Chou-en-Iai, China's prime minister for decades, was extremely worried by the-then widely acclaimed detente of the late sixties/early seventies. He feared that American-Soviet collusion might result in a world condominium. In his own inimitable way, he warned: "Detente is like a bed, but where each makes a different dream." Today the same could be said of the Middle East peace process. Everybody is in favor of peace, of course. Majorities in each constituency support the peace process, but, like in Chou-en-lai's detente, each player has a different finality in mind, where visions are competing and incompatible and the dreams of one side can be a nightmare for others.
When Labor was still in power in Israel, I often repeated that it seemed to me that in this peace process, we, the Palestinians, were interested in peace but that the Israeli side seemed more interested in the process itself. Today, with Binyamin Netanyahu and the Likud presiding over an extreme right-wing coalition, I believe that we neither have peace nor do we have a process anymore.


In any negotiation, the nature of the forum, and the nature and the number of the participants, determine the possible outcome. Instead of an "International Conference" under UN auspices, we all were invited to a "Peace Conference" with the USA and the rapidly vanishing USSR as co-sponsors. The UN was expected to be and to remain a silent observer. The European Community that hoped - and the Arabs supported that aspiration - to be a co-sponsor with a decisive role, was relegated to a financial-economic one on the margin of the geo-strategic sphere, jealously kept as the domain of the Americans.
As we all remember, the Palestinians were offered to be half a delegation, representing half the people and seeking half a solution. On the pretext that the Israeli government would not negotiate with the PLO and that it was also opposed to the emergence of a Palestinian state, the Palestinians were offered to sit in a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. The Palestinian participants were supposed to be recruited from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip only, but no Jerusalem residents or diaspora Palestinians or PLO officials could be admitted to the negotiating room. The fact that it was the PLO leadership which selected the Palestinian negotiators and gave them legitimacy and instructions made former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban say: "Whether he likes it or not, Shamir is negotiating with the PLO, but he prefers to adopt the ostrich posture which is neither a comfortable nor an elegant posture." By seeking half a solution, I mean that, unlike the other tracks, we were expected to negotiate a five-year interim transitional period of Palestinian self-government on the road to final status. The more difficult issues - Jerusalem, the refugees, the settlements, boundaries and sovereignty - were deferred to a second phase, starting no later than the beginning of the third year.
The Palestinian attitude was then unreasonably reasonable because peace, and peace now, corresponds to our enlightened national interest. Any loss of time is extremely detrimental to us. We are the ones whose land is being confiscated, whose water is being plundered, whose individuals are being deported, whose houses are being demolished, whose trees are being uprooted, whose universities and schools are being closed, whose economy is being strangulated. Yet we went to Madrid with great expectations, in spite of all the flawed and humiliating conditions, since we were led to believe that this was the only game in town. From March to October 1991, we carried all the burden of momentum, all the burden of flexibility, because we wanted to give peace a chance, hoping that Madrid would trigger a snowball process.
On the other hand, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir had to be dragged reluctantly and grudgingly to the negotiating table. He had difficulties understanding and adhering to the principles of "land for peace," the basis and foundation of the entire exercise, and his political "generosity" and "magnanimity" never went beyond offering "peace for peace" and the perpetuation of the territorial status quo. In Madrid he looked as though he had been ambushed and trapped. He sounded anachronistic and out of place. Months later, in June 1992, Madrid resulted in the electoral Waterloo for Shamir who, back in opposition, admitted that he had intended to play delaying tactics at the negotiating table for 10 years, while accelerating settlement-building and accomplished facts on the ground creating, thus, an irreversible situation that even the peace process would not overcome.

After Madrid

From Madrid, the bilateral talks moved to Washington and the multilateral talks (arms control, economic development and integration, water, environment and refugees) literally to the four comers of the world. In Washington, resorting to "corridor diplomacy," the Palestinian team succeeded in imposing an Israeli recognition of the gradual decoupling of the Jordanian and Palestinian tracks while the composition of the different layers of the Palestinian team - PLO coordinators, diaspora advisors, Jerusalem spokespersons - reflected more and more the different categories of Palestinians that Israel wanted to see excluded.
But in Washington, the talks quickly stagnated and the change of Israeli government, from Likud to Labor, did nothing to reinvigorate them. Israel amused itself, but not the others, by sometimes giving the semblance of an impression that it might shift the emphasis from the Palestinian to the Syrian track.
In the meantime, the level of support among public opinion started eroding seriously. In Palestine, on their return from Madrid, the Palestinian team were welcomed by massive and spontaneous demonstrations where a new subversive weapon - the olive branch - was brandished proudly. But, by now, disenchantment and skepticism prevailed and radicalism was again on the rise.
It was at this juncture that a secret channel was opened in Oslo by the Israeli government and the PLO and when, in August 1993, the breakthrough was announced, it took almost everybody by surprise, including the official negotiators in Washington.
The Declaration of Principles (DOP) agreed upon in Oslo was signed on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993, with the world as witness. Even the reluctant hand extended by Yitzhak Rabin, after an encouraging nod from Bill Clinton, to Yasser Arafat's enthusiastic availability did not ruin the mood or alter the general perception that history was in the making. It must be said here that Israel was finally negotiating with the Palestinian National Movement as such, representing the totality of the people as an indivisible unit.
Yet the magic, the charm were of short duration. Again at the negotiating table in Taba, the Palestinians were stunned to discover that Israel intended to keep 40 percent of the Gaza Strip during the interim period. After laborious negotiations, only 28 percent remained under Israel's exclusive control and those were 28 percent too many, knowing the Palestinian need for every single square inch in overcrowded Gaza. Also, the Israelis interpreted the "Jericho area" as far beneath Palestinian expectations. Again, "constructive ambiguities" in diplomacy proved to be a dangerous recipe.
Israel should be aware that redeployment in Gaza was a Palestinian gift to Israel, and not the other way round, bearing in mind how unmanageable Gaza was for the occupying authorities. For the Palestinians, the test of Oslo and its credibility resided in further redeployment in the West Bank. If the process became static, the very pillars of its legitimacy would be seriously shaken. Yet Rabin was in no hurry, repeating that "dates are not sacred" even though, in the often unsatisfactory Oslo agreement, the only precise area was the calendar of events. I believed and often repeated then that "a territory that was occupied in 1967 in less than six days, could also be evacuated in less than six days so that Mr. Rabin could rest on the seventh."
The assassination of Rabin by a fanatic right-winger sent shock waves through Israeli society. Shimon Peres, his successor, decided to move fast towards redeployment in the urban centers of the West Bank so that the Palestinians could go ahead with their presidential and legislative elections. Yasser Arafat had, in the meantime, obtained from the Islamic tendencies several months of an unproclaimed cease-fire. During this period, it was the Israeli authorities and their secret services who were provoking the Islamists and not the Islamists provoking Israel. Dr. Fathi Shikaki, leader of the Islamic Jihad, was assassinated in Malta in October 1995 and Yehya Ayyash was blown up by telephone in Gaza early in January 1996, in Palestinian territory and in the midst of an election campaign.
Retaliation was to be predicted and, as expected, came in March 1996 both in West Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv. Israel immediately resorted to its customary policy of closures and collective punishment that totally crippled Palestinian society and suffocated Palestinian economy. The date of the Israeli elections having been already advanced to May 1996, Peres decided to out-Likud the Likud in his campaign message to the extent that observers commented that "with a dove like that who needs hawks, with a left like that who needs a right?" He even waged an unnecessary war on Lebanon and then succeeded in failing again in the Knesset elections.

Moment of Truth

Today, there is a tendency to view the Labor-led era with nostalgia. In a way, this is simply the prolongation of the undeserved praise and positive media coverage Labor usually received, whether right or wrong. History will recall that when Netanyahu assumed power, the Palestinian side already had 34 legitimate grievances on agreed-upon issues that were left unimplemented during the interim period: freedom of movement for people and goods, the management of the passages to Jordan and Egypt, and through them to our Arab hinterland; the safe passage - the corridor - linking the Gaza Strip to the West Bank; the port; the airport; and the freeze on settlement building. But now Netanyahu, carried away by his victory, his ideological inclinations, his demagogic promises and a successful first trip to Washington, where senators and congressmen shamelessly gave him several standing ovations, simply declared war on the peace process which he views as the continuation of war but by other means. The battle for Jerusalem was immediately waged, first with the opening of a controversial tunnel, and then by the bulldozers in Jabal Abu Ghneirn (liar liama). The mounting pressures, local and international, resulting from the "tunnel crisis" forced Netanyahu to implement an 80-percent redeployment in Hebron city. This was applauded, maybe too enthusiastically as an indication that the pragmatic Netanyahu was prevailing on his more ideological nature. For the first time, the Likud was negotiating with the PLO and the Likud was seen withdrawing within the West Bank. That victory was short-lived since he immediately rewarded or compensated his indispensable extreme right-wing coalition partners with bulldozers in Jabal Abu Ghneim. The "settlement" there would be innocently repackaged as a "suburb." A week earlier, few Israelis had ever heard of ''Har Homa." Now, abandoning the site became tantamount to "national suicide."
I personally believe that, had Labor been in power, we would also have had a deadlocked situation. We have now finally reached the moment of truth: final-status issues, if the parties are left to themselves, are simply unbridgeable.
In spite of all the diplomatic agitation, the local parties are left to themselves. And the overwhelming military superiority Israel enjoys makes impossible an acceptable compromise. In the absence of decisive external input by third parties, this process is doomed to failure. American decision¬makers, as well as other Western capitals, had better realize soon that, unlike the fifties, the sixties and the seventies, when Israel marketed itself as a bastion against militant Arab nationalism, Israeli intransigence today defies, destabilizes and delegitimizes a profoundly pro-Western Arab regional state-system. In this context, is Israel a strategic asset or a liability?

This article is based on a lecture delivered at Harvard University, April 1997.