What Chance for Peace Between Israel and the PLO?

By James Graff | 1989-04-01 12:00:00

INTERNATIONAL efforts for peace in the Middle East are gaining momentum, but they may be thwarted by an immovable Israeli coalition government led by the reactionary right wing party, Likud. The European and Soviet push for peace is the direct result of the unarmed uprising -the Intifada -and of a PLO peace offensive. The PLO is now unambiguously urging what it had implicitly accepted since the mid-'70s: two states, Israel and Palestine, each with a right to exist within secure borders. This has been the stated objective of the leaders of the Intifada since January '88.

The Intifada has created new public images of Israel and the Palestinians. The brutality with which Israel has tried to smash the Intifada, its flagrant disregard of international law and its intransigence have revealed the Palestinians as victims struggling to free themselves from a colonizing oppressor. The Intifada has also created new facts on the ground: Palestinian self-confidence, unity and determination to resist as well as the infrastructure needed to continue the uprising and to build an independent state. In this process, King Hussein of Jordan has relinquished his claims to the West Bank. Hussein had sought a peace with Israel at the expense of Palestinians, which would have allowed Israel to retain East Jerusalem. This proposal, favored by centrist Labour politicians in Israel, has finally been abandoned. The Israeli military has stated that it can only contain, but cannot crush, the Intifada. The leadership of the Intifada has succeeded in achieving five major objectives:

1. halting the progress of Israeli de facto annexation with its imposition of near-apartheid system in the West Bank and Gaza;

2. creating permanent and unified resistance to Israeli occupation;

3. making the resolution of the Palestine question an international priority;

4. insuring that the only viable peaceful resolution of the 40 year old Israeli-Palestinian war lies in the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza side-by-side with Israel;

5. insuring that the only viable mechanism for achieving peace is a U.N.-sponsored international peace conference in which the PLO and Israel negotiate Palestinian independence directly.

World Wants a Two-State Solution

This year in Geneva, every country in the world voted for the U.N. General Assembly's call for that conference except for Canada and Costa Rica, which abstained, and the U.S. and Israel, which cast negative votes. It seems that every country which wants peace (except for Canada and Costa Rica) openly favors the two state solution which it requires and which would result from the U.N. conference.

By entering into a "substantive dialogue" with the PLO at the ambassadorial level, not criticizing Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze's recent peace mission to the Middle East, and by issuing a significantly critical country report on Israeli practices in the Occupied Territories, the U.S. may be positioning itself to press for peace. Although the State Department's country report on human rights violations downplays the scale of Israeli violations, for the first time, it accurately describes their nature. The report undermines the credibility and therefore, the power of the Israel Lobby to influence American Middle East policy. It may have been issued for that very reason, to free the U.S. to pursue its real interests in the region. Since the Intifada has cost an already troubled Israeli economy at least 2.75 billion in '88, the Shamir government will need additional subsidies for re-imbursement and to continue financing its repression. The added subsidies may not now be forthcoming. What aid emerges from Congress will be a true test of American intentions and capacity to set its own agenda. Neither the U.S. nor Israel can afford (politically or financially) to maintain the status quo indefinitely. The real options for them have narrowed to two: peace with Palestinian independence or a devastating war.

To resolve its problems, Israel could either (1) accept a two-state settlement; or (2) opt for mass expulsions of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. This "transfer" would require a war which the U.S. once again would have to finance. The "transfer option" would be disastrous for U.S. influence and credibility in the entire region and shatter the emerging U.S.-Soviet detente. Not even the Egyptian and Saudi governments could withstand internal pressures to cut ties with the U.S. in the wake of such a catastrophe.

All But the Slaughter and the Ceremonies

The "transfer option" demands either (1) a compliant U.S. Congress and Administration on the one hand and a co-operative Israel Lobby on the other, or (2) a fait accompli for which the Lobby could guarantee U.S. funding after the fact. Both scenarios probably demand more than any of the American players would be willing or able to deliver. Since the U.S. re-imbursed Israel for most of the costs of its invasion of Lebanon, advocates of the transfer option may be encouraged to press for it. But even with an eventual Likud majority in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, neither the Israeli public nor the Israeli military may be ready to support yet another expansionist war whose consequences for that country would ultimately be disastrous. But only the "transfer option" would now make a reality of the Likud's stated objective, an "Erets Israel" (Greater Israel - outside the boundaries recognized by the world community) stretching East of the Jordan. There is a real danger that Shamir, his supporters and their Rightist religious allies may be so ideologically myopic that they will wage war for their vision of Israel. Much depends on whether or by how much the U.S. Congress will raise its subsidy to Israel for the next year. Much also depends on how aggressively the Western Europeans and Soviets push for peace, and on how free the Bush Administration will be to head off disaster. In the meantime, the Intifada will continue and so will stepped-up repression.

It is all over except for the slaughter and the ceremonies. But how much slaughter and which ceremonies? Will the Palestinian flag fly freely over the West Bank and Gaza, or will the Israeli flag fly, for a time, over Damascus and Amman? If I had to, I would bet on an independent Palestine. In this case, I believe that reason will triumph over ideology.

Professor James Graff is a philosopher at U. of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1989

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1989, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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