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The Current Middle East Peace Process: A Palestinian Reading

(8 July 1994)

The Current Middle East Peace Process: A Palestinian Reading

(Written by: Dr. Nasser Al-Kidwa, Permanent Observer of Palestine to the U.N.)


The search for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, including a solution for the Question of Palestine, the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict, has been ongoing for decades, during which it has gone through different stages, linked to specific events and marked by specific initiatives. Until the current peace process, however, the goal of achieving a comprehensive peace in the area remained elusive in spite of some important changes which had taken place in that regard, especially the successfully concluded peace between Egypt and Israel.

It may be difficult to fully understand the dimensions of the current peace process, and its intricately detailed course, without first becoming familiar with the background details about the current stage of the search for peace in the Middle East, including some of the concrete peace initiatives which have arisen during that stage. It would be safe to assume that this stage began with the intifada, which started in the last month of 1987, and led to the reinvigoration of the Palestinian cause, effectively dashing all expectations, or attempts, of possibly circumventing the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause on the path towards a comprehensive settlement for the region. This collective and massive Palestinian demonstration against occupation and in search of a national identity made it once more impossible to envision a Middle East at peace without a just solution to the Question of Palestine.

The intifada, even in its early stages, carried the potential of being transformed into a phenomenon that could spill into other countries in the region. Such a situation caused several major players to launch efforts to quickly secure a peaceful settlement. Among those involved in this sudden quest for a quick peace, of course, was the United States of America. At the time, then U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, made several visits to the region, culminating in what he called, in letters to the Prime Minister of Israel and to Jordan's King Hussein, a "statement of understandings". Part of what we could call the Shutlz initiative consisted basically of the traditional elements of American policy embodied in the Camp David framework for peace in the Middle East, mainly negotiations among the parties on the basis of United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973), and the concept of stages with regard to the Palestinian dimension, beginning with a transitional period to be followed by negotiations on a final settlement.

The suggested schedule of negotiations between the Jordanian-Palestinian side and the Israeli side was better than the schedule usually proposed (for instance three years instead of five years and negotiations on the final settlement would begin before the start of the transitional period). More importantly than that, however, in what constituted an important departure from traditional U.S. policy, the initiative contained an additional element, calling for the convening of an international peace conference, with the Secretary-General of the United Nations issuing invitations and with the participation of the five permanent members of the Security Council. The conference was also to have a standing status, whereby the parties would report on the progress made in their negotiations. Moreover, the Shultz initiative seemed to open the door for the participation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) by allowing the participation of "those who accept U.N. Security Council resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973) and renounce violence and terrorism". It is still unclear to the writer why the Palestinian side, as well as the Arab side as a whole, failed to take advantage of this American initiative or give it the minimum of importance and attention. One thing is clear: the U.S. administration did not press with its initiative, probably due to Israeli pressure.

With the continuation of the intifada, the Palestinian political movement intensified in what was called the Palestinian peace offensive, which culminated in the convening of the 18th session of the Palestine National Council (PNC) in November 1988, and the adoption by that Council of the "Declaration of Independence" and an accompanying political program. From the peace process point of view, setting aside some Palestinian dimensions, the essence of the Declaration of Independence was the acceptance of General Assembly resolution 181 II (1947), which partitioned Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, marking formal acceptance of the existence of Israel and adoption of a two state solution. Also, at that time, the Council opened the door for the formation of a provisional government for Palestine, effectively offering a Palestinian alternative for participation in the expected negotiations within the framework of a peace process. Needless to say, the overall position of the PNC represented a completely new phase of the Palestinian political evolution, and it also directly contradicted some of the pillars of the Palestinian Covenant.

That Palestinian position was received very positively by several major players in the international community, which included Europe, both East and West. The European nations demonstrated a lot of enthusiasm, which was even interpreted into some specific positive actions towards the Palestinian side. Strangely, the policy of the U.S. government did not undergo any change. Contrary to the expectations of many, no breakthrough occurred in the position of the U.S., and worse still, the U.S. denied Yasser Arafat a visa to come to New York to address the U.N. General Assembly that month, which led to the movement of the Assembly to Geneva. Nevertheless, active political contacts were being carried out at the time through several channels, especially by the Foreign Minister of Sweden, with the goal of achieving a Palestinian-American understanding.

In Geneva, after addressing the General Assembly, Arafat made a statement in which he recognized "the right of all parties concerned in the Middle East conflict to exist in peace and security and, as I have mentioned, including the State of Palestine, Israel and other neighbors, according to resolutions 242 and 338". Furthermore, he added "As for terrorism, I renounced it yesterday in no uncertain terms and yet I repeat for the record that we totally and absolutely renounce all forms of terrorism, including individual, group and state terrorism". As part of the Swedish initiative, this statement was immediately followed, on 14 December 1988, by a statement issued by then U.S. President Ronald Reagan. In that statement, declared by the U.S. Secretary of State, Mr. Shultz, the president "authorized the State Department to enter into a substantive dialogue with PLO representatives".

This dialogue was supposed to open the door for dynamic and active changes in the arena of Middle East politics as it aimed for a new Palestinian-American understanding. Unfortunately, however, with the subsequent change in U.S. administrations and the lack of concrete initiatives, this dialogue failed. The U.S. seemed to basically concentrate on the issue of terrorism and the internal Palestinian situation, and did not make any serious effort to look towards the future. Furthermore, the dialogue maintained by the U.S. was essentially a mono-channel, lacking change in any aspect of the legal or political status of the PLO from the American perspective.

Meanwhile, pressure on the Israeli side continued, including some pressure from the U.S. administration, basically motivated by the continuation of the intifada, the positions taken by the PNC and the dialogue with the PLO. After long resistance and several evasive maneuvers, the Israeli government presented, on 15 May 1989, what they called "a peace initiative by the government of Israel" aimed at "the termination of the state of war with the Arab states; a solution for the Arabs of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District; peace with Jordan; and a resolution of the problem of the residents of the refugee camps in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District". The initiative firmly excluded any possibility for negotiations with the PLO and "any change in the status of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District, other than in accordance with the basic guidelines of the Israeli government". The initiative was based on two stages: stage A was to be a transitional period of five years and stage B would be a permanent solution, on which negotiations would be conducted as soon as possible but not later than the third year after the beginning of the transitional period.

According to the Israeli initiative, all options for an agreed settlement would be examined during the proposed negotiations, and peace between Israel and Jordan was to be achieved. The initiative also proposed elections among the "Palestinian Arab inhabitants of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District" to elect a representation which would conduct negotiations for the transitional period, to which Jordan and Egypt were to be invited to participate. The Israeli message was clear: there was a firm Israeli position resisting all kinds of pressure and effectively closing the door for any real progress or change. As such, the Israeli initiative (Shamir's plan) dismissed any kind of international conference, and while it made several references to the Camp David agreement, it amounted to far less than that agreement.

By this point, the Palestinian leadership had reached the conclusion that no breakthrough was imminent and that neither Israel nor the U.S. was ready to make the necessary changes in their positions. It was also clear that all political concessions made by the Palestinian side had gone unrewarded, without any political results or gains, in spite of the continuing intifada, the increase in Israeli oppressive measures and human rights violations against the Palestinian people, and Arab and international support for both the intifada and the political position of the Palestinians. Such a conclusion clearly affected the subsequent decisions taken and choices made by the Palestinian leadership. Further, after that, the leadership refused to condemn an attack conducted by the Abu Abbass Group on 30 May 1990; a refusal that led to the suspension by the U.S., on 20 June 1990, of the dialogue with the PLO.

On 2 August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the entire region soon became engulfed in a completely different situation. During the time of the conflict, until the end of the military operations on land by the Desert Storm Allies, the major players were engaged politically in a process aimed at dispelling the notion of double standards, preventing Israel from becoming engaged in a military operation, and assuring the Arabs and the whole world that a more balanced approach would be followed in the future with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict and that immediate action would be taken to reach a peaceful settlement after the end of the Gulf conflict. All was aimed at resisting Iraqi mobilization of Arab public opinion and generating the mobilization of a contrary public opinion in support of the coalition.

During this time period, the U.S. came close once more to accepting the notion of a U.N.-sponsored peace conference when it accepted a Presidential Statement (S/22027) accompanying Security Council Resolution 681 (1990), which read, inter alia, "the members of the Security Council reaffirm their determination to support an active negotiating process, in which all relevant parties would participate.... In this context, they agree that an international conference, at an appropriate time, properly structured, should facilitate efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement and lasting peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict".

By the end of the conflict and conclusion of the land war, it became clear that the Arab regime was completely destroyed and that the international situation was now a completely different one. Motivated by the new situation and by awareness of its special status and abilities as a result of the Gulf War, the U.S. started a political campaign for the Middle East, beginning with what came to be known as the "Bush Initiative", which was declared by the President, on 6 March 1991, before a joint session of Congress. Subsequently, then U.S. Secretary of State James Baker repeatedly visited the area (6 times), including visits with some Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and Gaza (who were permitted to do so by the PLO), in a process which culminated in the convening of the Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid in October of 1991.

The peace process that began in Madrid was cosponsored by the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The invitations for the conference, which convened on 30 October 1991, were issued to the parties on behalf of the presidents of the cosponsoring countries. The conference was to have no continuous standing and could reconvene only with the approval of all parties. In addition, Egypt and the European Community were invited as participants, the GCC was invited as an observer and the U.N. was invited to send an observer representing the Secretary-General. The invitations stated that the conference would immediately lead to direct negotiations on two tracks between Israel and the Arab states and between Israel and the Palestinians, based on U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973) (this was to be held four days after the conference). Other multilateral negotiations were to be convened in the form of five working groups (within fifteen days).

The Palestinians were invited, and attended, as part of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. Their negotiations with the Israelis were to be conducted in phases, beginning with talks on interim self-government arrangements, to last for a period of five years, the third year of which talks on permanent status would begin. Palestinian participation was exclusively composed of residents of the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians living in Jerusalem were not allowed to participate, effectively excluding Jerusalem from the settlement in terms of not only geography but also in terms of its human component. The Palestinians living outside the occupied territory were also barred from participating (they participated later in the multilateral working groups). Of course, no official connection with the PLO was accepted, and that included membership in the PNC (despite the American-held understanding which differentiated between this membership and that of the Executive Branch of the PLO) and deportees without official status in the PLO.

At the time, nothing was mentioned about the elements of the final status negotiations, such as the refugees, the borders and, of course, Jerusalem. Also, Palestinian efforts aimed at guaranteeing a freeze of settlement activities, simultaneously with the start of the conference, did not produce positive results. As such, the equation of Madrid contained the element of the international umbrella, which came close to the concept of the regional conference, but it did not contain, with regard to the Palestinian dimension, any element contradicting Shamir's initiative.

It is clear from the above that the Palestinian leadership had to make the most extreme concessions, which was almost unavoidable in light of the prevailing international situation and the Arab decision, including the decision of the parties concerned, to proceed with the peace process within the framework suggested by the U.S. Nevertheless, Palestinian attendance in Madrid marked the first time Palestinians participated in any international forum to formally deal with the Middle East conflict. Further, Palestinian performance in the conference and after the conference, during the successive rounds of the bilateral and multilateral negotiations, led to important gains and achievements for the Palestinian cause.

However, after ten rounds of bilateral negotiations in Washington, D.C., it had become more and more clear that the agreed mechanism and the tactical approaches of the parties to the peace process were not conducive to progress. In addition, it later became apparent that the Israeli side, as Mr. Shamir put it, intended "to stall for at least ten years". That revelation, along with the fact that the head of the Israeli team remained the same even after the change of the Israeli government with the coming to power of the Labor party, made it easy to confirm the above-mentioned conclusion. During the 9th round, papers were exchanged between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and were followed during the 10th round by an American paper that, from the Palestinian perspective, unfortunately represented a much weaker position than that expressed in the American letter of assurances to the Palestinians. In fact, the American paper came close in substance and terminology to some elements in the Shamir plan, and the concept of empowerment was developed in this paper, which carried the danger of being implemented at the expense of the self-governing arrangements.

Meanwhile, beginning at the end of 1992, an Israeli-PLO negotiating channel was established (which eventually came to be known as the "Oslo channel"), motivated by the eagerness of the PLO to modify the formula of the Madrid conference, including that of its own participation, and by the Israeli desire to make some kind of progress. Those negotiations were kept secret, without any substantial contribution from any other party except the Norwegians, who played an important role, and led at a later stage to the Declaration of Principles, which was signed by the two parties on 13 September 1993 in Washington, D.C. The next day, the Common Agenda between Israel and Jordan was signed in Washington.

It seems reasonable to assume that the facts of the post- cold war era; the change of government in Israel and its vision for the future of Israel and the future of the Middle East in general; the increasing importance of the economic factor; the difficulty of making progress without the direct participation of the Palestinian leadership; and the danger to the region as a whole of the political alternatives emerging within the Palestinian scene were all factors prompting the two parties to directly negotiate, even without the participation of the U.S., and enabling them to effectively conclude those negotiations.

The Declaration of Principles represented an important change from the basic formula of Madrid, while keeping the essence of the Camp David formula, namely a solution in two stages. From the Palestinian perspective, the most important changes were the recognition by Israel of the Palestinian people and its legitimate rights and just requirements; the recognition of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people; the specifications of the elements of the final settlement and Israel's acceptance to negotiate those elements, which included the settlements, the refugees, the borders and, of course, Jerusalem. Two other important changes were agreement for the holding of a general election and the participation of the Palestinian Jerusalemites in this election, as well as agreement on a mechanism for the return of displaced persons since 1967. In return, the PLO reiterated its positions regarding recognition of Israel, renunciation of terrorism, the commitment to abrogate certain articles of the covenant, and the acceptance of a new concept of initiating the self-government arrangements on part of the occupied territory, namely in Gaza and Jericho, as a first stage.

It would not be an exaggeration to consider the signing of the Declaration of Principles and the mutual recognition as the most significant developments with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict, or at least with regard to its core, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It has dramatically changed the scene of the Middle East, and it will continue to have its impact for some time into the future. Following its signing, the two parties proceeded to negotiations for implementation of the agreement and concluded the Agreement on the Gaza Strip and the Jericho Area, which was signed on 4 May 1994 in Cairo. This first implementation agreement was concluded several months behind schedule, and consequently, the completion of the Israeli withdrawal also took place approximately a month behind schedule. However, most of the police force agreed upon was deployed in a reasonably smooth manner, and an increasing number of PLO cadres are now moving in. Other agreed upon issues, such as the agreement on the release of prisoners, have been partially implemented and should be completed without further delay.

A close examination of the text of the Agreement on the Gaza Strip and the Jericho Area would lead one to the conclusion that the Israeli side scored higher points in the detailed and lengthy negotiating process. While the parameters of the first implementation agreement were set in the Declaration of Principles, the fine points, which when accumulated make a difference, indicate that the success of the Palestinian side was at best limited. The most important example of this is that of the details of the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Jericho area, which, in certain areas of the Gaza Strip, more closely resembled the concept of redeployment rather than the concept of withdrawal. The worst part of this is that it may make it more difficult to reach agreement on certain important issues regarding the second implementation agreement. On the other hand, parts of the agreement of 4 May could be extended almost automatically to the second stage, particularly the economic part of the agreement, which, it was agreed, will be extended in its current form to the rest of the West Bank.

The most dramatic development with regard to the implementation of the agreement was the arrival of President Arafat in Gaza on 1 July 1994. The popular reception he received from the Palestinian people there can be considered as a signal of the extent of popular support for the peace process and the Palestinian leadership.

With regard to the future, the most important step is to move directly to negotiation of the second implementation agreement, which should extend the self-governing authority to the rest of the West Bank. It should be noted that no Israeli redeployment, as agreed upon in the Declaration of Principles, has taken place in the rest of the West Bank until now. Attempts to deviate from the text of the Declaration of Principles and suggestions of starting now with only empowerment in limited fields, or ideas such as those of moving directly to negotiations on a final settlement - however attractive those ideas may appear to be to some - should, in my opinion, be rejected. The notion of the trial period should also be vehemently resisted. The issue that must remain in focus is implementation of the contractual obligations of the two parties, which makes it imperative to achieve the extension of the self-governing authority as soon as possible.

For many of the same reasons, the holding of the general election is no less important. Unfortunately, it has become apparent that the parties will fail to meet the agreed 13 July 1994 deadline for the election. A general election, however, is clearly essential for the healthy progress and development of Palestinian society. In addition, it will serve to strengthen the Palestinian side in its future negotiations and other interaction with the Israelis on all issues, including, and most importantly, those issues of the final settlement. Finally, sufficient attention must be given to the issue of reconstruction and development. This is, of course, an area requiring extensive international assistance, which until now has not been forthcoming, despite the talk and projections of large contributions.

The Palestinian people have now taken the very first steps, in a concrete and tangible way, on the road towards the rebirth of their homeland. Negotiations are still continuing, and our positions on elements of the final settlement should not be compromised. Negotiations on those elements during the second stage will be the determining factor. Until a just final settlement is reached, the Palestinian people will continue their march towards the establishment of the independent state of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital.