In the mid-1970s, an unusual book was published in Egypt under the title After the Guns Fall Silent (“Ba‘d an taskut al-madafi”). Written by the Egyptian left-wing intellectual and journalist Muhammad Sid-Ahmed, the book featured the first explicit Arab vision of accommodation with Israel and the first Arab effort to spell out what the Middle East might look like after the establishment of Arab-Israeli peace. Roundly criticized in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, this bold, pioneering work broke a taboo by endorsing a peaceful accommodation with Israel. That taboo held strong despite the signing in 1974 of the Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreements, and two Arab summit conferences that redefined the Arab consensus to embrace the principle of a political settlement with Israel. But a full-fledged vision of Arab-Israeli peace written by a major Egyptian intellectual still angered those who remained ideologically and emotionally committed to the struggle against Israel.
Sid-Ahmed clearly had difficulties with his own proposals. Ambivalence and vacillation inhabited the very core of his book. He had not completely overcome the deep-rooted conviction in the Arab psyche that any conceivable settlement would be tantamount to surrender. Nevertheless, he grasped that the psychological leveling effect of the October 1973 Middle East War had midwifed a change in the Arab view of a political settlement. The Arab world had decided to settle, he argued, but Israel would not believe it until “a settlement with Israel and the future of peace in the region were embodied in a clearly defined vision.” That “clearly defined vision” is what Sid-Ahmed determined to set out in his book.
As Sid-Ahmed saw it, an enduring peace would require Israel to play a “functional role” in the Middle East, comparable to but different from that of Lebanon. “There is . . . more or less tacit acknowledgement that the existence of Israel within secure and recognized borders is unavoidable after the Arabs recover their occupied territories and after the establishment of some Palestinian entity.” Then, once a settlement is achieved along these lines, the chief psychological barrier to Israel’s integration into the region could be addressed: “The stumbling block has always been the Arabs’ fear of Israel’s technological superiority and her ability, if peace came to the region, to dominate the Arabs economically and to prevent them from becoming masters of their own fate.”
But Arabs after the October War, emboldened by the “oil weapon” and having accumulated huge revenues, had, Sid-Ahmed argued,
acquired a new confidence that Israeli superiority could no longer deprive them of their freedom of decision—even in the case of peace. . . . Israeli quality could no longer neutralize Arab quantity. . . . For the first time some kind of match between Israeli technological know-how and Arab capital can be envisaged in certain quartersMoreover, in the spirit of “complementarity”, there need be no contradiction between security arrangements and economic interests. Security arrangements do not necessarily have to rely on “negative sanctions” (like demilitarized zones or areas policed by UN forces) but can go hand in hand with “positive incentives” to “promote the interest of the protagonists to abstain from war.” Sid-Ahmed foresaw joint industrial projects in Sinai, the Negev, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, in various parts of a Palestinian state and even on the borders separating Israel from Syria and Lebanon. Petrochemical plants in some of these regions would enable more exported crude oil to stay in the region in the form of finished and semi-finished products.
Sid-Ahmed saw several advantages in matching security arrangements with economic development schemes. Capital could be mobilized for projects that might not be feasible otherwise. Countries like Egypt would benefit by shifting part of their population from densely populated regions to desert areas. Advanced industries in the Sinai could also include “nuclear plants to desalinize sea water for irrigating wide areas of the desert to meet growing food requirements.” Industrial projects “erected inside the Palestinian state will invalidate the argument that this state is not viable.”
After a first phase of this kind, during which Israel would be reluctantly but inevitably absorbed into the life of the Middle East, a second phase could develop in which Arabs “could use Israeli human and technological assets to achieve a Middle East conglomerate able to stand up to the big geopolitical conglomerates expected to coalesce at the turn of the century.” This would make the peace durable and its political settlement final.
Curiously, some of Sid-Ahmed’s paragraphs read like the vision of Arab-Jewish coexistence that T. E. Lawrence had sketched out more than half a century earlier. Some also resembled private Hashemite-Zionist Agency conversations from the 1920s. Most of the time Sid-Ahmed wrote and thought, or thought he thought, as a Marxist, which is to say dialectically: The course of events would be determined by the interplay between “contradictions.” So it is fully in character, and redolent of his own ambivalence, that Sid-Ahmed presented his impressive ideas about Arab-Israeli peace only to conclude that inherent obstacles made implementation unlikely. He predicted another Arab-Israeli war instead.
Most of the obstacles Sid-Ahmed identified had to do with Israel. Even though he had come to advocate accommodation with Israel, he retained a critical, not to say negative, attitude toward the Jewish state. He anticipated Israeli attempts to break up the settlement into a number of separate agreements in the hope of getting better terms than could be had from dealing with the Arab parties together as an equal. But even the achievement of a total political-diplomatic settlement, Sid-Ahmed believed, could not solve the larger problem. The only justification for Israel’s existence, he argued, is as the embodiment of the Zionist design, and it would lose its raison d’être if it were reduced to an economic instrument that the Arab environment would use for its own development.
Furthermore, Sid-Ahmed predicted, “If a settlement is reached, many Arab Jews will eventually return to their original homelands as Israeli emissaries or end up by resettling. Israel has always derived its strength by claiming that its very existence was at stake. Can it continue to obtain foreign aid once this argument loses credibility?” (Sid-Ahmed held a view common in Egypt that Jews of Middle Eastern extraction are “Arab Jews” whose ultimate identity has yet to crystallize.) He concluded on a pessimistic note: “For all these reasons Israel will resist being absorbed into the region with all the means at its disposal. That is why a fifth war is likely.”
More than forty years after its publication, After the Guns Fall Silent stands out as a unique and exceptionally prescient work. Sid-Ahmed understood correctly that beyond an agreement enabling Israelis and Arabs to settle their political conflicts lay difficult questions regarding Israel’s essence, its view of itself and its role in the region. For a peace settlement to be durable, Israel would have to become part of the Middle East and have a “function”, as he called it, in its development. For that to happen, he assumed, Israel would have to undergo a transformation. Thus he posed perhaps the ultimate question that most Israelis and most Jews have been afraid to ask: Could Israel become an integral part of the Middle East and still retain its unique character and cohesion?
Of course, Sid-Ahmed has been prove both right and wrong in ways no Egyptian could have foreseen in 1974. Other Arab-Israeli wars did come, but none involved Egypt. Indeed, within five years of publication, Israel and Egypt had signed a formal treaty of peace. But Sid-Ahmed’s prediction that Israel would try to segment its peace strategy proved accurate, so that peace remains partial and thus none of the grand joint security and economic development projects he envisaged have come to pass. Nor has Israel’s relative technical and economic superiority over its Arab neighbors diminished; if anything, it has increased.
While Sid-Ahmed did not get everything right, his vision encompassed the themes that have characterized thinking, debate and negotiation ever since. That is why his work is particularly useful today, at a time when the prospects for further progress in the Arab-Israeli peace process look not only dim but possibly set to regress. For those who have followed Arab-Israeli affairs over many years, there is no end to chronology, to detailed analysis and to multifaceted argument. At a time like the present, however, the only way to get perspective on what is happening is to think in terms of themes. Sid-Ahmed defined the key terms to help us do this: peace, normalization and finality.
The term “peace” has occupied a prominent place in the vocabulary of Arab-Israeli relations for more than fifty years. This had not been the case during the early decades of the Arab-Jewish conflict in and over Palestine; the contenders sought and spoke of victory, accommodation or political settlement—but not peace. The UN partition resolution, the establishment of the State of Israel, the 1948 war and Israel’s victory in it, however, created a new situation. The war consolidated Israel’s existence, but it also exacerbated and expanded the conflict between the new state and its Arab environment. To normalize its position and proceed with its agenda, the new state needed peace, but peace was for the Arabs to give or deny.
That said, recent scholarship has shown that Israeli and Arab attitudes toward the notion of a peaceful settlement during the very early post-1948 stage of the conflict were more complex than was commonly thought in subsequent decades, after the conflict had settled into stark simplicities: Israel craved peace and Arabs rejected the very idea. During the final phases of the 1948 war and immediately thereafter, several Arab protagonists were willing to discuss peace, but Israeli policy as shaped by David Ben-Gurion thought the terms demanded by the prospective Arab partners were dangerous, unwarranted and unacceptable. Israel preferred to consolidate its strength and preserve its achievements through a more modest series of armistice agreements; it would seek full peace later, from a more secure base. Then, during late 1949, when Israel’s calculus and policy changed, full-fledged peace agreements proved elusive. King Abdullah of Jordan was the only Arab leader then to conduct—and, indeed, to complete—a peace negotiation with Israel.1 But when it came to implementation in early 1950, he discovered that he no longer had the authority or the political base for such a bold move.2 Before the king could recover that authority and base, he was assassinated.
This brief quest for Arab-Israeli peace was followed by nearly two decades—punctuated near the middle by the October 1956 Suez War—during which peace was at best an abstract, remote notion. On the Arab side, peace with Israel became equated with capitulation and betrayal. When Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba proposed in 1965 that the Arab world adopt a “phased strategy” (recognize Israel and continue the struggle through peaceful means), he was denounced as a traitor. Two years later, right after the Six-Day War, the Arab summit in Khartoum reiterated and reformulated with its famous “three no’s” Arab nationalism’s categorical rejection of the very notion of peace with Israel.
On the Israeli side, peace was increasingly considered in mystical terms, inaccessible for all practical purposes. Actual policies focused on meeting Arab political and military challenges. So remote had the prospect of peace become that when, in February 1971, Egypt’s new President Anwar Sadat communicated through UN envoy Gunnar Jarring his willingness “to enter into a peace agreement with Israel”, he probably did not have in mind the full-blown peace treaty he ended up signing in March 1979, and Israel did not take his regime and his offer seriously.3 Only after the 1973 October War did either side give serious thought to reaching a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
On the Israeli side, the principal figure in this conceptual transition was Yitzhak Rabin during his first tenure as Prime Minister (1974–77). Rabin’s policy was based on two premises: that, with Arab economic power and international political influence at a peak during the energy crisis, it was not to Israel’s advantage to seek a comprehensive settlement; and that Israel could not accept one based on withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 lines. He therefore collaborated with Henry Kissinger in the “step-by-step” diplomacy that led to the September 1975 Israeli-Egyptian interim agreement, pledging to resolve all differences “by peaceful means.” On the Arab side, the principle of settling the conflict politically was formally endorsed at a summit conference in Algiers in November 1973. But as the final communiqué expressed it, settlement entailed acceptance of the Arabs’ two premises: Israel had to withdraw from all Arab territories occupied in June 1967; including East Jerusalem; and the Palestinians must recover their “established national rights.” This latter formulation was rather vague and could be (and indeed was) variously interpreted. But Egypt kept edging toward a bolder concept of a peaceful settlement.4
Egypt’s political and intellectual elite more or less agreed that Egypt must disengage from the Israel policy it had followed for a quarter century. Egypt had paid a terrible price for the Six-Day War and the subsequent War of Attrition (1970–71); the oil-producing states of the Gulf had accumulated wealth and influence while Egypt declined. But the strong will to disengage from the conflict with Israel was not matched by a clear sense of how this should be achieved. Debates raged. Muhammad Sid-Ahmed drew his bold scenario of peace and “complementarity”, while others advocated a theory of Israel’s “withering” with a more hostile edge. The Arabs would make peace if Israel withdrew from all territories occupied in June 1967, but this willingness carried the assumption that an Israel “reduced to its natural dimensions”—in effect a “second Lebanon”—would become so weakened over time that it would either cease to be a threat or would be, to the same end, transformed internally—Levantanized, essentially.5
The Egyptian debate ended in 1978 with the direct Egyptian-Israeli negotiation that led to the Camp David Accords and the subsequent peace treaty. But when Camp David’s framework for peace concerning the Palestinians came to naught, the new Egyptian-Israeli relationship was marred, and the initial hopes that Israel’s relations with the Arab world would be transformed by contractual peace were dashed.
The events of the post-October War period forced Israelis for the first time to think seriously and practically about the meaning of peace as a concrete, accessible goal. Egypt opened to Israeli tourists in 1979, and thousands traveled to Cairo, Alexandria and Upper Egypt. While some Israelis were engaged in drawing up bold plans, others were searching their souls. When borders were open and people could move in both directions, would Israel lose its coherence and identity? Would Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern extraction perhaps feel more comfortable in Egypt than in Israel’s Westernized culture?6 Sid-Ahmed’s questions had lost none of their relevance.
By 1981, however, it had become clear that the framework for a comprehensive peace was doomed. Meanwhile, the cold peace with Egypt meant that while diplomatic relations and other elements of normal state-to-state relations could be implemented and maintained, this need not entail the normal relations between societies most Israelis had assumed would accompany peace. This is when peace and normalization began to emerge as distinct concepts for Israelis, and this is when the distinction met with the ambivalence Sid-Ahmed predicted. While some Israelis complained that this was not the peace they had yearned for, others who had felt uncomfortable about the prospect of opening up to the Arab world displayed a notable lack of interest in Arab social and cultural life. In January 1999, Ariel Sharon, addressing a closed session of Israeli diplomats in New York, expressed the atavistic discomfort most Israelis seem to have with the prospect of open borders between Israel and its Arab neighbors:
If we keep open borders—which may be a vision of this peace process—Israel would be swamped by many vehicles, would become a country of transit; hundreds of thousands of Arab visitors would come carrying not swords in their hands but olive leaves in their mouths. . . . This is a very complex issue that will have to be thought through.This Israeli mindset might conceivably have been altered with the gradual development of new ties, but that never happened as both sides settled into the new reality of a limited and selective peace relationship. The initial Israeli assumption that peace with the largest, most important and most powerful Arab state would presage the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict proved mistaken. Indeed, the termination of the military conflict between Egypt and Israel tended to telescope rather than limit the Arab-Israeli conflict, exacerbating the Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese dimensions of it.
Madrid and Beyond
The lengthy suspension of the peace process during much of the 1980s finally ended with the Madrid Conference in October 1991 and its new concept of four tracks of bilateral negotiations (with Israel’s immediate neighbors: Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians) and a parallel track supporting multilateral negotiations. The multilateral talks, which first pointed toward regional economic and social normalization, were the high-water mark of the peace process in the mid-1990s. It was through these multilateral talks, for example, that Saudi Arabia came to participate in the process.
The Saudis had been sharply critical of Sadat’s original peacemaking with Israel, but time had changed their perspective and priorities. The Iranian revolution of 1979, the rise of a powerful Iraqi state, and the tidal wave of radical Islam throughout the Middle East presented new and ominous threats to the Kingdom’s survival and prosperity. Now Riyadh come to see Egyptian-Israeli peace and stabilization at the core of the Middle East as a positive development that could help contain Iran, Iraq and the radical Islamist tide in the Gulf. The signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993 then legitimized a significant measure of Saudi-Israeli normalization. It was a first step and still a far cry from the Saudi definition of a “just peace”, but if the PLO, as “the sole legitimate representative” of Palestinian nationalism, had agreed to mutual recognition with Israel, then why should Saudis, Omanis and Tunisians refuse to discuss future regional projects with Israelis in a multilateral working group?
Rabin approached all these new developments in his customary pragmatic way. The availability of the Madrid framework, the evident changes in Arab attitudes, the hospitable regional and international arenas all offered unusual chances to move the peace process forward. But it was not clear how far and where it could be moved. As Rabin saw it, Israel should indicate its willingness, explore the options, make progress where possible and adjust course along the way.
Rabin’s approach was incrementalist as well as pragmatic. As he had during the mid-1970s, and in a way reminiscent of Ben-Gurion’s thinking after the 1948 war, he shied away from comprehensive approaches and notions of a swift settlement. A final resolution of all issues was not feasible except at prohibitively high cost and unacceptable risk to Israel. So Israel’s first step should be made with either the Palestinians or the Syrians, and the next step should depend on the circumstances of that breakthrough. It turned out that that the first agreement was with the PLO, followed by peace with Jordan. Rabin was surprised by the willingness of other Arab states to normalize relations with Israel, for example, by participating in the regional economic conferences in Casablanca and Amman. But without an agreement with Syria, the road to a formal resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict was blocked. Still, Rabin was not in a hurry. Much had been accomplished in a short time, and the difficult job of completing the final-status negotiations with the Palestinians and the arduous negotiation with Syria would wait for his next term as Prime Minister—a term that never came.
In his role as Rabin’s Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres approached the peace process in an entirely different way. He was mindful of the difficult political and territorial disputes between Israel and its Arab neighbors, but to him these were not the crucial matter. They would be addressed in the first, transitional phase of reaching a political settlement, but “in the second, decisive phase of the peace process the specific nature of peace is the dominant issue.”7 Its nature would be determined by the interplay between Arab-Israeli relations and the larger regional developments of which they were a part. In short, Peres held that a durable solution to the Arab-Israeli problem could be achieved only when the Middle East had established a regional peace and security system—in his vision, one modeled on the that of the European Community—and the formation of such a system depended on the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Put differently, Israel could not enjoy a stable peace so long as the Middle East was beset by severe social and economic problems, and Israel’s neighbors could not overcome their problems so long as they failed to settle their conflict with Israel. For Peres, normalization, broadly defined, was the key to peace.
As Rabin’s partner, Peres was given considerable scope to implement his ideas, which included a large-scale international effort to boost the Palestinian economy, joint industrial projects with Jordan and the Palestinians, a regional development bank, and more besides. The similarity of some of his ideas to those raised nearly twenty years earlier by Sid-Ahmed is quite striking.
The differences between Rabin’s and Peres’s approaches to peacemaking were underlined by the changes Peres introduced when he assumed power in November 1995, after Rabin’s assassination, to Israel’s negotiation with Syria. Rabin had assumed that Israel could not expect to obtain more than a cold peace with Syria, tailored by Hafiz al-Assad to offer less than Sadat had given. A warmer, closer relationship could develop only over time. But a contractual peace and satisfactory security regime would remove the danger of conventional war, push Iran back to the margins of the Middle East, resolve Israel’s problem in Lebanon, and consolidate the agreements with Jordan and the Palestinians. These achievements would justify the concessions Jerusalem would have to offer Damascus.
Peres was not interested in yet another version of Egypt’s cold peace, partly because he thought the prospect would not persuade the Israeli public to withdraw from the Golan Heights. But if Syria’s economy could be tied more closely to the global economy, if investments were brought to it, if joint Israeli-Syrian ventures could be launched, then a web of interests would develop that would reduce the danger of renewed conflict. Ever the functionalist, Peres believed that joint ventures in the Golan Heights would be hardly less valuable as security protection than yet another line of fortifications because Syria would not jeopardize its own investments and interests in the Golan. Joint ventures in the Golan would also make Israeli concessions easier to sell politically, blunting the sense of loss and departure.
Peres also wanted to make a prospective agreement with Syria a stepping-stone to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement. In discussions with the Clinton Administration he explored the idea of a regional security system in the Middle East, which the Americans regarded as premature. Meanwhile, discussions between Israel and Turkey matured to produce a formal agreement on strategic cooperation. Peres thought that the Turkish-Israeli relationship could fit into a regional system inclusive of the major Arab states, but Israel’s Arab interlocutors, first and foremost Syria, viewed it as an anti-Arab measure, a revival of Ben-Gurion’s 1950s-era “alliance of the periphery.” Nor was the elder Assad enamored of the economic aspects of Peres’s peace policy. He found the notion of joint businesses an offensive intrusion: Any Israeli involvement in projects in the Golan Heights would be interpreted as perpetuating Israel’s presence there and thus would deny him the political reward of fully liberating Syrian territories lost in 1967.
Nevertheless, negotiations between Israel and Syria collapsed in March 1996 for reasons that had little to do with Assad’s dim view of economic relations with Israel. Rather, it turned on his response to the initiative of an Israeli Prime Minister who was too eager to come to an agreement with him in a context that made Syrian concessions of any kind politically and psychologically difficult. The 1990s were not good years in the Arab world. Old ideologies died or became stale and were not replaced; the great hopes of the “oil decade” had been dashed long before them. Saddam Hussein had lost the 1980s war against Iran and the 1991 Gulf War, and though his immediate neighbors were relieved, those who had hoped for a revival of Arab zeal, spirit and ideals were disappointed. The disintegration of the Soviet Union then left the United States with undue influence in the Middle East. Political Islam, a source of both threat and regeneration, seemed to have peaked. And even if the Arab regimes seemed resilient, durability does not necessarily march with openness and innovation. Against that backdrop, peace with Israel achieved on terms closer to the Israeli than to the Arab position was bound to be received as yet another humiliation.
These circumstances underline two important aspects of the Arab attitude to peacemaking with Israel in the 1990s: the centrality of the novel notion of “normalization” and the complex relationship between the ruling political classes and their societies on this particular issue. Reservations with regard to peacemaking with Israel were one issue on which autocratic governments and their “civil societies” could agree, and on which they could work out a division of labor. If Sadat and Mubarak preferred to keep the peace with Israel cold, they might as well let Egyptian professional associations boycott their Israeli counterparts, or let the Egyptian press vent anger and frustration in anti-Israeli diatribes. By the same token, a Syrian regime negotiating with Israel in order to achieve an extremely narrow peace without normalization would find useful statements made by Syrian writers or journalists condemning normalization. Yasir Arafat couldn’t complain when Edward Said, Hisham Sharabi or other prominent Palestinian intellectuals criticized the Oslo process, because he had publicly indicated that “the struggle continues.” Thus the Arabs could accept peace with Israel while remaining rejectionists with regard to normalization.
From Cold Peace to Normalization
During the mid-1990s, “normalization” nevertheless came to fully replace “cold peace” as the key term in discussing Arab-Israeli relations. As new agreements were being negotiated, signed and implemented in the 1992–95 period, normalization acquired two different meanings: the establishment of bilateral normal peaceful relations between Israel and each of its principal Arab counterparts, and the further normalization of Israel’s position in the Middle East through its participation in regional and international forums along with Arab and other partners. At the same time, the Arab response to Israel’s quest for normalization in both of these respects varied greatly.
Syria’s original position in the bilateral negotiations of 1992–93 was that normalization fell outside the scope of the peace legitimized by the Arab consensus for regaining the territories Syria had lost in 1967. The Syrians grudgingly accepted the notion of a contractual peace but continued to argue that the Israeli definition of normality concerned issues that society, not the government, should agree to, and that this agreement could only develop over time. In August 1993, when Rabin made his “hypothetical gambit” and included normalization in Israel’s peace proposal, Assad told Secretary of State Warren Christopher that he “disliked” and “had difficulties” with that term. It took Syria another year of trilateral negotiations with Israel and the United States to agree to a limited, well-defined normalization as part of its prospective peaceful relationship with Israel.
This Syrian attitude clearly reflected the Assad regime’s negotiating style, alluded to just above. While all issues and details were a matter of hard bargaining, the more eager Israel was for normalization, the higher the price Assad would try to extract for it. While Shimon Peres imagined that he was in the chancelleries of Europe during the classical age of diplomacy, Hafiz al-Assad was in the souk down the street. Accordingly, Syria’s eventual agreement to discuss normalization did not mean that Assad ever intended to implement it. After all, while Egypt had signed a full-fledged peace treaty, complete with numerous annexes concerning normalization across the board, it had subsequently found a way to turn normalization into a dead letter while retaining the benefits of a nonbelligerent relationship. Perhaps Syria could accomplish the same result, and more broadly manage to contain rather than aid Israel’s integration in the region.
Egypt shared Syria’s anxieties about Peres’s new Middle East, but whereas Damascus voiced opposition and criticism from the sidelines, Cairo was forced, by virtue of being both a pillar of the peace process and a critic of its excesses, to adopt a more complex policy. Its dilemmas were vastly simplified by Benyamin Netanyahu’s 1996 electoral victory and by the subsequent decline of peace diplomacy. With Israel’s regional role diminished, Cairo could shift from subtle, indirect criticism of premature Arab willingness to normalize relations with Israel to outright criticism of normalization as such. “Normalization is an Israeli invention”, stated Osama al-Baz, a particularly thoughtful and well-placed Egyptian policymaker, “which means the establishment of a special relationship” that reality could not bear.8
Jordan formulated its peace policy in yet a third way. It was willing to offer Israel a distinctly “warm” peace in return for rewards it expected to gain from other dimensions of its relationship with its neighbor. After the Oslo Accords, the Hashemite regime had no qualms about the effect of normalized relations with Israel in its own domestic sphere or about Israel’s playing a regional role at the expense of some of Jordan’s rivals. But events in subsequent years made this policy untenable. Rabin’s assassination, public resistance in Jordan, the failure of the anticipated “peace dividends” to materialize, and the general decline of peace diplomacy forced King Hussein to turn down the volume on peace and normalization. Israel’s relationship with Jordan today does not appear very different from its relationship with Egypt.
At the same time, the Palestinian approach is remarkably uninhibited with regard to the idea of normalization. This may sound surprising, given the ferocity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it is understandable given the realities of two societies intertwined with one another.
In any event, the Palestinians’ leverage in the peace process derives primarily from their centrality in determining the legitimacy and finality of a settlement. This crucial issue goes to the core of Israel’s relationship with the Arab world. Israel appears to Arabs as a powerful, aggressive and threatening entity, but in fact it is a country haunted by a sense of vulnerability and persecution. Arabs believe that time is on their side, and many Israelis agree. But agreement in this case means that the two sides have different views of a final settlement.
As Israelis see it, they are offering to give up tangible assets, and they need to be reassured that the consequent settlement is definitive and final, not open-ended. This is matched by a tendency on the Arab side to deny Israel that very reassurance of finality—a conclusion made inescapable by the inclusion in the Arab peace initiatives of 1996 and March 2002 of the Palestinian “right of return.” The right of return is an important issue of principle particularly for Palestinians living in the diaspora, but it is more significant in that it is an issue likely to keep the peace process open-ended. When peace was central, Israel wanted it, and the Arabs denied it. When the Arabs relented on the principle of formal peace, they denied normalization instead. When normalization became embedded in the political process, the Arabs shifted to deny Israel finality. It has been a frustrating process, albeit one headed in generally the right direction.
The Arab peace plan, while not enough for Israel, was too much for Iran and its allies. During the first decade of this century, the Arab Peace Initiative became one of the issues separating the two contending non-Israeli camps in Middle Eastern politics. The moderate or conservative camp led by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan promoted the plan. Its leaders saw Iran, not Israel, as the major threat to their interests and genuinely sought a resolution of the conflict with Israel in order to bolster their defense against the Iranian threat.
That camp was of course opposed by Iran, which built the so-called resistance (muqawama) axis, including Syria, Hizballah and Hamas. Resistance was both a frame of mind and a concrete policy of opposition to the United States and to Israel. Iran and its allies negated the very idea of peace with Israel. They saw the peace process of the 1990s and its sequels as attempts to subjugate the Arab world and fit it into “an American order.”9
This attitude was common within the resistance axis but not uniform. In Iran since 1979, nuances have been occasioned by personal and political changes. On the whole, however, rejection of Israel’s right to exist—supplemented by negative Shi‘i attitudes toward Jews and Judaism—remained a fundamental policy as well as an instrument in the conduct of Iranian regional policy. Over time, this view acquired a new motif: Israel was diabolical, but it was declining. Its defeat was feasible, even imminent.
Among Tehran’s allies and clients, Hizballah’s position has been the closest to Iran’s. In May 2000, after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from south Lebanon, Hizballah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, delivered his “spiderweb” speech, which was a graphic way of referring to Israel as an odious but weak and vulnerable entity. Ironically, Iran’s chief Palestinian client, Hamas, has been forced by its role in Palestinian politics to depart occasionally from the party line. As manifested in its 1988 charter, it is not just an anti-Zionist organization but an anti-Semitic one as well. Hamas views the whole of Palestine as an Islamic religious endowment (waqf), no part of which can be “renounced.” It rules out peace initiatives to resolve the Palestinian problem. But when the Hamas leadership has felt the need to articulate more pragmatic positions, various spokesmen have found ways to do so.
Even more than Hamas, Syria, Tehran’s most important client, has pursued a complex policy with regard to peacemaking with Israel. It accepted the Arab Peace Initiative (once modified to accommodate its interests and sensibilities), engaged in peace negotiations with Jerusalem as late as 2008, and did not rule out the possibility of signing a peace treaty with Israel even when that negotiation failed. A revival of Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations is currently a nonstarter, given the eruption of domestic turmoil in Syria in March 2011. Even so, as recently as January 2011, Bashar al-Assad took pains not to rule out signing a peace treaty with Israel.10
Rejectionism, ambivalence and ambiguity on the Arab side of the equation have their counterparts within the Israeli political spectrum. But while the settler movement and other radical right-wing groups remain opposed to any settlement that requires meaningful territorial concessions, the moderate right wing headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu has accepted the idea of Palestinian statehood and Israeli withdrawal from large parts of the West Bank. The political mainstream debates the gamut of conditions that Netanyahu raised in his May 2011 speeches to the Israeli Knesset and the U.S. Congress, but it is primarily preoccupied with the finality of a prospective solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
During the previous decade the term “finality” came to replace “normalization” as Israelis contemplate, debate and negotiate peace. Finality is addressed directly as an Israeli demand (end of conflict, end of claims) or indirectly when Israelis insist on Palestinian and Arab acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state or object to the Palestinian insistence on the right of return. Unfortunately, the concept of finality rose to the top of Israeli strategic consciousness just as its realization seems ever more remote.
By the fall of 2011, Israel’s relationship with the Arab world and its strategic position in the Middle East had reached a particularly low point. This state of affairs was the result of trends and developments over which Israel had no or, at best, limited influence. The Arab Spring, for one, vindicated Israel’s concern that the fall of Hosni Mubarak and opposition to the Hashemite regime in Jordan would shake two pillars of its national security: the peace treaties and security cooperation with Egypt and Jordan. It already has done so; what the future holds in store no one knows, but Israelis are for the first time being forced to think through the implications of those arrangements collapsing.
The shock waves of the Arab Spring have also affected Mahmud Abbas’s decision to seek UN membership for a Palestinian state. In essence, Palestinian leaders reasoned that more assertive conduct toward Israel would be the most effective way of joining the Arab Spring rather than being swept up in its repercussions.
From the Israeli perspective, the Arab Spring comes in train with a Turkish vault. The acceleration of Turkey’s quest for hegemony in the Middle East has led it to weaken its ties to Israel in search of more influence among the Arabs. The prospect of Turkey’s return to a status akin to that of Ottoman imperial power, and the military and economic sway of a country of more than eighty million that holds a key geopolitical position, has indeed already had a major impact on regional politics. Turkey did not quite join the radical axis led by Iran and Syria, but it drew closer to both countries, thus enhancing its clout with the moderate camp led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Mubarak’s fall, however, has altered this positioning. Assad’s brutal suppression of the opposition to his regime has heightened Turkish concern that masses of refugees, some of them Kurds, could cross the border. The implicit tension in Turkey’s relationship with Iran emerged into the open when the two countries began to compete for influence in Syria and Iraq. Turkey is now seeking to build a new relationship with post-Mubarak Egypt. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an clearly relishes his popularity in the Arab street as a champion of the Palestinian cause, a strident critic of Benjamin Netanyahu and his government, and a Muslim leader who stands up to America and Israel.
The transformation of the close Turkish-Israeli alliance of the 1990s into the current hostility unfolded gradually. It is a story well enough known not to require rehearsal here, but it bears pointing out that the shift of Turkey’s orientation to one of hostility toward Israel has been a major factor curtailing Israeli hopes for normalization in the region and accelerating efforts to isolate and delegitimize Israel worldwide.
Clearly, the reasons for the shift of Turkish policy run deep in long accumulating social changes, but Israel needn’t throw up its hands and in effect help the Turkish government in its aspirations in the Arab world. In the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara incident of May 2010, Erdo?an and other Turkish spokesmen demanded that Israel apologize, pay indemnities and end the siege of Gaza or face serious retribution. For more than a year, the two countries negotiated discreetly in search of a compromise that would enable Israel to apologize without admitting guilt, losing face and exposing itself and its soldiers to lawsuits. At the same time, a UN panel, the Palmer Committee, investigated the incident. Turkey was anxious to settle the issue before the publication of the Palmer report, but Netanyahu refused to sign the fairly mild text that had been agreed upon by Turkish and Israeli negotiators. This, and the publication of the report, which was critical of both Turkey and Israel, led Erdo?an in early September of last year to reduce the level of diplomatic relations with Israel, expel the Israeli Ambassador from Ankara and issue some far-reaching threats against Israel.
In the intra-Israeli debate that ensued, Netanyahu and other spokesmen for his government argued that an apology was uncalled for, and would not have restored Israeli-Turkish relations to their former level in any event. His critics (whose position I endorse) argued that, while the relationship would not have been restored, it would have been wiser to moderate Israel’s position to reduce tension, even if that entailed a certain loss of face. Furthermore, with the Turkish government facing uncertainty in Syria, a fresh open rivalry with Iran and the potential repercussions of the Kurdish issue in Syria and Iraq, the ground seemed fertile for a new, imaginative Israeli approach. None has been forthcoming, and Turkish nostrils have continued to flare with threats to use the Turkish navy against Israel’s siege of Gaza and dark allusions as to Israel’s future.
For most of 2011, preoccupation with the Arab Spring, Turkey’s new posture and policies, and the Palestinian initiative at the UN have diverted international attention from the Iranian issue. But that issue remains, and Iran’s Arab neighbors, as well as Turkey and Israel, are well aware of it. Meanwhile, Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza are keeping a low profile, waiting for Syrian and Egyptian politics to settle down, but their political power and arsenals of rockets and other weapons remain undiminished.
Given Israel’s regional and international position, it would be wise for its government to adjust its current position to prioritize the completion of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. But the present government’s view of Israel’s current geopolitical and diplomatic predicament is to a great extent governed by ideology and temperament—in short, by a nationalist, right-wing muscular view of Israel, the region and the world. On the other hand, Israel faces a grimmer, harsher environment than in the past, including an increasingly critical and impatient international community. These are difficult but not insurmountable challenges. As we have seen, right-wing nationalist leaders such as Menahem Begin and Ariel Sharon rose to similar challenges by adopting bold, new policies that parted ways with their own previous positions. One can only hope that Benjamin Netanyahu will do the same.
If he does not, then peace treaties with Israel’s two remaining close neighbors, Syria and Lebanon, will remain unwritten, normalization in any of its broader regional and global dimensions will not advance, and the prospects for an end-of-conflict agreement with the Palestinians will recede into darkness. We will have come to the twilight of the Arab-Israeli peace process, and a long winter night will need to pass before the sun rises once again.
1An English-language text of the agreement may be found as an appendix in Adam Garfinkle, Israel and Jordan in the Shadow of War: Functional Ties and Futile Diplomacy in a Small Place (Macmillan, 1992).
2See Itamar Rabinovich, The Road Not Taken, (Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 135–67.
3Debate still continues as to whether an agreement opportunity was missed by Golda Meir’s government in 1971. For a detailed account by a member of Meir’s cabinet, see Gad Ya’akobi, On the Razor’s Edge [in Hebrew] (1989).
4See Avraham Sela, The Decline of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (SUNY Press, 1998).
5Some of those ideas were put forth in the debate that followed the publication of Sid-Ahmed’s book. See Al-Hawadith (Beirut), May 30, June 13, June 20, 1975. See Boutros Boutros-Gali, “The Arab Response to the Challenge of Israel”, in A.L. Udovitch, ed. The Middle East: Oil, Conflict and Hope (Lexington Books, 1976).
6For impressions and reflections of an Israeli intellectual after a first visit to Egypt, see Amos Elon, Flight into Egypt (Doubleday, 1980).
7See Peres, The New Middle East (Henry Holt & Co., 1993).
8Interview with Syrian television, November 16, 1997, quoted in Al-Ra’y al-‘Amm (Kuwait), November 17, 1997.
9See David Menashri, “Iran, Israel and the Middle East Conflict”, Israel Affairs (January 2006).
10Interview with Bashar al-Assad in the Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2011.