A Peace Talks Gamble:

Take the Big Issue First

Los Angeles Times February 22, 1993


Hamas, an organization irrevocably op­posed to peace with Israel and challenging the PLO for leadership of the Palestinians, has been successful. The fundamentalists’ violent attacks triggered an Israeli reaction that derailed the peace, talks, isolated Israel and won support for them.

The problem facing the Clinton Admin­istration is not just how to restart the Israeli-Palestinian talks, but how to immu­nize those talks from a repetition of the dynamic that undid them in the first place.

            The solution may lie in rethinking the structure of the negotiations. The present framework, inherited from the Camp David accords, calls for two phases of negotia­tions, interim status negotiations to estab­lish a five-year transition period and, in the third year of that transition, the opening of final status talks.

            The rationale for negotiating in phases rests on three theses, that the gap between Israelis and Palestinians cannot be bridged in a single leap, that interim status can be attained relatively quickly and that living through the interim-status period will improve the prospects for a final-status agreement.

            In today’s environment, these claims are open to question.

            In 1979, it made sense to accept the first thesis, that it was impossible, in one fell swoop, to negotiate the gulf between Israelis and Palestinians. Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s commitment to perma­nent Israeli control over the West Bank was absolute. And on the Palestinian side, the PLO remained committed to the elimi­nation of “the Zionist entity.” In 1993, we have vastly improved fundamentals. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is committed to “territorial compromise” in the West Bank and Gaza. And the PLO, since 1988, has been committed to “peaceful coexistence” with Israel within the framework of a two-state solution. The gap that separates the two sides is wide, but there is no reason to characterize it as a gulf that is not negotiable.

            The second thesis, that an interim status agreement can be reached relatively quickly, now seems overly optimistic. Palestinians view the interim talks quite differently than do 1sraelis. From the Palestinian point of view, they made their fundamental compromise in 1988 when they accepted Israel’s right to exist. They did this with the expectation that they would be granted a state of their own. This was and remains their bottom line. It is not something they will abandon in negotia­tions.

            Having failed to win any advance com­mitment that interim status will lead to Palestinian statehood, they seek to negoti­ate an interim agreement that gives them a close approximation of sovereignty. Their constant fear is that what they accept for a five-year interim will become the struc­ture of their final status. Consequently, problems belonging to final-status negoti­ations are brought into the interim-status’ talks. Under these circumstances, interim status may not prove significantly easier to negotiate than final status.

            Furthermore, it is clear that Hamas and other spoiler groups will redouble their efforts to undermine the negotiations once they are back on track. We may have only seen the beginning. It is doubtful that Israel, by itself, has the means to counter this effort. Hamas will force Israel to act harshly, and in so doing Israel will strengthen popular support for the funda­mentalists. It is necessary to drive a wedge between the extremists and the Palestinian nationalists who accept the two-state solu­tion. Ultimately, the negotiations cannot succeed unless the Palestinian nationalists who support them are prepared to struggle to preserve and advance them. But this will not occur in the context of interim status talks.

            Palestinians will not take major risks to defend the negotiations if they do not perceive that there is something on the table that to them is real and substantial. No Palestinians, even those supporting the interim talks, are enthusiastic about them. It is only in the context of final-status talks that spoiler groups will find that their attacks on Israelis result in their isolation within the Palestinian polity.

            Thus, contrary to the prevailing theory, it may be that final-status negotiations can succeed while interim negotiations cannot. The idea that living through interim status will facilitate final agreement is a hopeful vision, but probably naïve.

            If there is a five-year interim, Palestin­ian ability to prevent attacks on Israelis will be taken as a test of what would happen if there was a Palestinian state. Yet precisely because it is an interim, Pal­estinians may be both unwilling and unable to exercise authority over the fundamen­talists. The result may be increased Israeli skepticism about moving toward Palestin­ian statehood and increased intra-commu­nal Palestinian violence and political disin­tegration. At the end of five years, there might be no Palestinian negotiating part­ner with the authority to bind the Palestin­ian people in final-status talks.

            Most important is the simple factor of time. Peace in the Middle East depends on the staying power of moderate leadership in both the Palestinian and the Israeli camps. Right now, there is a propitious environment for successful final-status negotiations. To put such negotiations off until three years after interim status has begun is to assign them an uncertain fate.

            The interim-status negotiations have served their role—a framework within which it was possible to bring the Shamir government to the table. Credit should go to the Bush Administration. Now Clinton and Rabin have (probably) four years before the next election, enough time to undertake and conclude final-status talks.