16.11.2002
The Middle East: Enforcing Peace
№1 2002 December

Leading experts from various branches of goverment and research
institutions participated in a situation analysis conducted under
the chairmanship of Academician Evgeny PRIMAKOV, a member of the
journal’s Editorial Board and an acknowledged authority in the
field.

Evgeny Primakov

The Editorial Board of Russia in Global Affairs is planning to
involve the most competent experts in taking part in regular
situation analyses or, to put it differently, in brainstorming
various international issues.

The crisis in Israeli-Palestinian relations was chosen as our
first topic. And this is not accidental. The unsettled conflict has
for decades been causing continuous tensions in the region and
providing a breeding ground for the upsurge of international
terrorism which is perpetrating bloody acts in the Middle East and
far beyond.

Leading experts from various branches of goverment and research
institutions participated in a situation analysis conducted under
the chairmanship of Academician Evgeny PRIMAKOV, a member of the
journal’s Editorial Board and an acknowledged authority in the
field. In keeping with the prepared scenario three blocs of issues
were considered. Their totality, the participants believed, defines
the possibilities of and prospects for a political settlement in
the Middle East. This includes the impact of the situation on the
Israeli and Palestinian parties as well as the influence of
“external factors,” i.e. the principal actors on the international
scene and the Arab states.

The experts deemed it necessary to highlight the possible impact
of developments around Iraq on the Mid-East settlement process.

The methodology of any situation analysis presumes the anonymity
of statements made by experts who participate in the discussion in
their personal capacity and do not express the opinion of their
organizations and institutions.

Given below are the main conclusions of the discussion held by
the Editorial Board in October 2002, i.e. before the government
crisis in Israel, the announcement of early parliamentary polls and
the election of Avoda and Likud leaders.

Israeli Position

Public opinion in Israel is rather fluid – a retrospective
analysis shows that its vector may change. At the same time, the
experts said, over the past two years Israeli public opinion has
steadily been turning to the right, mainly because of the
Palestinian terrorist acts committed in Israel proper. In 1999, as
many as 67 percent of the Israelis believed that peace accords
would put an end to the conflict, whereas in 2002 as few as 26
percent shared that view. This is why the rightists can afford not
to hurry with a peace settlement. They hope that the destruction of
the Palestinian Autonomy (PA) infrastructure will compel the
Palestinian leaders to give up the idea of establishing a
Palestinian state in the nearest future and accept the Israeli
“interim plan.” They also pin hopes on the contemplated U.S. strike
against Iraq, something which is backed by 58 percent of the
Israelis polled.

Most participants in the situation analysis concurred that a
rather tough attitude to a crisis settlement has actually taken
root in Israeli society.

Shimon Peres is considered a perpetual political loser, whereas
the new leader that has replaced him, former Defense Minister
Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, has not shown himself as a man capable of
rallying the party. Ben-Eliezer once proposed his own settlement
plan: a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, including the dismantling
of the Jewish settlements; a withdrawal from most of the West Bank
and a transfer of part of Israeli territory proper to Palestinians
in exchange for the existing settlements that will become sovereign
Israeli territory; establishment of an independent body to
administer the Temple Mount that houses the Judaic and Muslim holy
sites. But given the prevailing moods in Israeli society today,
these proposals, as they stand, will hardly be incorporated into
Labor’s election platform.

In any case, Avoda’s election variant of an Israeli-Palestinian
settlement will be tougher than the proposals made by ex-Prime
Minister Ehud Barak and, most experts agreed, Avoda will not return
to the 1993 Oslo accords.

At the same time, one may conclude that Ariel Sharon’s support
(by at least 60 percent of the electorate according to recent
polls) is not a “temporary upsurge.” His position is rather solid
in the medium-term perspective. Inside the Labor Party, there has
been a struggle between Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, but
Sharon’s chances are clearly bigger. This is because, first, his
opponent’s reputation has slightly fallen (though Netanyahu is
relatively young and can replace Sharon later on) and, second, most
of the Israelis support the extreme anti-Palestinian actions by the
Prime Minister in office.

This does not mean that Sharon can pin hopes on implementing a
peace settlement plan which fully excludes the establishment of a
Palestinian state. He has to reckon with the U.S. position and the
opinion of his opponents inside Israel. The idea of a “two-state”
settlement runs counter to Sharon’s and his supporters’ inner
feelings, yet it is deeply rooted in Israeli society. This is
augmented by the population’s concern over personal safety,
something that cannot be guaranteed without an agreement with the
Palestinians. As for the United States, from the very beginning it
did not share Sharon’s negative attitude to the problem of a
Palestinian state. (Some participants in the situation analysis
said Sharon would have long deported Arafat, if it were not for the
U.S. pressure.) Given all this, Sharon agreed to a three-stage
settlement plan proposed by the four intermediaries – the United
States, Russia, the EU, and the UN. Moreover, he even uttered the
words “Palestinian state.” By doing so, he has lost part of his
supporters amongst the ultras, but acquired new ones amidst the
centrist and even leftist wings – those who accept the idea of
Palestinian statehood but back up Sharon’s policy aimed at
demolishing “the infrastructure of Palestinian terrorism” as a sine
qua non for peace talks.

In the case that the peace process resumes under U.S. pressure,
Sharon, it seems, will confine himself to offering the Palestinians
the idea of “cantons” and a transfer of not more than 42 percent of
the territory claimed by them for the establishment of their own
state. Clearly, no Palestinian leader will accept this, in which
case Sharon will find himself in a precarious position of a leader
who has torpedoed a compromise solution.

But some participants voiced the idea that it is a rightist
leader, such as Sharon, who may eventually make a turnabout towards
a peace settlement (an analogy to Menahem Begin’s policies in the
late 1970s suggests itself here). This may only happen if Sharon
decides that the Palestinian extremist wing is not able to
influence the Palestinian approach to the settlement problem.

Analyzing the impact of external forces on Israel’s policies,
experts have stressed the following: Likud has succeeded in
establishing cooperation with Washington. While extending general
support for Sharon’s policies, the U.S. Administration is exerting
a dosed pressure on Israel whenever it finds that Sharon has
“overstepped the limits,” and this may explode the settlement
process.

But this pressure is exerted behind the scenes and rather
delicately so that the Israeli lobby in the United States is not
given any pretext for accusing President Bush of a pro-Arab
leaning. At the same time, the U.S. Administration is compelled to
balance between the two parties not to scare away its Arab allies
and partners – especially now that preparations for an Iraqi
operation are underway.

EU influence on Israeli policies is insignificant. This is
because both Israel’s political leaders and public are convinced
that Western Europe has clearly taken a pro-Palestinian and
pro-Arab stand. To be sure, there are serious reasons compelling
the EU to criticize Israel’s policies as sharply as ever. These
include the energy problem, making Western Europe maintain friendly
relations with the oil-exporting Arab countries, and Europe’s
“Muslim factor” (the 12 to 15 million Muslims currently living in
the EU counties), i.e. the wish to calm the wave of anti-Muslim
sentiments and not to antagonize the European Muslims whose clout
is growing. The growth, in return, of anti-European sentiments in
Israel does not allow the EU to play a substantive role in the
settlement process. In this respect, the participation in the
“quartet” is useful to the Europeans because it offers them an
opportunity to affect that process.

The influence of the United Nations Organization on the Israeli
government policies is extremely weak. The UN is traditionally
considered in Israel an organization with pro-Arab leanings.

Israel’s attitude to Russia is changing for the better, thus
increasing this country’s chances to affect Sharon’s government.
This is facilitated by two factors: first, Russia itself faces the
terrorist threat and, second, there are many Russian emigrants in
Israel. It is indicative that Arafat’s blockade was lifted under
pressure exerted on Sharon from two sides – the Russian and the
American. But the “Russian factor” has not, and in the nearest
future will hardly become dominant in shaping the Israeli conflict
settlement policy. Sharon’s defiant visits to Moscow are designed
to prop up his position in dealing with the U.S. and the EU.

The participants considered separately the limits for maneuver
of the Likud-headed Israeli government in respect of peace
settlement issues, such as establishment of a Palestinian state,
delimitation of its borders, definition of the status of Jerusalem
and a solution to the refugee problem.

In principle, Sharon and his associates reject the idea of
Palestinian statehood, yet they are compelled to reckon with the
fact that much headway has been made in that direction despite the
actual fiasco of its concrete variant (the Oslo accords). At the
same time, all alternatives to Palestinian statehood – from
semi-autonomous Palestinian rule in the occupied territory to
occupation lasting ad infinitum – have proved ineffective. Also
important is the fact that the position of Washington, which is
interested in stabilization, albeit for its own reasons, cannot be
ignored. All these factors will most likely compel the Israeli
government to eventually agree to an “asymmetrical compromise.”

The experts believed that with regard to the boundaries of the
future Palestinian state the Israeli government might withdraw to a
line close to the 1967 borders – but this would not happen
overnight and would be done gradually, stage by stage. An
adjustment of borders near Jerusalem and an exchange of territory
are also likely. But Sharon, they said, will not give up the demand
to demilitarize the Palestinian state and station troops along the
Jordan River.

The experts assessed differently the limits for maneuver
regarding the status of Jerusalem. Yet most of them concurred that,
under strong pressure, Israel might agree to the following option:
the Palestinian Authority will be headquartered in Abu-Dis, the Old
City will be divided and the Temple Mount will be accorded a
special status (the Western Wall being under Israeli jurisdiction).
Moreover, the Likud-headed government will insist on preserving
major Jewish settlements in the occupied territory and establishing
guarded corridors between them and Israel proper.

Most participants noted that in regard to the Palestinian
refugee problem any Israeli government would insist that a return
of a considerable number of Palestinians to Israel is unacceptable,
even on the basis of recognition of the principle of reunification
of families.

The experts came to the following conclusion: insofar as the
Likud will hardly be removed from power in the nearest future and
its room for maneuver is rather limited by continued terrorist acts
against peaceful citizens, it is hard to count on an active role of
the Israeli factor in the peace settlement process.

Palestinian Position

Most experts agree that Arafat’s position is relatively firm
despite numerous predictions. No one of his old-time associates
challenges him, while the younger generation does not yet possess
the resources to claim national leadership. There is no organized
opposition to Arafat. Experts called Abu Mazen, Abu Ala and Saeb
Erikat possible substitutes for Arafat should he suddenly step
down, but none of these people has the charisma needed to lead
people. Arafat retains control over financial resources coming from
outside, which also allows him to influence the alignment of
forces.

Generally, it seems a compromise in the settlement process is
more likely with Arafat than without him. His authority might
convince the Palestinians that a compromise solution is needed. Yet
some experts believe that Arafat cannot ignore the fact that the
extremists are breathing down his neck. Should Arafat want to
toughen his stance on them, Sharon’s policies would put a spoke in
his wheel. At the same time the Palestinian levers of the peaceful
process are still in Arafat’s hands.

The participants held that Arafat would win the election of PA
leader in early 2003, but at parliamentary and local elections the
dominant position of his Fatah group would be challenged by the
extreme-radical forces (more in the Gaza Strip than in the West
Bank). This means that Arafat’s departure would open up a path to
power for the radical wing of the Palestinian movement. Clearly,
President Bush cannot ignore this fact, despite his anti-Arafat
rhetoric.

Similarly to the Israelis, the Palestinians do not have
expandable room for maneuver in matters concerning a peace
settlement. Yet one can assume that a large segment of the
Palestinian elite would agree to a longer, “stretched-out” variant
of transition to Palestinian statehood. A compromise on the
territorial and border issues is also possible. The experts believe
that the Palestinians’ “flexibility” limit is agreement to 90
percent of the claimed territory and to the international status of
the Old City, provided the Temple Mount is placed under Palestinian
control. It will be extremely hard for the Palestinians to meet
Israel half-way on the refugee issue, though they realize that its
practical solution is rather conventional and even symbolic and
that in reality most refugees will never come back under any
conditions. Most likely, the Palestinians will continue pressing
for recognition of the refugees’ right of return. Israel, as has
been noted earlier, will try to evade even nominal recognition of
this right. This may well be the main stumbling block at future
talks.

In principle, the Palestinians will demand liquidation of all
Jewish settlements in the territory of their state, but, experts
say, a compromise is possible. The more so as this issue should
naturally be tied in with economic relations, a problem vitally
important for the Palestinians. This involves primarily preserving
job opportunities in Israel that provide the means of subsistence
for many Palestinians.

The problem of backing terrorist acts by the Palestinian leaders
– and the PA elite in general – seems to be as important for peace
settlement prospects as it is unclear. It is unknown to what extent
the Arafat Administration controls the Hamas, Islamic Jihad and
other organizations. It is equally unclear whether they will go on
fighting should the Administration turn its back on them.
Specifically, some experts said that today the main thing for the
extremists was coming to power in the newly established Palestinian
state, rather than liberating the Palestinian land occupied by
Israel in 1967. In that event their conflict with Fatah is
inevitable. Moreover, Sharon’s policy of using any pretext for
perpetrating acts, such as the second siege and demolition of
Arafat’s residence and the massacre in the Khan Yunis refugee camp,
is actually playing into the extremists’ hands. Most experts hold
that if Sharon continues pursuing such policies the spiral of
violence will not be stopped. At the same time, they say, only
talks – not kamikaze acts – can bring about an Israeli troop
pullout, a halt to regular Israeli invasions and a restoration of
state structures within the PA. Those Fatah moderates who are ready
for a compromise will speak out at the talks on behalf of the
Palestinians and in case of success they will become a ruling force
in the Palestinian state.

Of course, outside forces – the Arab world, the United States,
the UN, Russia and the EU – have an influence on the Palestinian
position.

Generally, Arab governments wish to find a compromise solution
to the Palestinian problem, but their approaches differ markedly.
Egypt and Jordan are inclined against a continued Intifada. Syria
treats the conflict from the viewpoint of returning the Golan
Heights and backs up the Intifada. The situation with Saudi Arabia
is more complex. It prefers to support both Arafat and his Islamist
opponents because of the great influence of the ultra-Islamist
policy advocates in that country. It shall be recalled that the
Palestinians depend a great deal on the aid coming from the Arab
world – the PA’s monthly budget totals $50 million, of which $30
million is financed by the Arab states.

Most experts believe that though the Arab countries do not see
any alternative to Arafat, their attachment to him should not be
overestimated. The Arab powers that be would be ready to cooperate
with another Palestinian leader capable of reaching a settlement
that would not lead to a new Arab-Israeli war and which would allow
finding a solution acceptable to the Palestinians and preserving
the dignity of the Arab world.

By all indications, the U.S. Administration does not see an
alternative to a settlement on the “two-states” basis.
Notwithstanding President Bush’s statements indicating that the
White House no longer considers Arafat a participant in the
settlement process, the Americans seem to have ignored Sharon’s
arguments and have not yet discarded the Palestinian leader. At the
same time they are groping for a stand-by variant – to push Arafat
back in the shadow and compel him to be content with the role of a
nominal Palestinian leader.

Some experts pointed out the duality of the Palestinian attitude
to the United States. The radicals and Islamists consider the U.S.
the principal enemy of Islam and the Arab nation. They hold the
Americans fully accountable for Sharon’s actions. This view is also
shared by ordinary Palestinians, but in contrast to the extremists
they seem to have not lost the hope that the U.S. will eventually
help the Palestinian people to pull out of the catastrophic
situation they have found themselves in. Moreover, both ordinary
Palestinians and the elite are ready to rapidly change their
negative attitude to America if it shows a more balanced approach
to the conflict parties.

Russia retains its influence on the Palestinians, yet at this
particular stage it is not determinant. The UN’s influence is
insignificant but it may be raised by the “quartet” that includes
this organization as well.

The European Union backs Arafat and calls for the establishment
of a Palestinian state. The Danish plan supported by the
Palestinians has scored additional points for the Europeans in
their dialog with the Palestinians.

Impact of Outside Factors

The experts have concluded that in the current setting the
conflict parties do not have potential enough to bring about a
settlement by themselves and that their room for maneuver is
limited, so they suggested that special attention should be given
to outside factors.

Analyzing the U.S. position, the experts noted the important,
though not decisive, role of the oil factor. It is important for
the Americans, first, to cut world oil prices and, second, to
decrease their dependence on Mid-East oil imports. A solution to
this problem is tied in with the rout of the Iraqi regime rather
than with the outcome of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

The U.S. cannot ignore the position of the Arab states and give
Israel carte blanche. But neither will it take a pro-Arab stand,
though Israel’s value for the Americans is not as big as it was
during the Cold War period. Its leaning towards the Arabs is
hindered by the postulated need to ensure Israel’s security – one
of the standing imperatives of U.S. foreign policy, as well as by
pressure from the pro-Israeli lobby and the general cooling of the
American public to the Arab world in the wake of the September
11th.

The influence of the pro-Israeli lobby on U.S. Middle East
policies is important, yet its role should not be overestimated. By
all indications, this lobby has realized that its opportunities are
limited, a fact which arouses certain discontent in Israel. At the
same time, at any critical moment the Jewish community in the
United States backs Israel unconditionally and upholds the moves by
the U.S. Administration aimed at weakening the anti-Israeli forces
in the Middle East.

Given all these factors, the experts say, President Bush will
not hurry with his moves, trying to bring pressure to bear on both
parties to the conflict. One can expect mistakes and blunders from
the Bush team, but it will not be easy to take advantage of them,
given the current alignment of world forces. Yet the U.S. has a
chance to “press home” both parties, but this may only happen if it
acts within the framework of international efforts made by the
“quartet,” rather than alone, something which resulted in a
deadlock in the past.

The experts noted that following September 11, the U.S.
Administration had been showing readiness to depart from one-sided
moves and shift emphasis on collective efforts. This does not mean
that Washington is ready to give up its leadership in the
Arab-Israeli settlement process – this time it will be the leader
within the “quartet” framework.

During the debate, the military operation against Iraq prepared
by the United States was considered most seriously. All experts
agree that the U.S. main aim is to topple Saddam Hussein and his
regime, rather than to ascertain whether Iraq possesses mass
destruction weapons or not. By this token the U.S. wants to tighten
its control over the Middle East region and simultaneously to teach
other countries, primarily Iran, a lesson.

The negative consequences for the U.S. include an inevitable
upsurge in anti-American sentiments in the Arab world and
elsewhere, a sharp weakening of the global anti-terrorist
coalition, chances for a rather protracted military operation and a
possible involvement of Israel in the war. Some experts do not
exclude that at the very last moment Saddam Hussein may realize
that he has nothing to lose and fire missiles carrying chemical and
biological weapons at Israel, which will provoke this time (as
distinct from 1991) an Israeli retaliation strike. Moreover, they
say, in case of a big civilian death toll Israel may even resort to
nuclear weapons. Other participants doubted Iraq’s ability to
deliver a chemical or biological strike against Israel. Moreover,
should it happen, Israel’s use of nuclear weapons in retaliation
would be highly improbable, they held.

The following viewpoints were set forth regarding prospects for
an Palestinian peace settlement in case of a U.S. military
operation in Iraq. On the one hand, one can expect from Sharon more
crushing strikes against the Palestinian movement and even attempts
to oust a substantial number of Palestinians from the occupied
territory to Jordan. On the other hand, the Palestinian extremists
may take the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime as a signal for
stepping up their terrorist acts. A different viewpoint boils down
to this: the demise of the Baghdad ruler, who enjoys popularity
among the Palestinians, will result in a psychological breakdown
amidst the extremists. Many of them will be simply demoralized. The
backing of the Palestinians by the Arab states will slacken.
Regarding the U.S., a prognosis was made that most likely it will
try to make up for its fallen authority in the Arab world by
pushing a settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The experts also considered Russia’s possible role. A viewpoint
was expressed that for Russia it would be most useful to stick to
the “quartet” format and simultaneously maintain bilateral
relations with Arab countries and Israel.

The “quartet” is working on a “road map,” i.e. mapping out a
general route leading to peace. But it should not confine itself
just to that. A substantive part of the settlement plan should also
be elaborated through collective efforts within the “quartet”
framework, after which vigorous pressure should be exerted on the
two conflicting parties in order to force them to accept this
plan.

Referring to the substantive part of the plan, the participants
came to the conclusion that the proposals made in Taba (Egypt) on
the eve of Sharon’s coming to power should be considered a starting
point. But it will be much more difficult to implement these
proposals today.

Characteristically, at the current stage it is still impossible
to advance towards a settlement without persistent pressure from
outside forces. In other words, the international community should
look for a political solution to be forced upon the parties.