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
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
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
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
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
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.
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),
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.