The peace process (beginning with Madrid in 1991, which set the basis for subsequent developments) was built upon accretions of Arab and Palestinian weakness and a sense of defeat disproportionate to the true extent of that weakness. The Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel removed Egypt and its decisive weight from the Arab-Israeli struggle. Not only did this generate a sharp distortion in the regional balance of power, but it also set the precedent for separate negotiation processes between Israel and individual Arab states, a demand Israel had pressed for since 1948 and that then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger summoned all his skills and the power of the US to satisfy.
How, in fact, did the Israelis translate Camp David — that quintessential symbol of peace to Western eyes — on the ground? Precisely a year later, on 30 July 1980, the Israeli Knesset ratified an organic law on Jerusalem, declaring that the city in its entirety (which is to say inclusive of the Arab portion) was the sole, undivided capital of the state of Israel. That move prompted Security Council Resolution 478, which charged that it constituted “a violation of international law… by an occupying power.” Then Israel bombed a nuclear reactor in Baghdad. Shortly afterward, on 14 December 1981, the Knesset issued another law — also spurring immediate international condemnation in the form of Security Council Resolution 498 — annexing the Golan Heights.
Meanwhile, in the West Bank, the process of comprehensive Judaisation was being set in motion, gradually at first and primarily in Arab Jerusalem. Land confiscation took on a new dynamic as dozens of Israeli settlements arose with the purpose of dismembering Palestinian land and encircling Palestinian towns and villages. A joke making the rounds at the time had Palestinian peasants desperately trying to hold on to their land while Israeli officers beat them up, shouting: “Haven’t you heard? We’ve signed a peace agreement with Egypt!”
In a determined bid to secure the borders of “Judea and Samaria,” Israeli forces, commanded by Minister of Defence Ariel Sharon, invaded Lebanon. It was no coincidence that the PLO at the time had been abiding stringently by a US-bartered cease-fire, virtually eliminating Palestinian resistance operations across the Lebanese border. Indeed, the PLO’s enthusiasm for the cease-fire was so zealous that it assassinated members of other Palestinian paramilitary organisations that attempted to launch operations from Lebanese territory.
For a time, it might have been possible to redress, at least partially, the balance of power skewed by Camp David by capitalising on the profound changes in Iran following the Khomeini revolution. The new Iranian regime was vehemently anti-Israel, and severed the warm ties Iran had maintained with that state. Israel thus lost a close strategic partner, particularly useful against Iraq. However, that card was played too soon: Iraq, supported by other regional powers, became embroiled in a prolonged, bloody and senseless war against Iran that lasted eight years the costliest war, in both material and human losses, since World War II.
Through strategic cooperation agreements with the US (1982) and preferential trade agreements, Israel was developing enormous economic and military might that far exceeded its relatively modest potential in terms of land area, resources and population. With the Arabs embroiled in the war to the east, it could wield its growing power in the region unimpeded, invading Lebanon virtually unopposed, rolling its tanks into Beirut and, at gun-point, bringing into power a Lebanese president that would do its bidding.
Subsequent events steadily enforced Israel’s mounting capacities and contributed to hardening its negotiating position. The Soviet Union collapsed, removing an important counterweight to US hegemony in the region, while millions of Soviet Jews (and non-Jews) immigrated to Israel, bringing with them an abundance of highly useful skills. As if these were not enough, the Gulf War broke out.
The Gulf War shattered the spirit of solidarity in the Arab world and decimated the remnants of its financial capacities, as the Arab oil-producing nations, which financed the entire war effort, turned into debtor countries with huge, chronic trade deficits. Israel, meanwhile, basked in the billions of dollars it obtained as payment for having refrained from entering the war in response to Iraqi Scud missile attacks whose destructive power combined — had they been charged was less than the payload of a single B52. Israel used these billions to absorb the wave of Soviet immigrants, build a new infrastructure and develop its high-tech industries.
Capitalising on the US-led victory in the Gulf War, Washington began to consolidate the bases of the new world order under its exclusive leadership. As part of its drive to bring the region under a Pax Americana that would safeguard its petroleum and strategic interests, the US had to defuse the Palestinian issue. It was against this backdrop that Washington initiated the call to Madrid.
In deference to Israel and the US, the Madrid conference was not held under UN sponsorship. Although this international body issued Israel’s birth certificate, Tel Aviv remembered the UN resolutions issued against it since 1948 in defence of the Palestinian people’ political and human rights. Thus, apart from the grand inaugural ceremony, the Madrid conference was not a truly international peace forum, and although it was officially held under the co-sponsorship of the US and Russia, the peace process in its entirety was commandeered by the US thereafter.
The PLO climbed aboard the peace train set into motion under the “terms of reference” drafted by US Secretary of State James Baker and seconded by the collapsed Soviet Union under Gorbachev. It agreed to attend in an unofficial capacity and without an independent delegation. Its delegates, subsumed within the Jordanian delegation, were individuals from inside Palestine (with the exception of Jerusalem), and were chosen subject to Israeli approval. There was no mention of a Palestinian state, the refugee issue or any of the important procedural points that were to determine the course of the negotiating process.
Following the closing ceremony, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators moved on to Washington, where they held negotiations made lengthy and unproductive by the deliberate intransigence of the Israeli delegation. Following his defeat in the 1992 Israeli elections, Shamir revealed in a press interview that he had planned to stretch out the negotiations for 10 years without reaching an agreement.
At this juncture, a number of important developments paved the way to the secret negotiations in Oslo and set the stage for the signing of the Declaration of Principles on the White House lawn.
The first was the victory of the Rabin/Peres ticket and the Labour Party in the 1992 Israeli elections. Rabin — contrary to Shamir, the veteran terrorist and Mossad agent — was a statesman and a symbol who had come to the conviction, after four major wars, that peace could not be reached through more belligerence. That determination alone was insufficient, however, without Peres’s vision; he was aware that the Palestinians, however weak they were, held the key to the region and that, if he wanted to create a new Middle East order dominated by Israel’s economic and technological prowess rather than just military might, the conflict would have to be brought to an end, at the lowest possible cost to Israel.
The second development was taking place inside Israeli society. By the early 1990s Israeli per capita income had reached unprecedented levels, and the average Israeli citizen yearned to sit back, enjoy this good fortune and live an ordinary life like peoples of other nations. Simultaneously, Israeli society as a whole, caught up in the sweeping transformations wrought by globalisation and Americanisation, was growing more pragmatic; apart from the settlers and religious ultra-right, it wasbecoming less attached to the principles of the founding fathers. The land, therefore, was declining not only in economic and strategic value, but in moral value as well. Last but not least, Israelis were fed up with war, which since the invasion of Lebanon and the first Intifada appeared more senseless than ever. Rabin and Peres had their fingers on this pulse, and understood that renewed warfare would only increase the Israeli brain drain.
This transformation in Israeli leadership and society found an echo among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, also longing to end years of struggle and eager to bring an end to an atrocious occupation. Yet the transformation in Israeli society was not that deep. It had not become more broad-minded, as some imagined; it was still strongly xenophobic and, outside a small circle of courageous left-wing intellectuals, it remained closed to the growing tide of global humanitarianism, let alone appeals for tolerance and the end to colonial exploitation (in direct form, at least). As a result, Israeli society remained curiously incapable of comprehending the injustice, suffering and oppression it had inflicted upon the Palestinian people for over half a century. This attitude is one of the most important reasons for the ultimate failure of the peace process. To Israeli minds, the Palestinians could never truly become partners in peace, since they still seemed an inferior, subject people that should bow to Israeli dictates.
The third factor to set the stage for the Oslo agreement was the growing strength and popular appeal of Hamas, particularly in Gaza. In 1989, this movement began to wage operations against the occupation, adopting Israeli methods of camouflage and disguise to conduct limited attacks on military targets. The return of hundreds of Hamas rank and file to Marj Al-Zuhour in December 1992 demonstrated this organisation’s vitality in comparison to the PLO old guard, which, despite its honourable history, now appeared to have fossilised. The exiles’ steadfastness on the borders of Lebanon against one of Israel’s most appalling practices — the permanent expulsion of the people of an occupied territory from their homeland, a practice universally condemned by the late 20th century — won the admiration of Palestinians everywhere.
Israel saw that the time was ripe. What it needed to do was reach an agreement that would delegate the business of eliminating Hamas and radical Palestinian elements to the Palestinians themselves and, simultaneously, convince itself and the world that Israel was not an occupying power, thereby alleviating the international pressure so damaging to its image and status. The solution was occupation by remote control, which would be less costly, more practical and easier on the conscience. It would also be an ideal way to put into effect Moshe Dayan’s famous exhortation to let the Palestinians “stew in their own juices.”
The PLO, for its part, needed to save itself from its deteriorating situation on all fronts, and it saw a peace agreement — any agreement — as salvation from its political, organisational and financial dilemma. Simultaneously, it wanted to be a direct party in negotiations, not merely an unofficial observer.
Apart from PLO’s weakness, a number of factors helped produce an agreement that was prejudicial to the Palestinians. Perhaps the most important was the fact that the Palestinian delegation in Oslo lacked the expertise necessary to handle the legal subtleties involved. This factor, stemming from the desire to guard the secrecy of the negotiations and the tendency to favour personal loyalty over qualifications (both inherent features of autocratic rule), permitted for the many ambiguities and loopholes the Israelis would exploit later on. In addition, the Palestinian negotiators offered needlessly generous concessions. That they agreed to allow the Israeli settlements in Gaza to remain although Rabin had clearly said his greatest hope was to wake up and find that Gaza had sunk into the sea should be sufficient illustration of this point.
To be fair to the negotiators, however, they believed that what was most important at this stage was to reach some arrangement, regardless of the specific conditions, in the hope that the subsequent phases of the peace process would furnish the mechanisms that would ultimately lead to the creation of the Palestinian state. Their hopes could not have been more misplaced.