing process – settlement expansion, the creation of new settlements, the confiscation of Palestinian land, construction of roads to build bypass highways – as fragmenting the West Bank and putting them into Bantustans. It’s difficult to explain to an American audience how Palestinians really feel about this. You have to pass through the IDF checkpoints on a daily basis, sometimes two and three times a day, to sense the feeling of Palestinian humiliation at the hands of the Israelis.
American policy over the past seven years has hidden behind the Oslo process. Once the Israelis and the Palestinians agreed to Oslo, we didn’t have to tackle the hard issues of Jerusalem and settlements. We could say that these are final-status issues; the Palestinians and Israelis have agreed to negotiate them. The United States could duck the issue.
When I went to Jerusalem as consul-general, I was told by people like Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk, you can’t talk about Jerusalem as occupied territory anymore, you can’t talk about settlements as illegal. Settlements became not illegal, but a problem, whatever that means. East Jerusalem and the Palestinian role in East Jerusalem were ducked totally by the American administration. To Barak’s credit, he put these issues on the table and, for the very first time since the Oslo process began, dealt with them in a serious way. But the inconsistency of continued Israeli settlement expansion and land confiscation in the West Bank eroded Palestinian public support for the peace process.
One can talk about the shortcomings of Palestinian leadership, and they are many. I have talked repeatedly with Arafat about the need to outline a vision that Israelis could relate to of what peace would look like between Israel and Palestine. He could never do it, and I don’t think he ever will do it. I’ve talked to him about the need to build a constituency in Israel that supported the peace process, that wanted a separation between Israelis and Palestinians. But he failed to address that constituency in Israel. I talked to him many times about government, about the need to build Palestinian institutions. I argued that a Palestinian legislature that really had power would strengthen his hand in the same way that Israeli prime ministers work with the Knesset. I didn’t make much progress on that front either.
But in terms of undermining the confidence of Palestinians in the peace process, the ongoing building of settlements has been very corrosive. I was consul-general in 1996, when the tunnel was opened in the old city of Jerusalem. As disturbing as the ensuing violence was, what we’re seeing today I find much more troubling. Palestinians increasingly see settlers as fair game. The other thing that’s disturbing is that many of the attacks are carried out not by Fatah members who came from Tunis, but by the people who have been through the first intifada. I have met a lot of them in the course of my visits to Gaza, to Nablus, all over the West Bank. Many have been badly mistreated in prison. They speak English, and are realistic; they want to get on with their lives. I found them to be surprisingly non-antagonistic towards Israel. But don’t underestimate their toughness. These people have been through the crucible, and they are very determined. I think that this is the group that are carrying out many of the attacks. Arafat does not control them; they are doing it on their own. This is a very dangerous development, because if these people really go all out, they will be extraordinarily difficult to control.
The other thing that I find disturbing is the way that the IDF and Barak have gone after Arafat and Palestinian institutions and the peace process. The disproportionate Palestinian casualties that we are seeing today are very much a result of IDF lessons learned after the 1996 violence triggered by the tunnel affair. The IDF told us at the time – our military attachés in Tel Aviv reported this – that if there was going to be a repetition of Palestinian violence, the IDF would use heavier weapons with the objective of inflicting more casualties on the Palestinians and minimizing IDF casualties. In fact, that’s what has happened: IDF casualties are fewer, Palestinian casualties are much greater. This has fueled a cycle of violence and a tremendous distrust of Barak among the Palestinian leadership. Ironically, Barak sees himself as acting with moderation in the face of pressure from the right wing; some of the IDF take a much harder line on Palestinian resistance. The Palestinian leadership, including Arafat, see Barak as having declared war on the Palestinians and profess to see little difference between a Barak prime ministership and a Netanyahu or Likud prime ministership.
It’s going to be extremely difficult to break through this wall of distrust on both sides. On the Israeli side, this stems from incidents such as the destruction of the Yeshiva at Joseph’s tomb in Nablus and the brutal murder of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah. On the Palestinian side, Israel’s use of snipers has created very heavy Palestinian casualties, a large number of people who are going to be maimed for the rest of their lives, attacks against Fatah leaders and so forth. It’s going to be extremely difficult to reestablish the kind of trust that you need to get back to the negotiating table.
I do not think Arafat is going to be able to go back to the status quo ante. The Palestinians think that Oslo has resulted in an unending series of negotiations and agreements that have not been implemented, and that it has been a ruse enabling the Israelis to expand settlements and seize Palestinian land. They want an end to Israeli control over their daily lives and an end to the settlements. They have very little trust in the American role.
This is an issue that the next administration will have to grapple with, whether they want to or not. There will have to be some changes in the way that the peace process is structured. One thing that can realistically be done might be an international presence in the West Bank and Gaza. We should not dismiss this out of hand. Observers were used in Hebron after the 1994 massacre of worshipers at the Ibrahimi mosque. They can be used as a fig leaf for the two sides as they climb down from the tree.
Another thing that can be done to help bring the two sides back to the table is to find a place for a European role in the negotiations. I don’t think this is an insurmountable task. It would be helpful to both the Israelis and the Palestinians. It would give Arafat the kind of cover that he needs to go back to the talks. Finally, there’s the issue of what happens to settlement construction during this period. If Palestinians see settlement construction and expansion continue, it’s going to be very difficult for them to think that the Israelis are serious about this process. There are opportunities, but there are great dangers in terms of the violence. People have cried wolf in the past, but the Palestinian issue spills over into the broader Arab world. Communications technology has brought this conflict into the homes of millions of Arabs on a daily basis. They’re seeing the clashes on Al Jazeera, on MBC, etc. It’s putting Arab governments under real pressure. There is also the danger of spillover into Lebanon and Syria.
DR. TELHAMI: General Gazit, you said Arafat found what was offered at Camp David unacceptable and needed to strengthen his position to be able to get a favorable deal. Where is the wiggle room in the Israeli position as you see it? A second question, on military strategy: Is Ed right about the way the military establishment has internalized the lessons of ’96, about how to respond to the violence? Another aspect of that is the issue of the military establishment’s fear that Israel today does not have an effective deterrent. Because of the psychology of the withdrawal from Lebanon and of the intifada itself, the Arabs think the army is weak, therefore it is asserting itself to establish deterrence. How is that affecting the Israeli calculation? My third question is on unilateral withdrawal. Do you see that as a possibility?
GEN. GAZIT: I was taking the long view regarding the Israeli-Palestinian prospects in the coming five years. Perhaps the most dangerous thing that all of us are doing is to take press headlines seriously. I’m talking about tomorrow, about the process. What is happening today is a continuation of the political process by other means. The purpose did not change. It is to achieve a political settlement. Now, where do I see a deal? Barak, with all his weakness, has been preparing Israeli public opinion by slaughtering three sacred cows: borders, settlements and Jerusalem. Unfortunately, Arafat has done nothing in the direction of preparing Palestinian public opinion for whatever difficult decisions Palestinians will have to make. If there is no compromise on the Palestinian side, if it is just an expectation to move the clock back to 1967 or perhaps to 1947, then there is no deal.
Let’s begin with what is possible. There is no deal possible today that says this is the end of the conflict, and there are no more Palestinian hopes, desires, dreams, expectations or demands. We shall have to reach a partial agreement with some problems left open. I believe the deal will be based on the borders of 1967, with some very important – not cosmetic – modifications, changes that will include a major part of the settlers – not the settlements – within the future borders of Israel. Will it be 4-6 percent of the territory of the West Bank? This will be decided in the agreement. If we take from the West Bank 120 square kilometers, we should give the Palestinians 100 square kilometers elsewhere. In my opinion, the Arab area that urgently needs territory is the Gaza Strip. The deal will be this: no settlements left beyond that line, but this will happen only after they agree. I don’t see any unilateral removal of settlements before we have an agreement. I don’t believe that any Israeli government would move settlements because of pressure from Palestinian violence. Lebanon and the West Bank are two different problems; don’t try to make any analogy.
DR. TELHAMI: When you said there has to be a deal in order for Israel to give up what we call the outpost settlements, are you saying it has to be a formal agreement?
GEN. GAZIT: No doubt; a formal agreement, a signed contract. Number two, I believe that the problem of the Palestinian diaspora, the “right of return,” will not be resolved at that phase. From the Israeli point of view, there is 100-percent consensus: no “return” and, what is more, no “right.” We, the sovereign state of Israel, will decide who can come into Israel. I’m not referring to family reunion, humanitarian cases and things like that. Number three, Jerusalem will have to be redivided, a city serving as two capitals, not according to the 1967 line, but according to the new demographic reality in that city. Number four, there should be clear borders separating the two states. An Israeli-Palestinian or Middle Eastern union as in Western Europe today may occur in the twenty-second century, but not today. Today, I want to see two states separated by a clear border, with economic agreements, with controlled traffic of goods and people. And last, no agreement can be implemented unless it is accepted by both sides. It cannot be an Israeli agreement imposed on the Palestinians, nor a Palestinian agreement imposed on Israel. If it is, it won’t last, and will probably never be signed.
From the military point of view, the Israeli defense forces have clearly learned the lessons of the 1996 spell of violence. We are not going to fight a war with the Palestinians by throwing stones just because they choose to use that weapon. But we are not employing Israel’s full military capability. We are trying to fight in a way that should minimize casualties on the other side. Still, the imbalance of casualties is unfortunately very serious. However, we are not going to sacrifice an Israeli whenever a Palestinian is hit only because of our desire to have good public opinion. This is no way of making war. When I look at the wars we had in the past – in 1956, 1967 or even 1973 – there was no balance of casualties.
As to the perception of deterrence, we have never had a perception of deterrence when it came to terrorist activities. Israel has a deterrence capability when we talk about war and the balance of forces, not when we are dealing with low-intensity violence, not when we are dealing with terrorist activities. We know it, and I’m afraid we have no way of achieving that sort of deterrence.
Lastly, I do not believe that the Israeli government would accept unilateral withdrawal of its presence and settlements anywhere before there is an agreement. A unilateral withdrawal today means that we have been thrown out, that we were forced to withdraw. And if we can do it in the Gaza Strip, we can do it tomorrow elsewhere. This is an option that does not exist.
MR. ABINGTON: Speaking about what Gen. Gazit sees as the outline for an Israeli Palestinian settlement, I basically am in agreement. As a former head of military intelligence, of course, he was taking a strategic view. In a sense, I was also taking a strategic view. I’ve dealt with Palestinian issues on and off for 30 years, starting in 1970 with Black September. As I’ve thought about this, from my experience in Jerusalem and before that in Tel Aviv, I think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about control – Israeli control over the Palestinians in so many different spheres, political, economic, borders, security, et cetera, and of continued Palestinian fighting against that control. The big question to me is whether the Israeli military, political and intelligence establishment is willing to give up control over Palestinians so that they have a viable independent state? That is the big unanswered question, and it makes me somewhat pessimistic about where we find ourselves. Control extends to the issue of settlements and to how the IDF deals with demonstrators. By no means was I suggesting that there should be a parity of casualties, but this issue of control is central to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
DR. TELHAMI: On the international role, do you see the fact-finding committee headed by former Senator George Mitchell as a way to open a new avenue that would be constructive?
MR. ABINGTON: As to the issue of the fact-finding commission, I think it could play an extremely useful role, but it depends on whether the two sides allow it to play that role. Will Israel allow it to be a truly independent committee of inquiry, to look at the causes of the violence and make recommendations on how to prevent it? My guess is that if the commission does that, it’s going to come down very hard on both sides. But will it be able to play a role? The Palestinians are skeptical about it. They don’t have much faith that the American administration is going to allow it to take a balanced look.
Q: You’re talking as though there are two parties here who have control of the situation and are able to mobilize support behind a position. Arafat was in town a week and a half ago and was asked: Is there a strategy behind this so-called intifada? He did not answer that question. I was left with the feeling that he was not only unwilling, but maybe unable to answer it. It seems to me that there is a strategy behind this violence: to get a better deal with Israel by bringing in the international community. But I’m left with the uneasy feeling that the leader of the Palestinians doesn’t really have a strategy.
To what extent is Arafat in control of this intifada? When I was in the Middle East about a year and a half ago, and I was stunned in talking to secular Arabs, at the extent to which they were unwilling to accept a better deal with Israel. Might this violence get out of control? Can it be pushed in directions that we can’t predict?
GEN. GAZIT: You have brought up two possibilities. I have a third. The intifada may help Arafat to explain why he has accepted a compromise: “We have done our best, but we have taken so many casualties, there was so much suffering, it can’t go on this way; this will have to be left for future generations.” This is another possibility. The number one question that we, the Israeli people, are asking ourselves is this: let’s say that we are 100percent flexible and go back literally to the borders of 1967. Let’s say that we allow the right of return of every single refugee who wants to come back. Will this indeed be the end of the problem, or will they say, what about Jaffa? What about Haifa? I don’t have an answer. As long as we are strong enough, I’m not much concerned. But what are the intentions, the plans, the desires of the other side? I once heard Arafat say, “you don’t even allow me to dream.” Okay. As long as it’s a dream, go ahead. But if it is a strategy, we are facing a very serious problem.
MR. ABINGTON: I don’t think Arafat has a strategy other than to regain the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. I see him as a tactician who takes the daily situation and tries to make the best out of it. If you look at it from his point of view, what does he gain from this? A lot of international attention, which he probably wants. The Palestinian issue is certainly front and center in the Arab world in a way that it hasn’t been for the last ten years. In that sense, he has gained. But Arafat knows that the violence is dangerous. It can escalate and get out of control and threaten everything that he’s tried to achieve over the last seven years. Is he in control? Not entirely, I think. In 1996, when I sent a cable to the State Department, I said the situation on the Palestinian street was very bad, because they feel that Netanyahu is trying to delegitimize Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. A spark can set it off. That was a month before the September 1996 violence. I would point out that in 1999 there were only two Israelis killed by Palestinian terrorism, the smallest number since 1967. So obviously, the Palestinians, working with the Israelis, have the capacity to control terrorism. Arafat is not totally in control of these elements, particularly in the chaos that we see today. I think he is also not in control of the intifada activists, who are angry, who have guns. But if the situation can be de-escalated, he can reassert control.
Q: It has taken us nine years, since 1991, to realize that the United States is not an honest broker. What would you advise the new president to do to gain the confidence of the Palestinians? Assemble a new peace team?
MR. ABINGTON: One thing that’s critical in dealing with the Palestinians in my experience is to develop a relationship of trust and empathy. That doesn’t mean that you have to accept their positions, but if they feel that you really understand where they’re coming from on issues like settlements, refugees, Jerusalem and so forth, you can go in and give them very tough messages. Establishing the kind of personal relationships with Palestinians that build up this trust is extremely important. I don’t think that the next administration can turn a blind eye to Israeli actions that undermine the process.
How do you do this? Obviously, public confrontations are no-win situations. General Gazit mentioned the 1974 “reassessment.” I was there, standing behind Henry Kissinger as he got on the airplane in March 1975, after that version of the Sinai negotiations had failed. He talked about going back for a reassessment of policy. It was seen as a heavy-handed threat against Israel. It didn’t work. But you have to be honest with them. There need to be more critical discussions with Israeli leaders. I think that that is a shortcoming of Bill Clinton in dealing with Barak. His relationship with Netanyahu was so bad that, when Barak was elected, it was assumed that he would move toward peace on his own. It didn’t happen.
I’m not saying that the solution is going to come through the United States. It will not. The solution has to come from Israelis and Palestinians. But we need to be honest in the way we discuss these issues with both sides. We have been short of the mark in both dealing with the Palestinians and the problems that I referred to earlier, and in dealing with the Israelis on things like settlements, implementation of agreements, and the ways that they undermine the process.
SHLOMO AVINERI, professor of political science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; former director general, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs
I agree with General Gazit that we are in a Clausewitzian situation. We are not at the end of the peace process, but our past decision to use violence was a continuation of the peace process by other means. I am less optimistic after listening to Ed. Arafat wasn’t able to take as satisfactory what was offered by Barak. I think I understand why. I cannot see a situation now in which Barak or any other Israeli government is able to offer more to Arafat than Barak was able to offer at Camp David. The Barak government is at an end; we’re going to have new elections. Between now and then, no Israeli government will have the legitimacy, never mind support, to make more concessions than Barak was ready to make. I thought that if he came back with a deal, he would probably get a majority. Not anymore.
The Palestinians at Camp David behaved the way they behaved in 1947. I understand Palestinian behavior in 1947, but the consequences may be the same. I need to be convinced that at the moment any sort of agreement is possible. I cannot imagine that any Israeli government would get parliamentary, let alone popular, support for any sort of agreement, whether with the PLO, the PNA or Arafat. The only way to stop the current violence is to do something unilateral that will be harsh on the Palestinians and on some Jewish settlements, will combine dovish elements, but may disengage the close proximity at the root of the daily clashes and killings. I’m afraid that there is no Israeli government that can agree on anything at the moment, let alone an Israeli government that is ready now to offer more than what was offered at Camp David. The problem is perhaps the American government, perhaps Barak. All of us who supported Barak realize that we are at the end of the process. There will be a Palestinian state, but it cannot at the moment be achieved in any way that will get Israeli political support. It can be achieved by an Israeli unilateral withdrawal, where the quid pro quo on the Palestinian side would be a government with the responsibility of a state. We have an address, not a process. The Oslo process was aimed at creating confidence-building measures. We now have less confidence than we had the first day after Oslo.
Any American administration that would now suggest that an agreement is possible is going to walk into a trap. Disengagement may be possible, lowering the level of violence, putting an end to the killing, allowing the wounds of both sides to heal. And perhaps two, three, four, five years down the road we can pick up the pieces again. Palestinians would have a state of their own, truncated, problematic, but not as part of the agreement. I need convincing that any Israeli government can now offer any agreement that would be acceptable to Arafat, who did not accept what was offered to him in July. Barak went very far, but the positions are unbridgeable. With the violence and the pain on both sides now, and with the suspicion of both sides, I think that we should forget about any sort of agreement and seriously think about whether controlled disengagement is a possibility.
MR. ABINGTON: I don’t have the same take on Camp David. The Palestinians made concessions; both sides were moving forward. My discussions with American and Palestinian negotiators after Camp David revealed they felt that there was still Israeli flexibility on some issues. And we have to remember that what was discussed at Camp David wasn’t even put on paper. It’s not as if this was a draft agreement that Arafat rejected. He said before Camp David, I don’t want to go; it’s not well prepared, and I’m going to get blamed. Madeleine Albright promised him in Ramallah that if it ended without agreement, he would not be blamed. The day it ended, he was blamed. The Palestinians could see the outlines of an agreement and believed that one was possible, but during that window after Camp David, unfortunately, it was lost. Is it possible to recreate that? I honestly don’t know. Can any Israeli prime minister go back to or even beyond Camp David? I don’t know, and I fear not. A controlled disengagement with a truncated Palestinian state is a recipe for continued turbulence. It won’t solve problems; it will only lead to more.
Q: General, you said that it’s inconceivable that there would be unilateral withdrawal at any point, and yet a lot of inconceivable things have happened in the last decade or so in the region, one of them being unilateral withdrawal from south Lebanon. This was previously unthinkable. What is the mood in Israel now in terms of taking casualties? How long can Israel continue this fight with the Palestinians without shifts in public support? How significant is the withdrawal from southern Lebanon in the Palestinian psychology?
GEN. GAZIT: Let me begin with some observations. Barak has no chance whatsoever to be reelected unless he turns these elections for prime minister into a referendum on an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. So there is a possibility, and I believe that he will do his best to try to reach such an agreement. He has the chance of winning the election if he is in support of more or less the kind of deal I was referring to: stopping the violence, deciding on future borders, some compromise on Jerusalem, leaving the refugee problem to future generations or future governments. Israeli public opinion is really surprising. Last Friday, when I left Israel, two different papers had more or less the same public-opinion poll: Barak has no chance to win the elections, but a strong majority in Israel is in support of a political agreement with the Palestinians. Number two, I do not see the possibility of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal, not as part of that agreement, before the elections. It will be committing suicide if Barak decides to do it. He will be attacked by the opposition; we can never afford to support it, even if it is the right thing to do. This is irrelevant. Only after the elections, not before – or as part of an agreement.
Q: If Netanyahu were the next prime minister, would you say the same thing?
GEN. GAZIT: If Netanyahu were running for election today, definitely.
MR. ABINGTON: South Lebanon is not a comparable situation. The Palestinians I’ve talked to, thoughtful ones, say there is no comparison, for one very important reason. Hizballah has the support of the Lebanese government, the Iranians and the Syrians. The Palestinians know that the Israelis can seal off the border. But that doesn’t mean that some Palestinians, particularly the ones with guns on the street, think that by inflicting unacceptable Israeli casualties over a period of time that they can drive Israel out. I think that would be a very dangerous miscalculation, because Israel would react in a very different way than it did in south Lebanon.
Q: The pessimism is deepening. I think both sides are more out of control than either speaker has indicated. My question to General Gazit is a military question. Let’s assume that the Israeli government is in a state of suspended animation for a few months, until there’s a new election, and assume that the Palestinian situation is rather out of control. And let’s assume that we have the same amount of continuing violence. What would you say the likelihood is in an area like, let us say, the area around Beit Jala that we might see a massive exodus of Palestinians because of the continuing clashes? How would this play internationally? Regionally? And with the Americans and the Israeli public? [See the Bleier article in this issue.]
GEN. GAZIT: I don’t expect to see a massive exodus of Palestinians. It’s not southern Lebanon, where we saw hundreds of thousands of Lebanese leave. They have nowhere to go. And I’m not talking about individuals that would say we can remain in Beit Jala as long as this exchange of fire goes on. They will go to relatives in another village somewhere else. No exodus across the borders. Very possibly, we will see individuals who are saying, why should I remain here? I have the possibility of going to France or Lebanon or the United States on an individual basis, not as an exodus. By the way, some have already done that.
MR. ABINGTON: I agree with General Gazit. I do not see the possibility of a real exodus of Palestinians. I think they learned from ’48 and ’67 not to leave their homes, because they know they may not be able to come back.
Q: As one in the media who has followed Arafat from one defeat to another, from Black September all the way to Tunis, my observation is, there’s never been a leader who has gained more from defeat. We have thought this man was finished many times over. He somehow has always managed to turn military defeat into political victory. Ed, when you bring up the need for European participation in some future peace process, it was always my understanding that the Arabs accepted U.S. mediation not because they thought that America was neutral or independent, but because they knew it was the only country that could pressure Israel into some sort of compromise. Europe has never been in that position. What clout would they have?
GEN. GAZIT: As to European intervention, let me begin with the so-called observer force or any sort of an international force. For the last six years we have had observers in Hebron. What was the achievement of these observers? They haven’t produced anything. They have not minimized violence in any way. It’s only paperwork; every few months they write their report. Israel receives the report; the Palestinians write their report. But nothing is done. We have already had more than 50 years’ experience with all kinds of observers – armistice, foreign commissions, etc. They are incapable of separating a state and a civil resistance. They are wonderful when you have two parties – two states – that have decided to reach a political agreement but want someone in between for a while. By the way, why do we need such a force in Sinai today, after 20 years? It’s totally obsolete. Did they stop Israel from moving into Lebanon to have a full-fledged war there? No.
MR. ABINGTON: As to the observers in Hebron, they accomplished one thing: they were the fig leaf that allowed the Cairo negotiations to continue, which led to the successful Cairo agreement of 1994. I see observers as the fig leaf that might allow Israel and the Palestinians to get back to negotiations, to climb down from the tree that they’re in now. Certainly, they did not play a particularly useful role. They certainly don’t stand as a barrier between Israelis and Palestinians.
As to the Europeans at the peace table, it depends on how you structure it. If it’s the French competing against the British, et cetera, you won’t have constructive European involvement. But if you have an agreed role for the Europeans to play, it’s possible that they can deal in a constructive way with the Palestinians, in a way that will help both the Israelis and the Americans move this process forward. The reason the United States is in the peace process was because the Palestinians thought that we could move the Israelis. Over time, they lost confidence in our ability to influence the Israelis, and that’s why there are questions about America’s role today. That’s why I think that a European role could be helpful in getting the two sides back into negotiations.
Q: Were there inhibitions or restraints on the use of snipers that have now been abandoned? Why do we now have this shift to “standoff” weapons? Was there a decision that breaking bones simply wasn’t good enough, that you now have to have some demonstration killings by snipers? What accounts for the change?
GEN. GAZIT: It is a question of tactics, yes: to minimize, on the one hand, innocent casualties and, on the other, having learned the lesson that helicopters are very, very bad from the media point of view, to minimize the use of combat helicopters against Palestinian targets. How long can Israel sustain this? I don’t want to say 300 years, but we simply don’t have an alternative. We cannot give up here; for us the West Bank is the very existence of Israel.
Q: As I understand it, at the end of Camp David, Arafat and his people felt they could go home, spend two weeks, come back and present a counterproposal. What would that counterproposal have looked like? Would there have to be some changes because of what’s happened over the past two months?
MR. ABINGTON: People say the Palestinians – Arafat – made no concessions, no counterproposals. But what did he agree on at Camp David? He essentially agreed to a demilitarized state, a normalization of relations with Israel, and some Israeli settlements on the West Bank being incorporated into Israel in return for a land swap. He agreed to the concept of Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem becoming part of Israel. And he agreed to the concept that a shared Jerusalem could be the capital of Palestine and the capital of Israel. He agreed that the Kotal and the Jewish quarter would be under Israeli sovereignty. Arafat moved a long way. And on the refugees, he agreed more to the principle of the right of return than to actual return. So there was definite flexibility in the Palestinian position at Camp David.
What remained to be done? The Palestinians could not accept one thing: Israeli sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif. And everyone, certainly the media, have said that that really torpedoed Camp David. A couple of weeks after Camp David, there were some tantalizing signs out there. Arafat said the OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference) should have custody, and then that the Jerusalem Committee of the OIC should have custody. That meant Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The Israelis were talking about some kind of Security Council role, then about a joint role for the Security Council, the OIC, the Jerusalem Committee. They were still negotiating the issue of security arrangements in the Jordan Valley, and the Palestinians were saying yes to Israeli earlywarning stations but no to an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley.
But the Israelis said that Palestinian neighborhoods like Sheik Jarrah and Salah ad-Din, where you go from the Damascus Gate up to the American colony, would be under Israeli sovereignty but Palestinian administrative control. Palestinians wouldn’t buy that. Their experience in Jerusalem is that if they don’t control the land – building permits and land use – they don’t control anything. That’s what they learned from 33 years of Israeli control of East Jerusalem.
I think the outlines of a deal were there; the negotiators felt they were making some progress. But that’s hindsight, and violence has taken place since then. Can any Israeli prime minister come back and put the same offer on the table?
GEN. GAZIT:The answer is, no. But I wonder about the Palestinian side?
MR. ABINGTON: The Palestinians are not going to accept a deal that doesn’t give them sovereignty over the Palestinian area of East Jerusalem. They are willing to agree to a lot of things, like the land swaps, about incorporation of Israeli settlements under certain conditions. Both sides have made tremendous progress. But has the sense of confidence been irreparably damaged as a result of the violence in the last few weeks? One thing I’ve learned in 30 years of dealing with Arab-Israeli issues is, never say never. You say that wars, terrorism, violence have irreparably damaged the prospects. But there is an impetus towards peace, and sooner or later the parties will get there. The question is, how many bodies will they have to step over?
DR. TELHAMI: I asked Arafat when he was here a couple of weeks ago what his understanding was of what was offered to him on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount? He took out a very small notebook, almost the size of a card. It was his notes from Camp David. He said, here is the offer as it came to me delivered by the Americans and the Israelis: You shall be custodian of the holy places; you shall have the right to fly the Palestinian flag over the mosque under Israeli sovereignty. That was all – under Israeli sovereignty. He said that was absolutely unacceptable. I said, what about the dual sovereignty idea and the postponement idea? He said the dual-sovereignty idea did not come up; it came after Camp David. It was never really put forth as a proposal at Camp David, that the postponement idea was casually mentioned by Clinton after the collapse, sort of on the way out. Arafat thought it was not possible. I asked him, what did you offer? He said, I accepted Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter. I said, what about the Armenian Quarter, because there were rumors about it. And he said, they asked for sovereignty over the Armenian Quarter. My answer to Mr. Clinton was, my name is Yasser Arafatian.
MR. ABINGTON: I don’t know if people have read the series of six or seven articles that are translated into English by Akram Hania, who was at Camp David, one of Arafat’s very close advisers. They are obviously from the Palestinian point of view, but it is the most authoritative account on what took place at Camp David [available from the PNA].
DR. TELHAMI: Let’s discuss “coordinated unilateralism.” I think it’s not workable, at least in this environment, though there may be a time for it down the road. How can you have a Palestinian state with open borders, with no restrictions by Israel, while the settlements are there? It’s hard to envision how that could function. There has to be a state for it to work. If that state is going to exist without an agreement with Israel, it’s going to be a state that might build its own army. It’s going to have international access without Israeli intervention. How could Israeli governments allow that without an agreement?
RICHARD HAASS: An idea that people like me have put forward is not that Israel simply look the other way. In any sort of tacit diplomacy, we put down markers. We say, we would be willing to countenance a state, and we would not take active action against it so long as…You would put down certain conditions and certain limitations. The Palestinians would then say what actions on the Israeli side they might find acceptable or unacceptable; what things they would resist, what things they would live with. Under this type of scripted unilateralism, you still have an element of give and take. There’s a bit of negotiation. What’s key is its informality. At the end of the day, you don’t require either side to formally say, please sign. You say that they’re aware of it; it’s transparent; there are no surprises, and they can live with it.
There is an equivalent in the U.S.-Russian relationship regarding nuclear weapons. We can’t negotiate a new START agreement, but we agree that we would tell them we’re moving down to these levels of offensive forces; we’re going to introduce this kind and this number of defensive forces at this rate. This is what we’re going to do; please come and verify it. It’s totally transparent. And if they say certain things, we should say, you should know that if you do that, it’s going to increase the amount of defense we feel compelled to do. It would be the same thing with the Israelis and the Palestinians. Israel would say, you should know we’re not going to permit this type of weaponry to go in there; we’re still going to control access to that. It might be that people couldn’t live with certain things, and they’d say, we’re going to use force if you try to do this. Fine, you’ve got to live with that.
DR. TELHAMI: Let me give you an optimistic scenario that is more in line with what Shlomo Gazit was saying about Barak’s options. It’s clear that Barak’s best shot at winning an election is going to be by having an agreement. I don’t agree that neither side could do better than they did at Camp David. What was offered by the Israelis formally at Camp David was 90 percent of the West Bank, not 92, not 94, not 96 percent. The Israeli public, according to what was leaked, believe it could have been up to 96. The Palestinians never offered more than 2 percent of the West Bank coming under Israeli control. I think a formula is possible to accommodate more Palestinian concerns, particularly in terms of the land-exchange idea. That’s an area where Barak has more leeway than he offered at Camp David.
Jerusalem is now the hot issue, it’s not postponable. So either there will be a little more give on the Israeli side, or it won’t happen. Can Barak do it? It depends on what “give” means, and what Arafat will give in return. I think Arafat’s big card is the refugee issue. I agree with Shlomo Gazit, that’s the absolute red line for Israel. No Israeli government is going to be able to accept major Palestinian return. I think Arafat is actually seeing the possible exchange. He wants to be able to go home and say, I liberated Jerusalem. He is, in fact, making Jerusalem the issue. He’s enabling himself to address the refugee question in a way that he was not able to do at Camp David. And I think Barak can give more on the Jerusalem issue than he was able to give. There were a lot of ideas out there that were within the realm of possibility.
The Israeli position, by the way, moved after Camp David. The dual-sovereignty issue was proposed after Camp David. The possibility of international control came after Camp David. And the Palestinian position moved after Camp David. So it’s not inconceivable that they can have another shot at it. From Barak’s point of view, this is his best shot. There’ll be a referendum, and the Israeli public could very well reject it. But it’s better for him to go with something in hand than nothing at all. Arafat risks losing control without an agreement. He doesn’t have full control now, and he risks losing it completely. From the point of view of Palestinian and Israeli elites, the problem is bigger than that.
I disagree with Shlomo Gazit that this is another cycle of violence in the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and it might take another year or two, three, four or five. There has been a great deal accomplished in the past 20 years toward framing the conflict as a nationalist struggle rather than an ethnic one. We have succeeded in framing it in terms of a Palestinian state manifesting Palestinian nationalism and a Jewish state expressing Jewish nationalism, which lends itself to reconciliation and shared territories. Once you go back into an ethno-religious conflict, you go back to 1948 or beyond, in ways that will take another generation to reframe.
The Palestinians now see settlers as fair game; from the Israeli point of view that’s ethnic strife – attacking Jews because they’re Jews. And Jerusalem has turned into a religious issue. The framing of the uprising as the “al-Aqsa intifada,” not as the Palestinian intifada, is very different from 1987. This is an intifada over al-Aqsa. That’s why it mobilized the public and brought in a lot of people from outside the Palestinian areas. The longer this goes on, the greater the likelihood that there will be a religious-ethnic framing that does not lend itself to the kind of solution that is now available. That’s a serious danger. So you might have elites on both sides rallying behind an agreement that still preserves the nationalist framing, because it’s the only way to have a peaceful reconciliation. Therefore, there might be another shot in the next couple of months.
How might this happen? The new U.S. president has observed that what has happened in the past months is the turning of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict into an Arab Israeli conflict that involves major American interests, including the military presence in the Gulf and relations with other Arab and Muslim countries. He has to worry about it. The Middle East is on the agenda of the new president in ways we didn’t see a few months ago. It’s no longer just about peacemaking. The president is not likely to want to get into this peacemaking process, because there’s too much risk. So, he will be glad to delegate to Bill Clinton in his final days at the White House.