Nine Steps the U.S. Should Take


The Nation, July 2, 1990


United States policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has failed. Over the past year, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has successfully thwarted U.S. efforts to breathe life into his own proposal for Palestinian elections and nego­tiations. Now, after the collapse of the Labor-­Likud national unity government in March and Shimon Peres’s failure to form a Labor-led coali­tion, Shamir has managed to cobble the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. And with the recent abortive Palestinian attack on Tel Aviv’s beaches, the continuation of the American dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization is very much in doubt.

            The glee of the Israeli right wing notwithstand­ing, these events are as tragic for Israel as they are for the Palestinians. If the dialogue with the P.L.O. is ended, it will be worse than if it had never begun. Without the P.L.O. there can be no movement toward resolving the Israeli­Palestinian conflict. And if there is no resolution of that conflict, relations between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors will again move to the edge of war. What the Middle East is head­ing toward is a system of deterrence based on Israel’s nuclear capability versus Arab chemical weapons and nuclear potential. Such a system will sooner or later prove explosive.

            Instead of focusing on procedural efforts to bring the two sides closer to the negotiating table, the United States needs a new policy, one based on two lessons that should have already been learned: First, no peace is possible without deep political transformation inside Israel. Second, while changes in Israeli politics will be determined more by what the Arab and Palestinian world does than by any other variable, Palestinian politics has exhausted its ability to make unilateral concessions. Thus the United States should focus on unilateral steps it can take to create an environment within which Israeli and Palestinian moderates can gradually produce broad public support in Israel for an end to the occupation.

            Presented below is a nine-point proposal for U.S. policy. With strong presidential leadership, all of these steps are politically realistic within the current American context. None of them are dependent on the cooperation of a Shamir government.

1. Relax U.S. Opposition to a Palestinian State. The Palestinian Declaration of Independence of November 1988 was a turning point in the history of the Middle East. It reversed forty-one years of formal Palestinian opposition to the two-state solution and culminated a historic evolution in Palestinian thinking. The self-affirmation at the core of the intifada led to this unilateral proclamation, in which the Palestine National Council accepted the United Nations Partition Resolution that served as the international legal basis for the creation of Israel.

            Close to a hundred countries have now recognized the State of Palestine. The United States, on the other hand, has set itself sharply in opposition to this emergence of a Pales­tinian entity, threatening to cut off funds to U.N. agencies that accept Palestine as a member state. But as a recent Rand Corporation report commissioned by the Defense De­partment maintained, sooner or later there will be a Pales­tinian state. The United States should relax its opposition to it, thus indicating that U.S. attitudes are open and that they can be affected by the specific character of the entity being developed. The United States should make clear to the P.L.O. that if it establishes a provisional government, Wash­ington would not be automatically hostile, depending in part upon whether the provisional government is based upon a democratic constitution that supplants the Palestinian Covenant affirms coexistence with Israel and accepts substantial demilitarization in exchange for Israeli withdrawal.

            More basically, the United States should articulate a prin­cipled definition of the conflict as a struggle between two nationalisms, each with legitimate claims to the same land. The Palestinians’ right to self-determination could be recog­nized in principle, and the purpose of negotiations could be defined as the search for concrete ways of balancing Israel’s right to security and the Palestinians’ right to self­-determination.

2. Speak to Israeli Insecurity. The United States must re­main sensitive to the fact that security fears are widespread among the Israeli public; such fears are of major political significance. Moving toward an end to the occupation will be impossible if such fears are intensified. It would be useful if the United States laid on the table a detailed version of the kind of agreement that it envisions as capable of meeting both Israeli security needs and Palestinian national aspira­tions. This could play a significant role in shifting the focus of discussion in Israel from the vagaries of Palestinian inten­tions to the realities of acceptable security risks. In addition, the United States should state its willingness to participate in an international force that would monitor adherence to any Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.

3. Reinforce P.L.O. Moderation. The Kissinger policy of freezing the P.L.O. out of any U.S.-sponsored diplomatic process, in effect from 1975 to 1988, obscured and retarded the evolution in P .L.O. thinking toward acceptance of the two-state solution. Eighteen months ago, when the P.L.O. satisfied the American conditions for opening dialogue, George Habash, leader of the Popular Front for the Libera­tion of Palestine, predicted that “this policy of unilateral concessions—of striptease” would not yield anything from either the Americans or the Israelis. Palestinians increasing­ly believe, with reason, that Habash’s prediction was ac­curate. Without tangible gains, no Palestinian leadership can take the Palestinians much further than they have gone. Indeed, it will be a challenge to Yasir Arafat to maintain authority and to prevent a slide toward a grass-roots deci­sion by Palestinians in the territories to adopt lethal tactics. The United States must demonstrate that policies advocated by Palestinian moderates can yield at least some results. One hopes that Arafat will condemn the Tel Aviv raid. If a way is found to save the U.S.-P .L.O. dialogue Washington should (a) gradually upgrade the contacts, (b) grant Arafat a visa to speak at the United Nations, (c) allow the P .L.O. to reopen its offices in the United States and (d) allow P.L.O. spokes­persons normal access to the United States. Further, given the Israeli government’s refusal to respond constructively to the P .L.O.’s acceptance of the two-state solution, if Washington seeks additional steps from the P.L.O., such as renunciation of the covenant or rejection of the U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism, Palestinian polit­ical realities will require American reciprocation. For ex­ample, the United States could offer to recognize the P.L.O. as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people unless it is defeated in a popular referendum in the territory.

4. Quash the Idea of Expelling the Palestinian People. Israel is increasingly polarized. On the left, there are those who participate in joint peace demonstrations with Palestin­ians. On the right, support for the expulsion of the entire Palestinian population from the West Bank has grown dramatically, and advocates of expulsion provide Shamir with his razor-thin Knesset majority. In the middle there is a crucial swing group; some of these people simultaneously voice support for negotiations with the P.L.O. and for ex­pulsion. They simply want a solution.

The United States should address the Israeli body politic with respect to the “solutions” offered by the radical right wing. The President should state unequivocally that in the event of an attempt to expel the Palestinian population from Israel or the territories, U.S. aid to Israel would be ter­minated. It is important that this principle be enunciated now, while mass expulsion is not an immediate threat, in order to puncture it as an option. If the Israeli public perceives that the right wing does not have a realistic plan to offer, the public will be more disposed to look elsewhere for solutions. So long as the expulsion idea is allowed to fester, support for it will grow and it will inhibit a resolute search for a peace settlement.

5. Bring in the Arab States. American diplomacy can play a useful role in making clear to the Israeli public that peace with the Palestinians will bring peace with the Arab states. At the very least, the United States should be seeking from moderate Arab states a precise statement of how their rela­tions with Israel will be transformed in the event of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. In addition, working with the Soviet Union, an attempt should be made to induce both Syria and Iraq to participate in an Arab call for Israeli-Arab negotiations in tandem with Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

6. Focus Public Attention on the Basic Issue: Land for Peace. U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 articulates two principles for resolution of the conflict. The first is Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in the 1967 war. The second is recognition of the right of all states in the region to live in peace. This is the land-for-peace formula. It has been accepted by every American President, by the Labor Party in Israel and by the P.L.O. But Shamir’s Likud Party rejects any withdrawal. There is no possibility of suc­cessful negotiations if the Israeli side refuses to withdraw from the occupied territories even if its legitimate security concerns can be met. The Bush Administration’s focus on process has tended to draw attention away from this fact.

            By concentrating on this issue, the United States can help to isolate the ideological right wing from those Israelis primarily concerned with security issues. The Israelis should be challenged to specify what security arrangements they would need in order to withdraw.

Israel’s continuing drive to expand settlements in the West Bank and Gaza is an effort to “create facts on the ground” that will make a land-for-peace trade politically impossible within Israel. Secretary of State James Baker was correct when he called for a settlement freeze as a condition for the expanded housing loan guarantees to be extended to Israel. Unfortunately, the             Administration abandoned its own posi­tion in the face of Congressional resistance.

Although not possible at present, one useful idea is to establish a trust fund into which the United States will place aid money equivalent to the amount Israel spends on settle­ments. Such funds would become available only upon Israel’s adoption of a permanent freeze on further settlement activity. If the President is ever to have the political ability to take a tough stand on settlements, he will have to make a major ef­fort to deepen public understanding. Presidential impotence today emerges from presidential silence yesterday.

7. Lower the Level of Violence. Any possibility of resolv­ing the conflict will be lost if there is a major escalation of violence between Israel and the Palestinians. The recent massacre of seven Palestinian workers at Rishon Ie Zion is one example of the many ways in which a worsening spiral can be generated.

            For whatever reason, if the Palestinians’ adherence to their policy of not using guns erodes, the Israeli government will move toward the more draconian policies of Ariel Sharon. Sharon’s boasts notwithstanding, his policies will not crush Palestinian resistance but will call forth tactics resembling those used by the Shiites in southern Lebanon. Such tactics will not drive the Israelis out of the West Bank but may well set the stage for expulsion.

            The United States should move to lower the current level of violence, which of course takes its heaviest toll on the Palestinians. The first thing to do is to make a major issue of it. Without equating the two sides, a general call should be made identifying specific lethal practices that should be abandoned (e.g., Israelis shooting masked Palestinians and using guns in non-life threatening situations, Palestinians using gasoline bombs and killing other Palestinians). The United States should spotlight cooperation in lowering the level of violence as a criterion for judging the seriousness of either party’s interest in a peace process. Washington’s support for the use of U.N. observers would be a long-overdue step in focusing on events on the ground.

8. Speak Up for Civil Liberties. The United States should forcefully advocate that Palestinians in the occupied ter­ritories be accorded the full range of basic civil liberties. Respect for Palestinian civil liberties is desirable not only for its own sake but also because it will contribute to a process that will result in lower levels of violence and help produce an environment within which successful negotiations will become possible.

            Respecting Palestinian civil liberties means Israel must ac­cept the principle that the nonviolent expression of Palestin­ian nationalism cannot be met by force. Specifically, this means giving Palestinians freedom to display their national symbols, permitting nonviolent demonstrations, allowing full freedom of speech and assembly, ending the practice of arrest without charge and imprisonment without trial, and ending all forms of collective punishment.

9. Promote Grass-Roots Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue. Dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians contributes to the prospect of peace in a variety of ways. It facilitates a more normalized political environment; it promotes the hu­manization of the other and a greater awareness of the moral complexity of the conflict; and in some cases it leads to the development of bonds of trust and friendship that will be supportive not just of negotiations but of a lasting peace.

            Today there are limited but important people-to-people efforts. Israelis have made visits to Palestinian villages, and Palestinians have entered Israel to meet Israelis in their homes. But such contact has involved only a few hundred Israelis and Palestinians; when it reaches the level of thousands, it will take on greater political significance.

            The United States should give 1 percent of U.S. economic aid to Israel—about $12 million—directly to nongovern­mental organizations to support such activities, which could include dialogue groups, teams of Israeli and Palestinian academics working on technical issues (e.g., water rights and resettlement of Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza), brigades of young people to replant uprooted olive trees and burned pine forests and groups of educators to develop school curriculums designed to give each side a better understanding of the other’s point of view, and of its history and culture. In addition, Washington should call on all parties not to impede any efforts at dialogue, including meetings by Israeli citizens with the P.L.O., which are now a crime for which a number of Israelis have been prosecuted.



Given Israel’s drift to the right, increasing Palestinian frustration and the danger of further deterioration, the United States must pursue an activist policy. In many in­stances these proposals can be implemented without the prior consent or cooperation of other parties. None of these proposals will by itself transform the situation. Taken col­lectively, however, they will exert a strong influence on the underlying political environment, which must be changed if a durable peace is ever to be reached.