After a decade of negotiations, assassinations and terrorism (i.e., life as usual in the Middle East), this year will most likely see the peace process wind down to its conclusion. Its final outcome is laced with many uncertainties, but what is certain is that when it ends, both sides will realize that everything possible by means of peaceful negotiation has already been achieved.
The peace process that began in Madrid, Spain in the fall of 1991 can be considered a partial success. It provided a decade of no war - not peace, just the calm eye of a hurricane. Prior to that time, Arab-Israeli wars broke out approximately every 10 years: 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982.
Some things were accomplished. Israel divested itself of major Palestinian population centers, which had been a source of daily Arab-Israeli violence. A peace treaty was also signed with Jordan, stabilizing relations between Israel and that country.
The Arabs have received considerable returns on their demands in return for little or no investment on their part. "The Palestinians...now have a territory they can call their own, with 30,000 armed policemen, in return for renouncing some words in the PLO charter and cracking down on political opponents they wanted to squash anyway.
Jordan, for its part, has completed its post-Gulf War rehabilitation with the West at no serious cost to its inter-Arab relationships, given the damage that had already been done to them by the decision to side with Saddam Hussein in 1990-91." 1
But now that the eye of the hurricane seems to be leaving, there is speculation as to whether the storm will subside or resume.
The areas of play involve southern Lebanon, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Jerusalem. The prime players on one team are the Palestinians and the Syrians. Having an interest in the betting pool are Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan. Cheerleading are Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq and Iran-and the rest of the Islamic world. The bettors and cheerleaders could easily become players if things go wrong. Oh yes, they're all playing against Israel. Keep that in mind.
Israel and Lebanon
Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon is on the table. The Israel Defense Force's "New Horizon" plan for the withdrawal of IDF personnel from Lebanon was approved by Prime Minister Ehud Barak right after the first of the year and was scheduled to be put into action almost immediately.
Under the plan, each Israeli settlement in the affected area had a tailor-made defense plan drawn up, consisting of military proposals and precautionary measures to anticipate potential threats. 2
The plan caused much dissent. Some settlers see these measures as a necessary evil, but others say that the protective measures will make their lives miserable. Settlers fear their settlements will be turned into military outposts.
However, a Hizbullah attack from Lebanon on Israeli positions in Lebanon3 resulting in Israeli Defence Force (IDF) casualties may delay implementation of withdrawal. Prime Minister Barak announced he will not engage in further talks with the Syrians until they get the Hizbullah under control. Barak said, "The government of Israel cannot hold peace negotiations when the Syrians are not preventing Hizbullah from attacking the IDF in the security zone." 4
He went on to say, "Hizbullah acts with the help of the Iranians and with the implicit approval of the Syrians, and there is no doubt in our mind that the Syrians can do more [to stop Hizbullah]."5
Indeed, both Syria and Lebanon seem connected to Hizbullah's activities. According to the World Tribune, "President Emile Lahoud told the Beirut-based daily, A-Safir, that the attack was worthy of praise and was necessary to expel Israeli troops from southern Lebanon. Lahoud said Hizbullah was shedding blood to ensure the liberation of Lebanese territory."6
The same week as the attacks, the official Syrian newspaper, Tishrin, ran an editorial comparing Israel to the Nazis and claiming that Zionism "created the Holocaust myth to blackmail and terrorize the world's intellectuals and politicians."7
The editorial said Israel is now "acting in the style of the Holocaust in its treatment of the Arabs to attain two aims. The first is to receive more money from Germany and other Western establishments on the pretext of compensation for the Holocaust. It has already obtained tens of billions of dollars in this way. The second aim is to hang the myth like a sword of Damocles, accusing anyone opposed to Zionism and its expansionist policies of anti-Semitism." 8
It should also be recalled that, although much press is made of the Israeli "occupation" of southern Lebanon, Syria itself controls approximately 50% of Lebanese territory. It is actively involved in growing poppies in Lebanon for sale in the international drug trade. Rarely is the Syrian occupation of Lebanon ever mentioned.
End Game Issues
The peace process is now reaching its most decisive and critical phase, wherein the most contentious issues will have to be addressed.
Any further territorial concessions made by Israel will have serious strategic implications.
For its part, Israel wants to establish demilitarized zones on both sides of the Syria/Israel border and to retain its surveillance station situated atop Mt. Hermon, overlooking the Syrian capital of Damascus.
It is conceivable that Israel could concede the Golan Heights in principle, but it will not do so in reality without a colossal package of high-tech military aid from the U.S. to police this area. There is also speculation that the U.S. might maintain some kind of peacekeeping force on the Golan between the two sides.
Earlier, when talks between the Syrians and Israelis were proceeding in the U.S., Syrian President Hafez Assad startled everyone by demanding that President Clinton honor his commitments and press for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights back to Israel's pre-war boundaries, which would shrink Israeli territory to the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
That this type of demand was made was not unexpected, but it was a surprise to hear it as a precondition of negotiations; not as part of them.
Public opinion in Israel runs high against full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, due to the fact that the area was won several times at a high blood cost to the Israelis.
Since the 1967 War following attack by Syria, Jordan and Egypt, Israel has occupied the Golan and maintained that it would be impossible to defend itself from any resumption of Syrian aggression if the plateau were surrendered. History proves this claim. From these mountains, strategic locations in northern Israel have been repeatedly attacked in previous times.
Today the Golan is dotted with Jewish settlements, home to nearly 20,000 Jews, all of whom would be forced to leave their homes behind and relocate to other parts of Israel. The Golan is also a valuable source of approximately one-third of Israel's water supply.
Water rights are a key issue in the peace talks for all concerned. Water is scarce with a drought in progress; it has been even scarcer in the last few years. Water officials have already expressed concern that the dry winter this year may mandate water rationing.
There is fear that losing water from the Golan Heights would cause serious problems. The Golan watershed feeds the Sea of Galilee, which is a major source of water for northern Israel and the Jordan River.
The Syrians have demanded that Israel pay $3.5 billion for the use of Golan water over the past 30 years. Israel could not begin to comply with these demands.
Other water concerns involve the West Bank aquifer, making that a part of the contention over who settles where and controls what. Overall, water rights will remain a large part of Middle East politics for years to come.
A Palestinian State to be Announced (Again)
At the World Summit in Davos, Switzerland, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat announced that he intends to declare a Palestinian state with or without Israel's cooperation before the end of this year, probably in September.
Arafat expressed frustration at what he termed Israeli "delaying tactics" in peace talks with the Palestinians.9 February 13 was originally slated as a completion date for having a final status framework in place, but negotiations have been proceeding very slowly.
The Refugee Problem
The Palestinians are also demanding repatriation of all Palestinians who left Palestine during the 1948 and successive wars. The status of Jewish settlements on the Golan and the West Bank will likewise have to be decided. Along with water rights, this is a very complicated and "sticky" issue.
There is also serious Arab concern about Israel's nuclear capability. Egypt's Foreign Minister, Amr Moussa, was quoted in December as saying that there must be agreement on all key issues, including Israel's nuclear weapons, "or there will be no agreement at all" and there will be "a great disturbance in the region."10 Even the Arabs recognize that this is, indeed, the end game.
The Fate of Jerusalem
The status of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and/or the capital of a Palestinian state will be the largest stumbling block over which both sides will most likely be unable to agree.
In the 19 years between 1948 and 1967, Jerusalem was divided by barbed wire, walls, and armed troops separating the population, making it a difficult time for all living there. All of that changed after the city was reunited in 1967. Thus, redividing the city again is not feasible.
At Davos, Yasser Arafat was asked whether the Palestinians would be willing to accept certain suburbs of East Jerusalem as their capital. Arafat said, "East Jerusalem is in the territory that Israel occupied in 1967 and is the Palestinian capital. He said that U.N. Resolutions 242 and 388 - involving the principle of land for peace - apply to this territory." 11
There have been several proposals for the fate of Jerusalem over the years. One is to divide the city into districts, assumably based on the majority population in a given sector. This would unnaturally divide Jerusalem into enclaves splattered around the city and is not a feasible option.
A second proposal would have Jerusalem governed by an international authority. This proposal was given serious consideration at one time when Arab states outside Israel (except Jordan) thought this would most likely put an end to Israeli control of the city. The practical problems of "internationalization" are too numerous to make it feasible.
Failing those options, control by a single nation seems to be the next choice. However, recognizing Israeli or Palestinian sovereignty over all or part of Jerusalem, while guaranteeing open access and the internal administration of religious places by their adherents, exists in the realm of the possible but not the probable.
The bottom line is probably that both sides want a capital in Jerusalem and neither side will be willing to accept proposals by the other for the fate of Jerusalem. On this one point alone the peace process could founder.
The Palestinians claim they are struggling for the creation of their own state, which they virtually have already. But of all the players in the Mideast territory end game, only one country is actually struggling to preserve its existence: Israel. The actual existence of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt is not threatened by the outcome of this game. But for Israel, one bad move could be fatal.
This point is frequently overlooked in a western media favorable to the Arab position. If Israel loses, it loses big time.
Israel will most likely not yield to Palestinian or Arab demands for a full return to the 1967 borders, and a withdrawal from the Golan Heights without serious reciprocation and guarantees from both the U.S. and Syria is unlikely.
Israel will not be favorable to the return to Arab rule in East Jerusalem and the Palestinians will not settle without a capital in Jerusalem. It will not agree to an uncontrolled flood of refugees returning.
Under no circumstances will Israel agree to discuss its nuclear weapons capability within the peace process, even though Egypt is demanding it do so.
In the end, barring unforeseen events, the most likely outcome of the peace talks is a stalemate, at which time the peace process would die a death of non-accomplishment.
All bets are off in the game that would follow.
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