by Ian S. Lustick and Gershon Shafir
In the early 1990s, the United States carefully nudged Israel toward appreciating the long-term costs of continued occupation and settlement of the West Bank. It did so before the Israeli elections. New elections will take place in about a week Israel. What would be an equally effective American approach to prod forward the moribund peace process?
At the beginning of 1992, Yitzhak Shamir, the Israeli Prime Minister from the Likud, made it plain that he would divert the growing wave of Soviet Jewish immigration to the West Bank. He intended to finance the project with a $10 billion American loan guarantee. But President George H. W. Bush threatened to veto any loan guarantees that did not include a freeze on all new settlements. The hard-line Shamir demurred and expressed his willingness to forgo the guarantees, but the American move had its effect nonetheless. One result of American policy was the shift of a few tens of thousands of votes in the 1992 Israeli elections in favor of "changing Israel’s priorities," thereby contributing decisively to the victory of Yitzhak Rabin. Under his premiership, Israel engaged in secret talks with the PLO, and on September 13, 1993 signed the Oslo accord with the PLO in President Clinton’s eighth month in office.
The Oslo process ultimately failed, for multiple reasons of omission and commission on all sides. But that is not surprising. It was the first time core issues of the conflict were put on the table. The real lesson of Oslo, and of the tantalizingly successful negotiations at Taba that followed on the failure at Camp David, is that another try is not only the only possible path to peace, but actually might have a chance to succeed. It is therefore worth considering closely just how little the U.S. had to do to trigger robust Israeli moves toward peace and yet how crucial its actions were.
Of great significance is that the Bush administration did not directly pressure Israel. Oslo was not a process imposed on Israelis. Of equal significance is the proof offered by this episode of —just how closely Israelis attend to U.S. words and deeds. The dramatic reversal of Israeli government policy on the key issue of settlements and negotiations with the PLO also show that Israel’s commitment to settlements and continued rule of the West Bank is relatively weak. Deep down Israelis know their governments have been over-reaching in efforts to absorb the Palestinian territories. But it is only when the smothering blanket of assured U.S. support on every issue is removed, that Israeli democracy has a chance to display its fundamental wisdom.
To be sure, after the signing of the Oslo accord, U.S. vigilance faltered and Rabin allowed the resumption of settlements in the West Bank, a fatal thorn in the side of the Oslo accord. As the recent war in Gaza demonstrated, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is entering a new and dangerous phase, in which neither side imagines violence as an unpleasant but necessary route to peace, but only as a desperate and furious reaction to the perceived evil of the other. If this pattern is to end, and only an end to this pattern can save both the Jewish state and the Palestinians, the Obama administration will have to act with at least the tact, subtlety and effectiveness of the Bush-Baker team.
One advantage the Obama-Clinton-Mitchell team have, that Bush and Baker did not, is the Arab League Peace Plan. In return for full Israeli withdrawal and a "just solution" to the Palestinian refugee problem it offers to "establish normal relations with Israel in the context of [a] comprehensive peace" and "consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended." In the past year Arab leaders have urged a revival of the plan and Israeli cabinet members have spoken of it approvingly. Both Hamas and Fatah have considered adopting a version of it. The terms of the accord will need to be negotiated, but the involvement of the moderate Arab states in resolving the conflict would add the regional dimension that has been missing since the Madrid talks in the early 1990's. If an accord is reached on this basis, it would be difficult for Hamas to resume rocketing Israel and it would find itself, within the context of a Palestinian plebiscite, under great pressure to find a way to sign up to the agreement and adopt the profile of a "loyal Islamic opposition" in a real and thriving Palestinian state.
To enable this vision to be achieved, unprecedented steps on settlements, prisoners, uses of violence, and rhetorical indulgences, will be needed, not to build confidence, but to drain cynicism. Past experience shows that Israeli settlements can either expand or shrink; they never remain frozen. Consequently, one important measure would have to be the removal of all "illegal" settlements, a promise repeatedly given and invariably violated by Israeli governments. A key Israeli step will be the freeing of Marwan Barghuti. Barghuti, a leader of Fatah's young guard, justifies resistance to occupation but condemns attacks on Israeli civilians, thus clearly distinguishing himself from Hamas. He is the fresh and popular face Fatah is lacking. His release would also demonstrate an Israeli future willingness to reconsider the fate of Palestinian prisoners, a particularly painful dimension of the conflict. Once the reality of this opportunity is established, Palestinian public pressure on Hamas and other extremists to end rocket attacks on Israel will become as strong as they can ever be. Then, finally, and perhaps for the last possible time, a serious and comprehensive effort to scale the mountain of peace can be well and truly launched.
To open this opportunity, President Obama needs to nudge the Israeli electorate. He should make U.S. support in the Security Council contingent on Israeli government negotiations based on the Arab League Plan for a real two state solution. Alternatively, the next Israeli government will face an international community, joined by the United States, determined to break the siege of Gaza and build a framework of negotiations, including Hamas if it agrees to the terms of the same Arab League Plan.
Ian S. Lustick is the Bess W. Heyman Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and Gershon Shafir is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego.