Cutting Edge Magazine
On September 13, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and P.L.O. leader Yassar Arafat signed a Declaration of Principles designed to transition the West Bank and Gaza from occupied territories to self-governing, autonomous regions. The historic agreement was signed at the White House with President Clinton and members of both houses of Congress observing.
Since the signing, violence in the territories has continued, though both sides claim they are sticking to the agreement.Many questions remain about the potential for peace in the Middle East. Will there be a Palestinian state? Will Jerusalem be split once again? Can the radical Islamic groups be convinced to join the Palestine Liberation Organization in their peace talks with Israel? We posed these, and other questions, to three men: Nimrod Barakan, Public Affairs Minister with the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Muin Shrein, Counselor with the Palestinian Mission to the United Nations, and New Mexico Congressman Steve Schiff.
“The aim of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations within the Middle East peace process is, among other things, to establish a Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority, the elected Council for the Palestinian people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, for a transitional period not exceeding five years, leading to a permanent settlement based on Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.”
- Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles
“The Security Council, expressing its concern with the grave situation in the Middle East, emphasizing the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war…”
- United Nations Security Council Resolution 242
Q: In the September 27 edition of Time, Yassar Arafat said this “agreement is only a step toward an independent Palestinian state which will confederate with Jordan.” Yitzhak Rabin said in the same issue, “I oppose the creation of an independent Palestinian state between Israel and Jordan.” How do you rectify this problem with the agreement?
NB: I think the most important thing now is that we have entered the beginning stage—we will enter it when Israel withdraws from Gaza and Jericho—and all the issues that relate to the final status of the territories, I mean the West Bank and Gaza, will be determined at the end, in the negotiations, at the beginning of the third year of the autonomy. At this stage, there is no decision as to what will be the final state—an independent state, a confederation with Jordan, part included with Israel, part of it not, all possibilities are open. Arafat would like to see a Palestinian state, but we object to an independent Palestinian state.
MS: Yes, of course. Having signed an agreement with Israel does not mean that we dropped all our demands. We still believe that this is a first step toward establishing our Palestinian state. We think that the Palestinian people are entitled to self-determination, including their right to establish a Palestinian state. The international community and the United Nations gave these people this right. We know the Israelis are opposed to having a Palestinian state, but we know the Israelis also opposed having contacts with the PLO, so we don’t think their stand is final. If the agreement is enacted in good faith, I think their opposition to having a Palestinian state will have been weakened. The Palestinian state is a prerequisite for a final peace in the region. We cannot have a final peace in the region without having a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. (Emphasis ours.) This state will live in peace with Israel. It is true that this agreement does not rule out the option of having a Palestinian state. It leaves the door open. We will enter the negotiations at the beginning of the third year with this demand.
Q: Let’s say three years from now the result of the negotiations is Israel saying, “Sorry, we’re not going to give you an independent Palestinian state.” You still have your autonomy, your police force and self-rule, what do you do—try to negotiate more, resume the violence, what?
MS: I don’t think this will be the position of anybody because the agreement has the two corresponding guarantees. We agreed with the Israelis that we have to negotiate over the final status of Jerusalem, over the territories, over the settlements, there are so many critical issues that have to be settled in the final status.
I assume they have an interest in negotiating seriously with us. I cannot predict what the outcome will be of these negotiations, but we will enter these negotiations with these demands. We will be very determined to see this autonomy transformed into a Palestinian state. We will solve whatever problems we have with negotiation.
Q: By entering into this agreement with the PLO, isn’t the influence of the PLO strengthened when it was recently losing power?
NB: That’s very true, but the question we all have to answer is what our alternatives are “Look what’s happening in Russian right now (referring to the fighting at the Russian Parliament, this interview was conducted while battle was still going on), the same would have happened in the PLO. If the secular nationalist leadership of Arafat were to crumble, some other forces would come in and we would have nobody to negotiate with. We may
see the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Islamic fundamentalism is certainly not negotiated with. At this juncture in history, Arafat was better than the alternative. Not only that, he made major concessions, which were ones that we’ve always demanded, such as the change in the Palestinian charter to recognize Israel’s right to exist and so on.
SS: The radicals are going to attempt to disrupt this agreement. I’m willing to take Yassar Arafat at face value. I think he’s certainly demonstrated he’s a pragmatic politician. He’s gone from one side to the other. But I think he has chosen this route because I think he didn’t want to go as radical as groups like Hamas. I think he decided that if he stayed almost as radical that wouldn’t do it. Those attracted to the radical cause would bypass him. So I think he decided his best route was a peaceful solution. Even though he may have decided this for his own self-interest, I think it is a sincere decision.
Q: Wouldn’t if have been better to negotiate with Hamas or the other terrorist groups that have more influence than with the PLO?
SS: You are correct that there are other groups in the Middle East on the Arab side just as there are factions in the Israeli state and it’s my understanding that the eb and flow in terms of which one might have greater power than the other. But I think the answer on negotiation is I don’t think any other groups have offered to negotiate.
I think the PLO, even if, I’ve heard the same thing, I heard that Hamas is on the ascendency there in certain quarters—but by having made this move the PLO will now attract those elements which wanted to negotiate with Israel and had no place to go. And the hope is that they will eventually a majority of the Palestinian people.
Q: Can there be a genuine peace if groups like Hamas get involved in the process?
SS: It depends upon what you mean by genuine peace.
Q: For instance, there is a continuous state of belligerence with terrorist groups like Hamas.
SS: Yes, but a terrorist group can strike in the US too, as we have apparently seen. I think belligerency can be greatly reduced if Israel and the neighboring Arab states, Jordan, Syria and so forth, with substantial representation of the Palestinian people, agree to peace terms. That doesn’t guarantee there will be total peace, there obviously is not total peace in Northern Ireland, but there’s not war between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom. A recognized peace between Israel and the PLO, recognized by the neighboring Arab states, will do a great deal to reduce the tension and the violence. But as long as there are extremist groups on both sides then the threat of violence still exists and is very real.
Q: What progress has been made on putting together the Palestinian Police Force?”
MS: The agreement says that this Palestinian Police Force will be combined from the Palestinian from the inside [of the territories] and part of the Palestinian Police Force outside which was trained, which belongs to Palestinian army, which is located in several other countries like Egypt, Jordan, and Sudan. There was training going on for quite a number of those police. They will move to the territories. We are considering several options on how to train the bulk of the Palestinian forces. Among the options of training by the United Nations, with the UN supervising the training of the police forces.
(Editor’s Note :A Time interview with Yitzhak Rabin from September 27 contained the following exchange:
Q: What if the personal-security risks to Israelis increase?
A: If terror will continue, it means the Palestinians cannot keep their commitments, so what is the meaning of the agreement?
Q: In that case the accord would be rolled back?
A: I didn’t say so. You said it.)
Q: The reason why I ask that question, the Hamas and some of the other more extreme groups have continued the violence in the territories. Can these groups be brought under control to make these agreements work?
MS: We understand their logic and their motivations. We are a democratic society, we have opponents, and the Israelis have opponents, but when the implementation of the agreement starts and the Palestinian people start seeing tangible results like the withdrawal of the Israeli forces, like the release of the political prisoners, and starting economic projects which will improve living conditions, the opposition to the agreement will eventually be very weak. The Palestinian leadership is expected to impose order in the occupied territories.
“It is understood that these negotiations shall cover remaining issues, including Jerusalem, refugees, settlements…”
“Jurisdiction of the Council will cover West Bank and Gaza Strip territory, except for issues that will be negotiated in the permanent status negotiations: Jerusalem, settlements, military locations and Israelis.”
- Agreed Minutes to the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements.
Q: Is there a possibility that Jerusalem could become a common capitol for an Israeli and a Palestinian state?
NB: We have not fully developed our final positions on the final status [of the territories], but we have made very clear that Jerusalem shall never be divided again. It will remain the eternal capitol of Israel.
MS: We stress a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capitol. We are talking about East Jerusalem which was captured by the Israelis in 1967. The Israelis in the past, they never wanted to negotiate the status of Jerusalem, but in this agreement, Jerusalem was mentioned twice, and this is important, and relevant. They also accepted that the Palestinian people who are living in East Jerusalem have the right to participate in the elections by voting, as a candidate. We are optimistic that we can reach a compromise that will allow the Palestinians to have East Jerusalem as their capitol.
SS: Jerusalem should not be divided again.
“Both parties view the multilateral working groups as an appropriate instrument for promoting a ‘Marshall Plan,’ the regional programs and other programs, including special programs for the West Bank and Gaza Strip…”
- Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles.
Q: What reservations do you have with this agreement or about a government with Yassar Arafat as the President or Prime Minister of Palestine?
NB: As I said before, the final status of these areas has not yet been determined. We are not talking about the possibility of it having a Prime Minister or a President because it will not be a state. What we have agreed to at this stage is to have a Palestinian authorized council. Who will be the members of the council has not yet been decided.
SS: I think it’s a great risk because the Arab forces that continually declared their intention to destroy Israel, that has always been a part of the PLO charter. Israel, for all its faults, has never declared that it exist to destroy Arab countries or people. After all, one could have argued, we funded the rebuilding of Germany and Japan. One could have argued at the time of the Marshall Plan that we were rearming our enemies who were going to attack us again. You’re going to work with a people and give freedom of movement to a group, the PLO, that has sworn your destruction, that’s awfully risky. I think however, that it’s a risk worth taking.
Q: Have men like Arafat changed their spots about Israel?
NB: There is another possibility. They have remained without superpower support. They realize the rise of Islamic fundamentalism threatens their own way of life. They realize that America is totally supportive of Israel and they made a terrible mistake of joining the Gulf War on the losing side. They realize that economically they are on the brink of chaos. All in all, they realize that they have to strike a political deal with Israel. They have not changed their opinion about us, neither have we changed our opinion of them. This agreement is the lesser of all evils for them.
SS: These leaders are recognizing reality. The reality is, peace is breaking out all over, whether they like it or not. There was the peace accord with Egypt and Israel, and that has held in spite of a number of strains. There’s no the Big Uncle any- more to provide whatever might be needed to maintain a state of contention. I’m referring, of course, to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The fact is, there are no more Migs and tanks coming down the pipeline. There is a risk here that I am being naive, but I think that when both leaders, and I was present at the ceremony, both leaders basically said, enough is enough, both leaders represent people who, as human beings have suffered greatly. Jewish soldiers have mothers and Arab soldiers have mothers, families have suffered great personal losses, and I think the leaders are coming to the conclusion that their respective peoples are tired of this, and want it resolved.
Q: Is this agreement just a ploy for the PLO to get control of the West Bank and Gaza?
SS: I don’t necessarily think that because there could be Palestinian self-rule within a Palestinian entity set up that might have the full rights of a Palestinian state in terms of armaments. I think what is most important is that this is something the people in the area have to work out. There is nothing that can be imposed upon them by the outside. I don’t know exactly what this will lead to. I don’t know if it will lead to a very limited Palestinian self-rule, or a Palestinian state, or something middle of the road—I think that is what’s most likely, greater autonomous rights for local self-governing with perhaps, military limitations.
Q: The leadership of Israel’s Lukid party opposed the agreement on the grounds that it would give the PLO control of strategic land which could be used to launch an attack against Israel in the future. Do you see that as a viable position?
SS: There is no doubt that this process will entail risk. Further Palestinian autonomy definitely means at least the opportunity to provide a staging area for attacks on Israel. There is no doubt that that is a possibility. On the other hand, you have to ask yourself. Is
There any kind of peace agreement that the Lukid party would actually like? The question is, what’s the alternative? Just a constant state of internal warfare? How
long can that go on?
Q: Do you support President’s Clinton’s suggestion of the U.S. giving aid to the Palestinians for building infrastructure and so on?
SS: Yes, but the amount of aid Congress is going to appropriate for this is rather limited. After all, after Camp David, the US continued its rather substantial support of Israel and added substantial support of Egypt, and the US is going to find it somewhat difficult, financially, as large as we are, to be the main carrier on this. The Clinton administration is going to have to seek contributions from other countries recognizing that Middle East peace is in everyone’s interest.
Q: There has been talk about a new Jewish Temple built around the Mosque sight. Do you believe Jerusalem can operate as a religious capitol for both Judaism and Islam?
NB: No one seriously talks about building the Temple instead of the Mosque, this is crazy talk. Jerusalem is already the religious capitol of all the Holy places. They are open to anyone who wishes to visit them.
SS: If this process works, it would seem to me that religious sights, whether the Dome of the Rock, the Wailing Wall, or the Church of Nativity, all ought to be open to everybody. They ought to be internationally open for visitors. Unfortunately, that was not the case from 1948 to 1967. It’s my understanding that the Jordanian government refused to let, particularly orthodox Jews, visit the Western Wall of the Temple. Religious sights threaten nobody. And anyone who wants to visit a religious sight ought to be able to do that without hindrance from the government.