The breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli conflict at Oslo in 1993 after decades of war, diplomatic stalemate, and failure to face the core Palestinian issue was seen at the time as a historic watershed. But since then, terrorism, including the suicide bombings, the Hebron massacre, the murder of Rabin, and the return of the Likud to power have darkened prospects for peace. The euphoria of Oslo and the beginnings of trust and goodwill are gone, replaced by bitter antagonism and the fear-driven psychology of the past. Both Israeli and Palestinian majorities still support peace, but Israeli peace activists and the Labor party are on the defensive, struggling to regain the center, and Hamas's influence is growing. Netanyahu, prodded and cajoled by the United States, was on the verge of accepting a deal for a new partial redeployment at the Washington summit in early October. But he and his coalition are committed to final goals, including aggressive settlement construction, no Palestinian state, and no compromise over Jerusalem, that are wholly inconsistent with a realistic peace with the Palestinians, much less normalization of Israel's relations with the Arab world. Moreover, the choices that Oslo posed - acceptance of Palestinians as equal neighbors in their own land and normalization - have made even more contentious the stark ideological, religious and ethnic divisions which have plagued Israel since its birth. Today Israel's struggle to define itself is deeply entangled with the issue of a just and stable peace with the Palestinians.
In Ilan Peleg's The Middle East Peace Process, thirteen academics examine the peace process with historical perspective and analytical rigor. Their conclusions are sobering, even though most of the essays were written before the Netanyahu government consolidated its grip and confirmed its minimalist goals for implementing the Oslo agreement.
One essay on the history of the peace process makes clear that before Oslo, except for the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, Arabs and Israelis were seldom serious about negotiations that would require real compromise. Both tended to view the conflict in zero-sum terms and negotiations as an extension of hostilities. Both looked to the United States to force concessions from the other. Although Oslo broke this mold for a while, and the Likud has accepted the reality of dealing with the PLO, the old adversarial pattern has returned. Mutual understanding and goodwill are in retreat, and the danger of reverting to a violent stalemate looms large. The authors point out that this crisis might have been anticipated. The Oslo Declaration only outlined general principles and a process. Its ambiguities camouflaged basic differences over borders, the status of Palestine, Jerusalem and settlements. Both peoples held quite different notions of what peace meant, and their leaders had not prepared them to think realistically about the tough problems that lay ahead. While all this is true, the Oslo experience created the hope - which survives, notwithstanding the unraveling of the process- that majorities in both societies, with committed leadership, could be mobilized for peace.
Another essay addresses this question by discussing Israel's "new historians," who are working to demythologize Israel's history and eliminate the propaganda, chauvinism and bias in its historiography that have discouraged peace with the Arabs and normalization of Israeli civic life. The new history is described as a helpful antidote to the myths of Israel and the Arabs as "David and Goliath," that Israel and the Jews are destined to live alone in a hostile world and with enough strength and will can succeed, and that Arab intransigence has been the sole cause of the conflict. The author believes that the new historians, by and large, are helping Israelis understand the depth and complexity of the Arab-Israeli tragedy and to support a realistic peace process. But he acknowledges, based on long experience in private dialogue among pro-peace Israelis and Palestinians, that neither society can be expected to change its perception of history in the short run, and that reconciliation is possible without reaching a new consensus on history and justice.
The author also challenges the notion, often heard in the United States, that the peace will come only when Israelis and Palestinians learn to like each other. He points out that peace making precedes and facilitates reconciliation, not the other way around, and that to expect friendship as a condition plays into the hands of the enemies of peace. At the same time, he makes clear that there must be psychological reconciliation in the long run for real peace to prosper.
The wide gaps in perceptions of peace among Israel's many secular and religious factions, the deep conflicts in Israeli culture and ideology, and Israel's discrimination against its own Arab citizens are treated in rigorous detail in another series of essays. Some of their terminology is challenging, e.g. "bi-modal cognitive schemata," "multivocality," "antipodal." But the authors confirm, using surveys and analysis, the distance between grass-roots views and the optimistic vision of Oslo. They point out, however, that unless the peace process succeeds, Israel's centrifugal forces will grow, and efforts to create a stronger, mainstream political consensus, a more civil society, and true democracy will also fail.
A chapter on Palestinian perspectives in this collection traces the evolution by Arafat and the PLO from radical rejection to pragmatism and accommodation. The author describes how Arafat mobilized support from the pro-Fatah political majority in the West Bank and Gaza to bring about a historic change and engage the United States and then Israel directly in a dialogue toward peace. Arafat's ability to lead the geographically and ideologically divided Palestinians to abandon rejectionism and accept recognition of Israel and peace, after decades of confrontation and defeat, was a remarkable accomplishment, as was Rabin's own transformation. But Arafat's bet on peace and his expectation that negotiations after Oslo would succeed have been thwarted thus far by the death of Rabin, the rise of terrorism by Islamic extremists, and, since 1996, the return of the ideologically hostile Likud. Moreover, Arafat's problems with Israel are compounded in his own community by his autocratic style, lack of interest in economics, and tolerance of corruption. Arafat's commitment to do more to halt terrorism is essential. But without more rapid Israeli movement on the core issues, pressures will mount and there will be more violence, whatever Arafat's efforts.
Jordan's unique relationship with Israel, the Palestinians and the peace process are discussed in two essays. The first describes the Israel-Jordan peace treaty in the context of the Hashemite kingdom's traditional need for peace with its powerful neighbor, its strategic need for political and economic support from the United States, its tenuous relationship with its Arab neighbors, and its historic antipathy toward the Palestinian national movement. The second article discusses the revival, in modified form, of the "Jordan option," the concept that Jordan, not the Palestinians, would be Israel's main partner in resolving the problem of the West Bank and Gaza. The author argues that, notwithstanding the recognition by both Labor and Likud that the PLO is now Israel's principal negotiating partner, and King Hussein's renunciation of Jordan's claim to the West Bank in 1988, both Labor and Likud still favor a residual role for Jordan in the West Bank. There are many signs that Likud, unalterably opposed to a Palestinian state, hopes that the territory ceded to the Palestinians will be subordinated to Jordan in some kind of federation, although it has dropped the "Jordan is Palestine" slogan. Whether Labor's leaders, after Oslo, still envisage some Jordanian control over Palestinians is much less clear. Indeed, if the Jordan option has survived at all as a serious strategy, that is remarkable, considering the historic and strategic realities of the Palestinian issue and all that has occurred in the last decade. For Palestinians, absorption by Jordan is not a realistic option after decades of struggle for recognition as a people and a Palestinian state. Nor is Jordan, notwithstanding its historical antipathy toward Arafat and the PLO, likely to wish to absorb two million West Bank/Gaza Palestinians, thereby threatening its successful policy of assimilating its own Palestinian citizens and changing significantly its demographic balance. A small, demilitarized Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with economic ties to Amman, would better serve Jordan's long-term interests, not to mention Palestinian aspirations. From Israel's perspective also, if strategic concerns overcome ideology, a small Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, linked to Israel with negotiated economic and security ties, should be preferable to an enlarged Jordan with a majority of ethnic Palestinian citizens, many of whom, as well as Palestinians in the diaspora, would be unreconciled to the loss of their dream of a Palestinian homeland. Given these realities, it is hard to believe that the survival of the Jordan option today is more than diplomatic gamesmanship.
Other articles in this collection include useful analyses of the changing roles of Israel's Supreme Court and the Israeli Defense Forces as the question of peace is confronted, essays on the dwindling remnant of Christians in the Holy Land, the problems of labor mobility in a peaceful Middle East, and other economic implications of peace. In Ilan Peleg's Epilogue, "The Peace Process and Israel's Kulturkampf," he describes how the peace process has forced to the surface in an unprecedented way the contradictions in Israel's still young and evolving political culture. The "dilemma of the essence of Israel," Peleg argues, is whether to embrace and strengthen the democratic, pluralist and secular stream of Zionist history and culture within the framework of a symbolic Jewish state with close ties to the West or to accept the competing vision of Israel as a Jewish, fundamentalist, security state in permanent conflict with its own Arab citizens, its Arab neighbors and the rest of the gentile world. In the past, these two tendencies coexisted uneasily, and continued hostilities with the Palestinians and Arab states enabled both Labor and Likud governments to maintain a tenuous political and social balance. Now, however, the Oslo process with the Palestinians, peace with Egypt and Jordan and the end of a palpable military challenge from the Arab world are forcing Israel to confront this dilemma. The growth of a massive Israeli settler presence in the West Bank and Gaza, encouraged by both Labor and Likud governments, and the growing radicalization of this group and other elements of the Right add fuel to this volatile mix. Peleg predicts that if the peace process succeeds, the transition will move Israel toward a more liberal and democratic regime with greater equality for Israeli Arabs, including IDF service. The symbols of the state will remain mostly Jewish, but non-Jewish symbols will gain official recognition. Jews will remain the clear majority in Israel, and the Law of Return will prevail, but a Palestinian state will emerge with its own Law of Return for the Palestinian diaspora.
Peleg's essay and this book were published in September 1997, and he acknowledges that the 1996 elections might defeat his optimistic prognosis. Since then, the profound divide between Likud and Palestinian visions of peace has become even clearer, although the process limps on. Instead of seizing the political center and mobilizing a new right-left coalition for peace, Netanyahu, true to his Herut-Likud origins, has encouraged and strengthened the religious and radical-right forces, a willing hostage to their demands. In response, hope is waning among Palestinians, and radical Islamists threaten Arafat's moderate center and support for the Oslo process. Still, the logic of an equitable two-state solution to this tragic conflict, which is implicit in the Oslo principle of mutual recognition, is still compelling and in the interests of both peoples. The peace process is still breathing, but the bright promise of Oslo is now a more distant vision.