BETHLEHEM, PA.--Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's acquiescence to new elections in the spring may be one of the most decisive events in the Middle East peace negotiations. If, as the most optimistic scenarios have it, Barak can negotiate an interim agreement with the Palestinians, he could turn the election into a referendum on the whole of the peace process. For this to materialize, events have to break his way, which, given the Middle East's turbulent politics, is a tall order, indeed.
As bleak as peace prospects may be at the moment, there are reasons to be optimistic. True, recent events have disillusioned Israelis, especially the peace camp. The violence not only has demonstrated residual and intense hostility toward Israel among many Palestinians, but also that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is unable to completely control his people. Still, the events have refreshed Israelis' memory that continued occupation of chunks of Palestinian territory is futile. Perhaps more important, they have underscored how indefensible, politically and militarily, settlements in Palestinian areas are.
Another underreported and underanalyzed effect of the current intifada is its cost to the Israeli economy. In addition to lost tourism revenues, which are substantial in their own right, the bigger threat to Israel's economy will come from the reluctance of investors around the world, especially venture capitalists, to undertake political risks in addition to the ones usually associated with investing. Last year, Israel attracted $5 billion in venture capital, more than Germany. In a globalized world in which investor confidence is ephemeral, the potential for a serious downturn in such investments is more dangerous to the well-being of Israel than any of the security challenges the Palestinians can throw at it.
Hence, the incentives for Israelis to vote affirmatively for a reasonable interim agreement are in place. The next challenge is to construct this agreement. In the next six months, every actor, ranging from Arafat and the Palestinians to the rest of the Arab world, to squabbling Israeli parties and the United States, will be faced with an array of choices and decisions.
The Israeli election campaign will be bitter and nasty, especially if former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assumes the helm of the main opposition party, the Likud. It will also be a campaign in which extremists will do their utmost to sabotage any possibility of success on the peace front. Chief among these is likely to be Iranian-backed, Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which has already had a hand in escalating tensions, as well as the scope of the current unrest, by kidnapping Israelis from across the border and placing bombs on the Israeli side of the border. Moreover, its leadership has made no secret that it wants to continue "the struggle" against Israel, even though Barak fulfilled his campaign promise to get Israeli troops out of Lebanon. Hezbollah wants to export its success in Lebanon to the Palestinian territories and, therefore, has everything to win from continued and even escalating unrest. Palestinians face a serious dilemma. On the one hand, they could go along with an interim agreement that postpones the issue of Jerusalem on the assumption that any deal with Barak would be better than one offered by a Netanyahu or Ariel Sharon, who wants to be prime minister. But what happens if they conclude a deal, and the Israeli public find it unacceptable? It is quite possible that such an eventuality would trigger a new round of violence, with the possibility of it spinning out of control. The radicals among the Palestinians could assume the upper hand in such a scenario.
On the other hand, Arafat can decide not to go along with an interim agreement, thereby dooming Barak's prospects. This would be a tactical maneuver that would probably benefit the Palestinian cause worldwide: Palestinians would be seen confronting a hard-line Israeli government, in collusion with the settler movement, unwilling to go along with Barak-type compromises. But would this lead to a better deal for Palestinians? No. At best, it would delay resolution of the problem and chew up precious time, during which Palestinian society will continue to stagnate economically. Moreover, time works against Arafat's own dream of leading his nation into independence; after all, he's not getting any younger.
If such a strategy of getting an interim agreement is to work, U.S. assistance and guidance will be essential. But the muddled presidential election and delayed transition will.cas2. a long shadow over Washington's ability to be effective. It is also physically impossible for President Bill Clinton to broker an agreement in the remaining days of his presidency. Ironically, though, the uncertainty caused by the presidential election may temporarily work in our favor, because no one in the Middle East, with the possible exception of Saddam Hussein, wants to run afoul of an incoming administration. It is thus important that both George W. Bush and Al Gore send strong signals to the regional actors that they are interested in continuing the peace process. Not only has the United States worked assiduously to conclude an agreement, but the current unrest has allowed Hussein to break out of his isolation. The Iraqi president's resurgence in the Middle East would complicate U.S. objectives, because his primary aim is to disrupt the status quo to benefit his own hegemonic ambitions.
What can the United States do?
- Washington will have to lean heavily on Syria and its new untested and inexperienced leader, Bashar Assad, to contain the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel. Unfortunately, Assad is besieged on many fronts. There is growing unhappiness in Lebanon over the overbearing interference of Damascus in its internal affairs. He has yet to assume complete control of all the levers of powers in Syria, and the sorry state of the Syrian economy seriously limits his options. As a result, Assad has fallen back on the old standby of bellicose rhetoric, urging Hezbollah to be more aggressive toward Israel. This risks widening the conflict to include Syria. The creeping settlement movement has done much to poison the atmosphere between Israelis and Palestinians. The United States should thus make it clear to Israel that it has to live up to its commitment not to establish any more settlements.
- Washington must continue to communicate with everyone involved that violence of any sort, from stone throwing or settler actions, is unacceptable, and the respective leaderships will be held accountable.
- Finally, because this is a troubled transition period and time is of the essence, the Clinton administration, in consultation with both presidential contenders, should seriously consider etablishing a "peace team." Consisting of many of the current officials, such a team would work uninterrupted through the next six months, thereby assuring that the Middle East receives the attention it deserves.
Some Israelis will complain that all this constitutes interference in their domestic politics. They would be partly right, but to be frank, this would be in character. The United States will always pursue policies it deems are in its own interests and those of its regional allies. The Israelis can always vote for the opposition. That also is their right.
Henri J. Barkey, a Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University, Served on the State Department's Policy Planning Staff From 1998-2000.