The collapse of the Communist Soviet Union and Eastern Europe created an uncertain future for many countries of the world, particularly those of the Third World.
Naturally, the eventual demise of Soviet influence in international affairs reinforced "American primacy" in world affairs and strengthened American power in almost all parts of the world. Conflict situations, whether bilateral or multilateral, awaited American input and resolution.1 The Arab-Israeli conflict was one such conflict that seemed to beg for American leadership and guidance in the search for diplomatic solutions.
Historically, while supporting the establishment of Israel in 1948, the Soviet Union had, by and large, upheld a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that would satisfy Palestinian minimal aspirations and Israeli security concerns. In 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev stated that the Palestinian people had the "right to self-determination" in the same measure as it was ensured for "the people of Israel."2 Nonetheless, given the enormity of changes in the wake of the unraveling of the Soviet Bloc in the 1980s, the former Communist power became increasingly less interested "in competing with the Americans" in areas related to the Middle East.3 Moscow's shift in its Middle East policy became more obvious during the second Gulf War (1991), when it indirectly backed the U.s.-led intervention in the Gulf. By doing so, Moscow was seemingly abandoning its responsibilities as a superpower in a vital region of the world.
The dissipation of Soviet power impacted negatively upon the Arabs as a party in the conflict with Israel. Those states in the Middle East that were termed "radical" suffered the loss of an ally and an important supplier of arms. Syria and the PLO, particularly, began to realize that a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict would require U.S. resolve and leadership.4 The negative impact was also felt in Israeli-American relations. For example, Israel was no longer needed as a bulwark against Soviet influence in the Middle East. Although America kept its special relations with Israel, the Jewish state was no longer needed - at least not as much as before - to safeguard U.S. interests in the region. In fact, during the 1991 Gulf War, the interest in oil and the Gulf took precedence over Israel's value as a strategic ally.
Consistent with these changes in international and regional affairs that began taking place since the late 19805, the George Bush Administration began to realize that the continuation of the conflict between Israel and the Arabs was becoming rather senseless, benefiting neither the United States nor its Western allies. A solution to the conflict and the maintaining of political stability in the Gulf were, thus, considered of vital importance. For their part, the Arab states and the PLO chose to accept the new rules of the game and agreed to satisfy most, if not all, of the Israeli and U.S. conditions for participating in negotiations.
One problem that is presently confronting the peace process is rooted in the absence of the "principle of continuity" that predicates that a change in government does not lead to a reinterpretation of that which has already been agreed upon between the negotiating parties.5 Unfortunately, the policies of the U.S. and the Likud government concerning peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors are largely inconsistent with this principle of continuity, which is adhered to much more consistently in the Gulf region, with threats of attack against Iraq, in order to protect U.S. fundamental interests in that region and to maintain stability there. And despite a change in the U.S. administration since the 1991 Gulf War, the American commitment to enforcing U.N. resolutions against Iraq remains consistent with its own national interests. This was clearly seen in the U.s.-Iraqi stand-off at the beginning of 1998 and the renewed threat of military operation there. Thus, what is often referred to as a "double-standard" approach of U.S. foreign policy raises questions about the fate of the current partial peace that has, so far, failed to satisfy the interests of Arabs and Jews.

The War in the Gulf (1991)

Although no single Arab country condoned the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, they were divided on how to deal with the crisis. Initially, most Arab states favored a diplomatic solution to the conflict. In time, however, countries like Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates pressed for a military solution to the problem: Saudi Arabia asked the United States for military protection against Iraq, and Morocco, Egypt and Syria agreed to participate in the U.s.-led multinational force.6 At the end, perhaps because of American pressure, many more Arab states supported the military option, and affirmed their commitment to the United Nations resolutions pertaining to the problem. At any rate, division within Arab ranks ultimately worked to the advantage of Israel and the U.S. Ironically, this disunity was to pave the way for peace and prepared the parties involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict for a major change in their very hostile relations. The 1991 Madrid Conference and subsequent peace agreements were in no small way the stepchild of this Arab tragedy.
American policy in the Gulf was consistent with an approach of Realpolitik. The U.S. had manipulated the U.N. for its own benefit and stressed its own national interests at the expense of other moral and ethical considerations. This approach was embarrassing to those Arab leaders who supported the Western military plans in the Gulf and increased the resentment of the Arab people against the politics of the West. Indeed, Palestinians and Arab masses generally expressed displeasure with Western double standards.
While the United States and its Western allies showed no circumspection or hesitation in enforcing U.N, resolutions against Arab Iraq, they made no similar attempts in the case of Israel and did not press it to implement U.N. resolutions, including a number dealing with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip? No doubt, American sponsorship of the Madrid Conference and subsequent negotiations had a lot to do with its image problem in the Arab world. Conditions were deemed ripe for a systematic solution to the Middle East conflict.

The 'Peace Process'

President Bush and U.S. Secretary of State James Baker responded to the post-Gulf War environment by proposing new schemes for peace in the Middle East. While most of the Arab states were supportive of the American efforts, Israeli Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir insisted on retaining the occupied territories. The Bush Administration urged Shamir to lay aside "the unrealistic vision of greater Israel and accept a solution with the Palestinians that would guarantee Israel's security and fulfill minimum Palestinian political claims."8 Although a significant gap between Israeli and Arab positions continued to exist even in the post-Gulf War era, James Baker managed to narrow these differences and facilitate suitable conditions for negotiations.
In the final preparation for negotiations, Baker met with several representatives from the occupied territories and gave them assurances concerning American intentions.9 These representatives were willing to participate in the Madrid Conference and the Washington negotiations only after a behind-the-scenes approval by the PLO of the composition of the delegation that would go to those meetings. At the time, most Palestinians were hopeful that negotiations would bring them concrete results, following George Bush's speech on March 16, 1991, in which he stated that "a comprehensive peace must be grounded in U.N. Security Council resolutions 242, 338," and in which he affirmed the "principle of territory for peace." For George Bush, this principle meant providing for "Israel's security and recognition," and at the same time for "legitimate Palestinian political rights."10 These rights were generally understood by the Palestinians to include their claim to sovereignty and statehood in the West Bank and Gaza.
The PLO and the Palestinians eventually began to realize that peace cannot be achieved without justice, and that the results of the Madrid Conference and the Washington negotiations fell short of the requirements. For instance, the Palestinian "right to self-determination and statehood" was never recognized as a basis for negotiations, nor was the PLO considered as "the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people." 11 In fact, the Palestinian role in the negotiations was largely confined to discussions regarding the issue of interim self-government for the West Bank and Gaza. Although U.N. Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 were regarded by the Americans as the foundation of the Madrid negotiations, their implementation was postponed until the end of a five-year period. On the other hand, the United States did apply the more restrictive rules of Camp David to the Madrid and Washington deliberations, according to which the Palestinian representation was to take place only as part of a Palestinian-Jordanian delegation.
Although traditionally the PLO had always preferred an international conference under the auspices of the United Nations, in Madrid it had no choice but to bow to the idea of a conference sponsored by the two superpowers. The PLO was also seen by observers as complying with the Camp David formula, which it had long resisted,12 as it required the Palestinians to give up the "right to publicly acknowledge the PLO as their only legitimate representative" at the negotiations.
At any rate, from the Madrid Conference until September 1993, the Palestinian delegation's strategy was focused on pressing Israel and the United States into recognizing Palestinian claims to statehood. Palestinians were allowed to conduct independent negotiations with Israel in the Washington meetings, and in so doing, they achieved international and Israeli recognition "as full and equal partners in the peace talks."13 The accession to power of Israel's Labor party after the 1992 elections had indeed created a friendlier environment for the process of peaceful negotiations. In addition to recognizing each other in 1993, Israel and the PLO agreed to resolving their differences and working together in building a lasting peace. This last principle was abandoned after the Likud success in the 1996 elections. The new Likud government, led by Binyamin Netanyahu, has since been intent on revising what had already been achieved with its predecessor - the Labor government.
Now, a territorial stalemate, the continuation of the settlement policy in the occupied territories, the radicalization of the right and religious fundamentalism pose major threats to the already fragile peace process. Consequently, people in the occupied territories and supporters of peace in Israel feel generally skeptical about Netanyahu's readiness to fulfill Israel's commitment to the agreements already agreed upon with the Palestinians. The United States, its other concerns notwithstanding, must take a firm stand and adopt a more even-handed policy in dealing with the parties involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict. As things stand, peace looks further away than ever. For it to succeed, the peace process must go beyond the current conditions of a local autonomy plan for the Palestinians. No change can be expected as long as the Israeli government remains uncommitted to existing agreements and the United States does not assume its sponsorship role seriously and impartially.


1. Samuel Huntington, "Why International Primacy Matters," in Sean M. Lynn-Jones and Steven E. Miller (eds.), The Cold War and After: Prospects for Peace (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1993), p. 321.
2. Quoted in Robert Freedman, Moscow and the Middle East: Soviet Policy since the Invasion of Afghanistan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 293.
3. Galia Golan, Soviet Politics in the Middle East: From World War II to Gorbachev (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 277.
4. Richard Cottam, "U.S. Policy in the Middle East," in Hooshang Amirahmadi (ed.), The United States and the Middle East: A Search for New Perspectives (NY: State University of New York Press, 1993), p. 61.
5. A. Shein, 'Trying to Solve the Middle East Crisis," International Affairs, Vol. 43, No.5, 1997, p. 147.
6. Walid Khalidi, "The Gulf Crisis: Origins and Consequences," Journal of Palestine Studies (Winter 1991), p. 14.
7. Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, "The Politics of Linkage: The Arab-Israeli Conflict in the Gulf War," in Phyllis Bennis and Michel Moushabeck (eds.), Beyond the Storm: A Gulf Crisis Reader (NY: Olive Branch Press, 1991), p. 190.
8. "The Middle East: Tug of War," Newsweek Focus (April 17, 1989), p. 41.
9. For the full text of James Baker's "Letter of Assurances to the Palestinians," see Quandt, Peace Process, pp. 497-501.
10. Excerpts from "Speech by President George Bush, March 6, 1991," can be found in Quandt, Peace Process, pp. 495-496.
11. Camille Mansour, The Palestinian-Israeli Peace Negotiations: An Overview and Assessment (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1993), p. vii.
12. Muhammad Muslih, "The Shift in Palestinian Thinking," Current History 561 (January 1992), p. 27.
13. Victor Cygielman, "Historic Days in Madrid," New Outlook, November /December 1991, p. 5.