A New Moderation in the Middle East?

Two bitter enemies struggle to find peace on common ground.

After decades of anger, hostility, death and recrimination, a critical area of the Middle East seems poised on the brink of peace and the prosperity that should come in its wake. This spring and summer the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (or Palestinian Authority) are scheduled to engage in negotiations to bring about a final settlement to the 50-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This is a surprising volte-face by two peoples who have been at each other’s throats for a lifetime. What is the background to such a dramatic shift in approach? What catalyst accelerated this latest attempt to resolve the issues?

Superpower Vacuum

In his latest book, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881–1999 (Knopf, 1999), Israeli historian Benny Morris explains that major changes in the relationship between the superpowers necessarily forced change elsewhere. It was the collapse of Soviet-style communism that radically altered the approach and expectations of the major players in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

George Bush,” Morris comments, “who took office in January 1989, and James Baker, his secretary of state, had set their minds on achieving a breakthrough toward peace in the Middle East. The Intifada, still raging in the occupied territories, provided the impetus. The sudden arrival in Israel of masses of immigrants from the collapsing Soviet empire seemed to add urgency, for they could inundate the West Bank and permanently change its demographic makeup. Moreover, the disintegration of the Soviet Union meant that the Arabs could no longer rely on their former patrons for political and military support and no longer had a realistic war option vis-à-vis Israel.”

Morris continues: “The United States was now the only superpower. And despite its deep commitment to Israel’s security and future, it was generally held (albeit grudgingly by many Arabs and Israelis) to be a relatively objective broker. Washington broke off contact with the PLO when it refused to condemn the abortive PLF raid south of Tel Aviv; but, at the same time, Baker could also bluntly state, on May 22, 1989: ‘For Israel, now is the time to lay aside, once and for all, the unrealistic vision of a greater Israel. Israeli interests in the West Bank and Gaza—security and otherwise—can be accommodated in a settlement based on Resolution 242. Forswear annexation. Stop settlement activity. . . . Reach out to the Palestinians as neighbors who deserve political rights’” (p. 611).

Pressure was mounting on Israel to deal humanely with the people within the territory that it controlled. It is no secret that even today, with peace discussions under way, Israel has discriminatory policies in place against the Palestinians. For example, a recent visit to Jerusalem confirmed the continuing uneven treatment of Palestinian civilians as they stood in lines for residency and work permits at the Ministry of the Interior office on Nablus Road. Men and women, old and young, many with children and babies, were forced to stand outside in wintry conditions for long hours, while too few Israeli officials sat inside processing their documents. Across the city in the government office responsible for various permits for Israeli citizens, applicants sat inside waiting for their number to be called by one of many officials.

Despite this kind of inequity, negotiations are proceeding, sometimes with a painful lack of momentum and sometimes with encouraging speed. The basis for any settlement was laid down by the United Nations over 30 years ago, in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War: in the quote above, U.S. secretary of state James Baker referenced UN Security Council Resolution 242 as central to any peace settlement.

What is so important about this resolution?

For one, by “emphasizing the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war,” the resolution seeks a “just and lasting peace” in the Middle East based on trading of land for peace. Israel was requested to withdraw “from territories occupied in the [June 1967] conflict.” For their part, the Arabs had to put an end to their aggression and acknowledge “the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every state in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries.” The resolution also mentions “guaranteeing freedom of navigation through international waterways in the area” and “the refugee problem.”

In 1993, after many years of obduracy, the two parties in the current peace process agreed to Resolution 242 as a basis for settlement. They also accepted the similar UN Resolution 338, formulated following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. According to historian Morris, Israeli prime minister Yitzak Rabin came to believe that there was a 10-year window of opportunity for a peace settlement.

Breaking the Ice in Norway

The shifts in the superpower relationship meant that by 1993 an agreement could be reached on the principles that would govern further peace negotiations. The well-known image of Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat shaking hands on the White House lawn as President Bill Clinton looked on became the symbol of a new era in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

In a letter dated September 9, 1993, Arafat confirmed that “the PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.” He also noted that “the PLO accepts United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338” and will work for “a peaceful resolution of the conflict.” In the same document he said that “the PLO renounces the use of terrorism and other acts of violence.” He gave assurances that he would try to control other “PLO elements” from taking violent actions. His letter also mentioned that those parts of the Palestinian Covenant that speak against Israel’s right to exist “are now inoperative and no longer valid.”

The brief, almost terse, Israeli reply came a day later. Rabin wrote that “the Government of Israel has decided to recognize the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people.” Peace negotiations were to follow.

The practical beginning of the present track, then, was in September 1993 at the Washington signing of the Declaration of Principles that originated from secret discussions held in the Norwegian capital of Oslo. There, in 1993, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators spent about 4,000 hours together before they hammered out the framework for further negotiations on the more difficult issues. Why Oslo? Because the Norwegian government had provided a secret back channel for discussions to take place away from the limelight of the Middle East.

The chief participants in the formulation of what became known as the Oslo Accords were Uri Savir and Abu Ala, also known as Ahmed Qurie. Savir has had a distinguished career in the Israeli diplomatic corps. He is now a member of the Knesset. Ala is a prominent Palestinian businessman, formerly finance minister for the PLO and now Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Together Savir and Ala worked through the dominant issues separating the two sides. Savir tells the story in his book The Process: 1,100 Days That Changed the Middle East (Random House, 1998).

The former antagonists have discovered that to survive in the complex and globalizing world, they must cooperate on their narrow patch of territory.

Many differences still separate the former antagonists, but they have discovered that to survive in the complex and globalizing world, they must cooperate on their narrow patch of territory. While a number of commonalities bind them together, there are several outstanding and critical issues:

  • the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their land
  • the borders of the two entities (Israel and the future Palestinian state)
  • West Bank settlements constructed by Israel since 1967
  • the status of Jerusalem
  • the right to essential water supplies

On the surface—that is, in public pronouncements—we hear all kinds of rhetoric from Israeli and Palestinian leaders alike. These comments should not be confused with what is going on behind the scenes. There is sufficient desire and self-interest on the part of the present leaders, including Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, to make something significant happen. The present track indicates that a period of peace in the region, which would be of benefit to all peoples, is possible.

Quintessence of Identity

The status of Jerusalem is often said to be the most difficult issue to resolve. Consider some of the complexities of the city. Jerusalem is a complicated issue in part because of differing definitions of the city, and because both Palestinians and Israelis lay claim to the city, each in their own way. The identity of both parties is bound up in Jerusalem. Sami Musallam, director of the Office of the President (Arafat) in Jericho, told me: “Without Jerusalem there can be no Palestinian identity. It is the quintessence of Palestinian identity; it is the quintessence of Arab identity; and it is the quintessence of Islamic identity.”

To give a further example of the emotion that exists on this issue, consider the following official expressions of concern from each side. First some excerpts from an address by the Israeli deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, David Levy, before the UN General Assembly on September 29, 1999:

Over thousands of years, since the time of the biblical King David, the builder of Jerusalem, until the present day, Jerusalem did not serve as the capital of any other nation in the world besides the nation of Israel. Even after our forced exile from the land of Israel, we continued, generation after generation, to stay faithful to Jerusalem. The flame of Jerusalem was carried on in our hearts, as a source of faith and hope. . . . Year by year, from father to son, the anthem of the Jewish nation was ‘Next Year in Jerusalem.’

With the passing of those previous generations and exiles, we have had the privilege of being deemed worthy to return to Jerusalem—to rebuild the ruins, to rededicate the city as a center radiating with beauty, open to all followers of all religions, where freedom of all religions is a fact of life.

It is so upsetting that even today, 51 years since the independence of the State of Israel, there are still those who would deny our natural right to decide the location of our capital, a natural right given to every nation in the world. . . . United Jerusalem, under the sovereignty of Israel, remains and will remain forever the capital of the State of Israel.”

Next, consider the following statement from the official Palestinian National Authority website:

It is to be noted that international Law, UN institutions and the international community have never recognized the annexation of East Jerusalem, nor endorsed the de facto control of West Jerusalem. . . . Insofar as occupied Arab East-Jerusalem is concerned, there is no uncertainty or ambiguity. Israeli occupation and annexation of the East-Jerusalem area are illegal, they are null and void. It runs counter to the preamble of UN Security Council Resolution 242, of November 22nd, 1967, which states the ‘inadmissibility of acquisition of territory by war’, as well as to dozens of subsequent resolutions of the Security Council. Occupied territory just like the rest of the West Bank, East-Jerusalem, the natural and historical capital of Palestine, must be returned to Palestinian sovereignty.”

Expanding Possibilities

While bridging these two positions would seem to be impossible, there are some creative possibilities on the table. A central question concerns the definition of Jerusalem. As it stands today, the city is clearly composed of East and West. The Israeli Knesset and many government buildings are in West Jerusalem, the part of the city possessed by Israel since the establishment of the state in 1948. East Jerusalem was Jordanian territory for 20 years, until the 1967 war. It included the walled Old City with its religious sites. The Palestinians say that the Old City is part of East Jerusalem, and the Israelis say that it is part of united Jerusalem, the capital of Israel—a claim that no nation recognizes.

Can there really be a solution to such a difference of opinion?

Consider that the Palestinians have just built what appears to be a parliament house in a suburb of East Jerusalem adjoining the present Israeli municipal boundary. The location is the village of Abu Dis. A small section of the border of Abu Dis actually sits within the boundary of Israeli-defined Jerusalem. Will this be enough for the Palestinians to say that they have their capital in Jerusalem? Possibly. According to Munther Dajani, director of the Palestine Center for Regional Studies, “Once we start negotiating, expansion of Jerusalem is one of the solutions.” Abu Dis could become fully a part of Jerusalem by an agreed change in the borders of the city.

Will Israel, on the other hand, still be able to say that Jerusalem is their eternal and undivided capital, with a Palestinian capital there as well? Quite possibly. It depends on the creativity of the solution.

As things stand presently, the Palestinians have no problem recognizing West Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel.

It certainly does not appear that the city will be divided again. Berlin did not work as a divided city and neither will Jerusalem.

The issue of who has total sovereignty over Jerusalem can be avoided in the forthcoming negotiations. It requires a creative approach—one that makes use of deliberate ambiguity to answer an otherwise impossibly thorny question. In other words, in the interest of peace, the two sides may choose not to address the issue.

It certainly does not appear that the city will be divided again. Neither party wants such a solution. Berlin did not work as a divided city and neither will Jerusalem. Such is current thinking on both sides.

Neither does it appear that the city will be internationalized as proposed in 1947 by the United Nations. The idea of Jerusalem as an independent entity under UN control seems to be a nonstarter. Asked whether Jerusalem as a corpus separatum is a dead idea, Uri Savir responded, “Yes, absolutely. I know it is difficult for my Palestinian and Arab friends to understand what I am going to say—I tell them, and they don’t accept it. I’m a pragmatic, and I believe that for peace you have to compromise on virtually anything—because of life itself. There are certain issues that really are inherent in a nation’s identity. I’m not comparing the Jewish religion to the Muslim religion, or who is more and who is less. But I think the role of Jerusalem in Jewish survival is very clear. To me it is beyond the capacity of man to compromise over a city like Jerusalem. I say this as a Jew and an Israeli.”

Whatever one’s position, any final negotiation over Jerusalem will be complex and lengthy. Palestinian negotiator Manuel Hassassian, executive vice president of Bethlehem University, believes that several years are needed before agreement can be reached. “I'm optimistic about the future of Jerusalem within the coming 10 or 15 years,” he told me. “You have to bear in mind that this conflict has been based on two important factors that are psychological: the questions of fear and distrust. If we overcome these two impediments, which I consider totally psychological, I think there is a prospect for a good relationship in Jerusalem. But it is going to take time and we have to go through a healing process, and that healing process should be based on what we call people-to-people interaction.”

Share the Old City?

What exactly will happen to the Old City? It will likely be governed by a joint Israeli-Palestinian body with representatives from the city’s various quarters and religious groups. It will most likely be an open city to both sides and remain united with both East and West Jerusalem within the larger two-state–two-capital concept. Hassassian noted, “What we want to see—the real concession on the Old City, and my perception as an optimist—is that we could have a certain kind of shared sovereignty in the city. I’m not talking about Palestinian exclusivity over the eastern parts. There are certain parts where we can share sovereignty. . . . The question of the eastern part of Jerusalem should not be tackled without considering the western part. The issue of Jerusalem is about the whole city—East and West—and that is how the negotiations are going to take place.”

Recent attempts on the part of the Vatican to ensure access to the holy places for worshippers signal the role that the religious bodies will no doubt play in final discussions and in the ongoing governance of the Old City. The Vatican went so far as to sign an agreement with the PLO in February—an agreement that is critical of Israeli rights in the city, though Vatican officials claimed there was no political intent in the new accord with the Palestinians.

Here, three of the world’s major religions converge. They each demand right of access to the sites revered in their respective traditions. 

One of the complications in resolving the Jerusalem question is the involvement of not only various branches of traditional Christianity but also the Jewish and Muslim faiths. Here, three of the world’s major religions converge. They each demand right of access to the sites revered in their respective traditions.

Within Jerusalem’s Old City walls are several sites that excite passions and religious fervor.

For the Jewish world there is the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall—its most sacred place. It is the surviving reminder of the Second Temple. The Old City also has its very important Jewish Quarter, where rabbis study and teach, and some even plan the building of a third temple.

For the Muslim world, Jerusalem signifies the third-holiest site after Mecca and Medina. The familiar shrine with the golden dome contains the rock on which it is said the winged horse Buraq arrived, having conveyed its master Mohammed and the angel Gabriel from Mecca to Jerusalem. From there it is believed that Mohammed ascended to heaven to receive the commandments of God.

The Old City also contains the historic Palestinian Quarter, home to many Palestinian families for hundreds of years.

At the same time, it has its Christian and Armenian Quarters. And the city walls enclose the Via Dolorosa (where, according to various branches of traditional Christianity, Jesus carried his crucifixion stake to Golgotha) and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (located on the site where He is thought to have been crucified and buried). There are strict rules of access to various parts of these revered sites, and even the traditional Christian groups do not always cooperate with each other.

The Real Challenge

It’s clear that in any discussion of the future status of Jerusalem there will be a number of players with very different demands and agendas. But despite the complexity of the Jerusalem issue, a far more troublesome question concerns the right of return of refugees to land and property.

There are hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees scattered around the world. If a majority of them returned, it would tax the ability of both Israel and the coming Palestinian state to absorb the impact. The demography and economics of the area would change radically. So complex is the issue that it is likely that an international body will have to arbitrate the matter.

These are the kinds of thorny problems with which the negotiators must now wrestle. Since the 1993 agreements were struck, there has been both progress and delay. The original negotiators, Uri Savir and Abu Ala, agreed to speak to Vision about the current situation. Their comments reflect both a growing trust and a wise wariness, as well as a passion born of ideological persuasions and an earnest desire for the good of both peoples.

In the final analysis, the just and comprehensive peace that has been sought for so long in the Middle East can come only on spiritual grounds.

In the final analysis, the just and comprehensive peace that has been sought for so long in the Middle East can come only on spiritual grounds. Fear and mistrust, suspicion and retaliatory responses are not the basis for any lasting agreement. Palestinian journalist and Jerusalemite Hanna Siniora, editor of the Jerusalem Times, said it well:

I want, like everybody else—Arab, Palestinian, Israeli, Jew—to have the city undivided, open, where people can move freely, and where they can freely go to their respective religious places. It requires some understanding, some spirituality, to understand that this is a city of peace. It should be a beacon of peace, not a beacon of conflict.”

The ancient texts appealed to by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike speak to spirituality’s role in solving spiritual problems. A much earlier resident of Jerusalem put it this way: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, prosperity within your palaces’”(Psalm 122:6-7).

David, psalmist and king of Israel, recognized that peace and prosperity could come to the city of peace only with the spiritual correctly in place. It’s a lesson for the various parties to consider. Self-interest is an insufficient reason to negotiate.

Will the contenders rise to the challenge of a new Middle East?

Is not the alternative too ghastly to imagine?