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Lions in Winter
Three men, old enemies all, realize that they must soon compromise on matters they have always held sacred if any is to leave his mark on the region

by Ze'ev Schiff and Ehud Ya'ari
translated by Ina Friedman

A small army of diplomats -- some sixty people, not including spokesmen, advisers, and aides -- is engaged in the Middle East peace negotiations. But whether or not those negotiations will end the long and brutal Israeli-Arab conflict essentially rests in the hands of just three people: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, and Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (or, as he is currently called by many Palestinians, President of the State of Palestine) Yasser Arafat. All three are longtime foes. All three sense that their peoples cannot bear another war or pay the price of victory, to say nothing of the cost of defeat. All three are at the end of their political careers and know that they have little time left to make an indelible mark not just on the history of the Middle East but, more to the point, on its future.

Rabin, who turns seventy-one this year and is a chain smoker but an avid tennis player, is reportedly in good physical, but uncertain political, health. Assad, sixty-four, has long suffered from a mild form of diabetes, which is now compounded by arteriosclerosis. Though neither disease seems to impair his ability to function, his doctors have ordered him to cut back on his work schedule. Arafat, sixty-three, recently underwent brain surgery and has yet to stabilize fully. (His erratic behavior continues to alarm his closest aides, who have not recovered from his sudden marriage, in November of 1991, to a Christian woman thirty-four years his junior.)
  • Return to Flashback: "Israel at Fifty."

  • Return to Flashback: "The State of Israel."

  • See Books & Authors: "A Century of Zionism."

  • See Flashback: "The Middle East -- Peace in Jeopardy?"

  • The three men are well acquainted with one another from intelligence reports. Each has unsettled scores with the other two. Assad, who was the commander of Syria's air force and Defense Minister in 1967, when Rabin was chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, still rankles at the taunts of his enemies that he turned the Golan Heights over to Rabin's soldiers. Rabin was a close friend and confidant of Golda Meir, whose government Assad, as Syria's President, took by surprise on Yom Kippur in 1973. Arafat was jailed by the Syrians in 1966 and hunted by them in Lebanon in 1983. For a decade or so he and Assad were not even on speaking terms, and a wall of enmity still divides them. Arafat also managed a narrow, dead-of-night escape from Israeli security forces in the West Bank at the end of 1967, the year of Rabin's great victory. Arafat transformed that triumph into the seeds of the Palestinian "armed revolution" and changed the PLO from a despised terrorist organization into a political body internationally recognized as the sole representative of the Palestinians.

    Rabin has never exchanged a single word with either of the other two. He would like to meet with Assad but has so far been turned down flat. Arafat has tried unsuccessfully to meet with Rabin. All three, however, have recently made certain overtures to one another. Assad has patched up his quarrel with Arafat -- at least for appearance' sake -- and has declared his readiness to make a "peace of the brave" with Israel. Arafat has recognized Israel's existence and has put the armed struggle pretty much on hold. Rabin has made the achievement of a peace settlement a national priority, agreeing to consider both a partial withdrawal from the Golan Heights and broad autonomy for the Palestinians. Each of the three can of course trip the others up. But alongside their residual antagonism is a growing sense of dependence on one another and a desire to reach at least tacit understandings, especially since each faces domestic opposition and needs the others to combat it.

    For Rabin and Arafat, the negotiations concern far more than territory; the results could be a matter of life and death for their small, vulnerable populations. Rabin fears that by withdrawing from occupied territory he might tempt the Arabs to mount a sudden attack that would wipe out the State of Israel. Arafat fears that missing the present opportunity to negotiate with Israel would put paid to the dream of an independent political entity for the Palestinians and leave them forever dependent upon others. He also knows that it is entirely possible that the PLO will be pressed far onto the sidelines if free elections are held in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In any case, it is clear to Arafat that the organization he has built and led for so many years must undergo far-reaching changes or risk being destroyed by a political settlement. Assad has the least to lose from the outcome of the peace process. Topping his agenda is, naturally, the return of the Golan Heights and the removal of the Israeli army from within striking distance of his capital. But no less important to him are the struggle for hegemony over the Middle East, which the negotiations represent, and his own status as the leader of the Arab world.

    None of these calculations and considerations is particularly novel. What has brought these players to the bargaining table is a change in perception about where they stand, in light of a number of signal international and regional events. After some thirty years of trying to destroy Israel by military means, Arafat finally grasped that his goal was no more than a pipe dream. The uprising in the occupied territories -- which was a spontaneous outburst, not a strategy sired by the PLO -- earned the Palestinians broad support for their desire to rid themselves of Israeli control and persuaded many Israelis that their rule of another people must end. That achievement largely went up in smoke when Arafat allied himself with Saddam Hussein after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the Palestinians cheered from their rooftops each time Iraq rained missiles down on Israel. Even worse than fueling Israelis' mistrust of their closest neighbors, such behavior antagonized the PLO's chief financial backers, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf oil states.

    Given their sagging fortunes, the Palestinians were glad of the opportunity to hold direct talks with Israel. To get them invited to the bargaining table, however, Arafat had to give considerable ground. He was forced to agree that his representatives to the talks would come from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip only -- not from Tunis or from East Jerusalem, which the Israelis consider sovereign territory. He also had to settle for an invisible role in the peace process, and not just for the duration of the November, 1991, Madrid Conference. Above all, he had to concede that the negotiations would initially be over self-rule for the Palestinians in the occupied territories, not the creation of a Palestinian state.

    The clock is ticking faster for Arafat than for the other two players -- and well he knows it. The immigration during the past several years of some 400,000 Soviet Jews to Israel shook the Palestinians' self-confidence and shattered the belief, which Arafat had vaunted so brashly, that it was enough for them to sit by and wait till the Israelis were defeated by demography. Too late Arafat saw that his political languor during the two-year tenure of Yitzhak Shamir's right-wing government had helped to create additional Israeli "facts on the ground" in the territories: dozens of new settlements and the rise of the Jewish population there to more than 100,000. The settlers are unlikely to pull up stakes, regardless of what the Palestinians might wish.

    Thus the first item on Arafat's agenda is to get serious negotiations going with the Israelis as quickly as possible. Yet it has often proved difficult for him to move as fast as he would like. If he focuses the talks on his far-reaching objectives rather than on the nature of the interim arrangements, or provokes the Israelis by sanctioning further acts of terror, he will lose more time. He must also take into account that Rabin's left-leaning coalition, one of whose parties is actually amenable to the establishment of a Palestinian state, is already showing signs of instability. It is not inconceivable that one or more right-wing parties could be wooed in to shore it up -- at the price of a tougher Israeli bargaining stance.

    The problem is that Arafat has been unable to forge a uniform position among the constituent groups of the PLO, leaving his negotiators in a state of near paralysis. He fears that making any concession to Israel -- which is inevitable in the course of negotiations -- will lead to a bloodbath among rival factions. He also knows that he will be courting trouble if he tries to strike a bargain with the Israelis without first getting Assad's approval. Arafat wants Assad to be involved in the political process, but not to the point where he has veto power over Arafat's decisions. Arafat is also afraid that Assad may cut a quick deal with Rabin, leaving the Palestinians behind.

    Like Arafat, Yitzhak Shamir wholeheartedly believed that time was on his side -- a feeling that was enhanced by the allies' drubbing of Iraq, the influx of Soviet Jews, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. All that needed to be done, the conventional wisdom had it, was to create more and more "facts on the ground," draw out the negotiations with the Palestinians, and finally accord them, at most, a form of autonomy patterned after the homelands created for blacks in South Africa.

    Rabin does not dispute that the immediate threat to Israel was reduced by the defeat of Iraq. But rather than concluding that time is working in Israel's favor, he sees the Middle East as enjoying a kind of breather while an arms buildup goes on in the background. He also sees little hope of slowing the arms race, which has intensified considerably since the Gulf War, and is particularly skeptical that efforts to produce nuclear and other nonconventional weapons in the region can be halted. If the United Nations fails to keep Iraq from resuming its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs, Iran will certainly step up its efforts to produce a nuclear arsenal; the going assessment is that in any case Iran has already begun building one. At the same time, the introduction of ballistic missiles has changed perceptions of geopolitics in the Middle East. Countries such as Iran, Pakistan, and other Muslim republics, which Jerusalem once regarded as distant states, are or will be capable of direct involvement in a military confrontation with Israel, which still lacks the means to cope with this challenge. The odds of a nuclear confrontation have only risen as a result. Thus Rabin has concluded that Israel must shield itself behind a wall of peace agreements.

    The changes in Assad's view were likewise prompted mainly by developments outside his country. Assad read his situation more realistically and arrived at more sober conclusions than did Saddam Hussein. The crumbling Soviet economy left Syria deprived of its strategic partner well before the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. Assad suddenly found that he no longer had a "strategic umbrella" to protect him from defeat at Israel's hands. Also blocked was the possibility of a quick and large-scale re-armament should Syria's arsenals be depleted by a war. Not only was there but one power left in the world, but it happened to be Israel's friend, and it would do everything possible to prevent another conflagration in the Middle East.

    Assad further understood that with no hope of reviving the so-called eastern front against Israel, the Arab military option would have to be shelved for the present -- and evidently well into the future. Despite his differences with Saddam Hussein, he had always regarded Iraq as an ally that could be relied upon in any clash with Israel. That premise was cast into doubt both by Syria's "perfidy" in joining the anti-Iraq coalition and by Iraq's punishing defeat in the Gulf War. Egypt had long been ruled out as a likely partner in a showdown with Israel, and Jordan could not be taken for granted. Unable to reach genuine Strategic parity" with Israel, as his slogan went, Assad found that he would have to concentrate on maintaining at least a deterrent to minimize the chances that Israel would exploit its advantage and attack.

    In the twelve years between the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and the Gulf War, the notion of reconciliation with Israel gradually gained legitimacy in the Arab world, leading Assad to conclude that rather than shrinking from direct talks with .the "Zionist interlopers," he might be better off pursuing them -- on his own terms. Besides providing whatever immediate advantages he could squeeze or wheedle out of the Israelis, such talks could serve as Syria's way out of international isolation and onto a path of badly needed economic revival.

    It is these points of contact between the three leaders that have finally made negotiations possible. But each of the three is restricted by a number of lines that he will have great difficulty crossing. Rabin is truly prepared to make territorial compromises with both the Syrians and the Palestinians, though he insists that the Palestinians must go through a trial period of self-rule before any boundaries are drawn in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. He is even prepared to share control of state lands and water sources with the Palestinian administrative council during that period, and also responsibility for internal security in the territories -- to the degree that the proposed Palestinian police force proves willing and able to handle this difficult and sensitive challenge.

    There are two points, however, on which Rabin is unlikely to yield a single inch. The first is the PLO's demand that Israel recognize the Palestinian "right to return." Arafat says that this "right" would essentially translate into the return of a specific number of refugees, to be negotiated by the two sides. A broad consensus in Israel holds that any such concession would create a new demographic problem right away and guarantee the outbreak of a Yugoslavia-style ethnic conflict at some time in the future. The most Rabin may allow is that some of the refugees living in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, or elsewhere in the Arab world (and beyond) will be pemmitted to settle within the bounds of the Palestinian entity established as part of the final settlement.

    The other matter on which Rabin can be expected to be adamant, at least for the duration of the interim period, is that the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip remain exclusively under Israel's control. These settlements -- or rather their inhabitants -- are a collective time bomb, especially since many of the ultra-nationalist settlers have proclaimed their determination to foil the constitution of Palestinian autonomy at all costs. Thus contending with the settlers will be one of the more difficult tests for Rabin and a self-governing Palestinian authority alike.

    On two further points Rabin will be flexible only if others make concessions first. He will be unwilling to commit himself to any withdrawal from the Golan Heights before Assad reveals precisely the nature of the peace he is offering in retum. It is here, more than on any other front, that the old chestnut "a piece of land for a piece of peace" is likely to apply. If Assad is not talking about a "full peace," including the exchange of ambassadors, open borders, and commercial relations, Rabin will not consider a full withdrawal from the Golan. If what Assad has in mind boils down to an end to belligerency, Rabin will be even less disposed to relinquish territory. Still, unpromising as the latter possibility may sound, it would not necessarily spell an end to the peace process. On the contrary, it could open the way to an interim agreement with Syria that would obtain until a permanent solution had been reached with the Palestinians -- which would presumably render Assad more agreeable to an Egyptian-style peace with Israel.

    The other position from which Rabin will surely not budge pertains to arms control. Under no circumstances will he sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty -- especially after the unsatisfactory experience with the effectiveness of that treaty in Iraq -- before a comprehensive political settlement in the region is concluded and the threat from conventional and nonconventional weapons and ground forces is reduced. Rabin is prepared to have the Middle East declared a nuclear-free zone. But he will insist that all the details of such an arrangement be worked out in direct negotiations between Israel and the Arab states, rather than within broader international frameworks, and that the inspections provided for in any arms-control agreement are both rigorous and mutual, rather than being delegated to a third party. He will also demand that any settlement on arms control include all the Arab states and Iran; otherwise it will not be sufficiently secure.

    Assad has some uncrossable lines of his own, and they concern more than the territorial question. In the past he has come out strongly against any Arab country's reaching a separate peace with Israel. He led the campaign to punish Egypt for doing so and sabotaged the agreement signed between Israel and Lebanon in May of 1983. In practical terms this means that he will not now sign any treaty with Israel unless Rabin reaches settlements with all the other parties engaged in the peace talks and withdraws from all the territories captured in 1967. An Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights would not be enough. It might earn Israel an end to belligerency, but the conclusion of a bona fide peace treaty would be conditional upon coming to terms with Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians. And that, of course, would mean tackling the thorny problem of Jerusalem.

    Arafat finds himself in the toughest position of all, for he must maneuver within narrow limits set not only by the Israelis but also by his fellow Palestinians. From the very outset fundamentalist groups in the territories, such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad (which are not members of Arafat's PLO), made it known that they were against negotiating with Israel as a matter of principle. Even before the Madrid Conference they had been joined by veteran nationalist factions that do belong to the PLO, and do not oppose negotiations in principle, but regard the present talks as a sellout, because they are about the establishment of self-rule rather than of an independent state. Which of these two forces -- the PLO-appointed negotiators or the antinegotiation camp -- represents the majority view among the Palestinians is a matter of pure conjecture. The answer might emerge from a general election. But although Arafat is on record as backing an election in the territories, and it is on the agenda as a possible condition for establishing a self-governing authority, he knows that a vote might well be carried by the opposition -- and thus undo the whole elaborately constructed peace process.

    To help avert such a calamity, Arafat will strive to invest the autonomy regime with as many features of an independent political entity as he can possibly get Rabin to agree to. Yet he will also insist on a guarantee that the interim solution will not become a permanent one. Neither can he permit the present negotiations to end without establishing a tenable political status for the 147,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, including the various quarters of the Old City, and reaching an acceptable understanding on control of the mosques in the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount.

    The task facing these three men -- to end the century-long conflict between Arabs and Jews once and for all -- runs counter to their natural inclinations to maneuver, demur, and always leave themselves a means of escape. They will not be able to meet the historic challenge without placing every one of the region's problems on the table and compromising on them all. If they leave unfinished business behind them, wittingly or otherwise, they will only invite the conflict to persist. They must forge a settlement on which it will be unprofitable to renege in the future. In fact, they are better off avoiding a settlement than concluding a poor one. The lack of an agreement would leave open the possibility that other leaders can resolve their own differences in the future. A poor one would inevitably self-destruct, making the conflict seem an incurable disease.

    All three leaders will have to discard some sacred principles along the way. Rabin will have to acknowledge the imperative of solving the Palestinian refugee problem and accept that to tackle it he will have to deal with the PLO. Assad will have to admit that peace means a relationship of cooperation, not merely the absence of hostilities, Arafat will have to recognize that autonomy is not axiomatically the prelude to a Palestinian state, if only because the principle of reversibility will be invoked if the Palestinians violate their commitments. And just as Rabin will have to sacrifice strategically valuable territories to the cause of peace, so Arafat will have to sacrifice the right of return and Assad the dream of a "Greater Syria."

    To complete the picture and make their peace a stable one, the three will also have to agree on a plan for saving Jordan. The most viable proposal making the rounds is to include the Hashemite Kingdom in a confederation with Israel and the Palestinian entity. This framework would be built on a number of treaties and conventions and a constitution protecting Jordan's status against any change. In return, King Hussein would have to close his territory to any foreign Arab forces that could pose a threat to Israel, and to rehabilitate a portion of the Palestinian refugees on Jordanian soil. More than being just a necessary component of the peace, an understanding among Rabin, Assad, and Arafat on Jordan's place in a comprehensive settlement could be the axis on which the entire settlement revolves.

    Finally, Rabin, Assad, and Arafat must work out a treaty on arms control. Ideally, it would turn the region into a nuclear-free zone and reduce the size of the Syrian and Israeli armies. Failing that, however, the three men might arrive at a serviceable arrangement that would actually prove the strength of their new relationship. If Iran refused to join a treaty on nuclear disarmament, for example, it is entirely possible -- fantastic though it sounds today -- that Israel's nuclear umbrella would be extended to protect all its Arab neighbors.

    Copyright © 1993 by Ze'ev Schiff and Ehud Ya'ari, translated by Ina Friedman. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; January 1993; "Lions in Winter"; Volume 271, No. 1; pages 26-30.

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