President Jimmy Carter shaking hands with Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at the signing of the Egyptian–Israeli Peace Treaty on the grounds of the White House, 1979

Despite the hectic diplomatic activity of the last few months, peace in the Middle East seems as elusive today as ever. Sadat's dramatic visit to Jerusalem less than a year ago appears now as a semi-legendary event that must have happened eons ago, hardly related to the real texture of Israeli-Arab relations. Both sides have reverted to accusations and counter-accusations, questions and counter-questions, and appear to be bogged down in a procedural quagmire, with a harassed United States serving as a go-between, desperately trying to keep the flicker of hope from being extinguished.

In such a situation, each side naturally blames the other for the apparent failure, with world public opinion neatly divided according to its previous sympathies toward either of the contending parties. Dissension in the Arab world may be brought forward as explaining the constraints under which President Sadat finds it extremely difficult to maintain some of the flexibility and imagination connected with his visit to Jerusalem. Similarly, the victory of the ideologically more dogmatic Likud in the Israeli elections of 1977 over the more moderate and pragmatic Labor government can be cited as the main reason for the stalemate.

Yet it seems that the major stumbling block for peace in the Middle East at this moment is much more a question of approach than of substance: here the key issue is the methodology adopted by the United States in its quest to further an effective settlement in the Middle East. Because I think this approach is futile and counterproductive, some account of previous American approaches to the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict is necessary. For the major problem in my mind is not what is the final peace settlement in the Middle East going to look like, but how is it going to be achieved. Here I feel all sides are at present on the wrong track.


The strategies employed by the United States in trying to achieve a settlement in the Middle East were completely overhauled on the coming into power of President Carter in January 1977, and the rules of the game have not been the same since then. While this new strategy has not, until now, moved the Middle East perceptibly nearer to a settlement accepted by all sides concerned, it has created stasis in many aspects of Middle Eastern affairs, and significantly weakened the bargaining position of the United States and its clout in pushing the contending sides in the area toward eventual agreement. It could also be argued that this new strategy, with its occasional zigzags and tensions, has contributed to the general public unease in the United States and abroad about some aspects of Carter's Administration and its grip on policy decisions.

Prior to 1977, there had been a number of tacit assumptions underlying American attitudes toward the peacemaking process in the Middle East, which were particularly evident during 1973-1976. These involved a fine balancing of America's commitment to Israel with its obvious interests, economic, political and military, in the Arab world, culminating in the astute turnaround from Egypt's pro-Soviet stance to an orientation toward the United States and the latter's chief ally in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia. Underlying all these complex maneuvers was a basic assumption that could be discerned all through the tortuous ways and by-ways through which Henry Kissinger's Middle Eastern diplomacy passed: the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be solved through a comprehensive solution, but only through a series of piecemeal agreements.

This approach, popularly known as "step by step," grew out of a combination of causes and considerations and certainly was not decided upon by an a priori grand design. It grew out of the realization that previous attempts at comprehensive solutions - Jarring's mission, the Rogers Plan and others - must have failed because of structural, and not accidental, reasons; that the complexities of the Middle Eastern conflict may defy any attempt at an overall solution; and, given Henry Kissinger's historical vision, one cannot escape the conclusion that his understanding of the way post-1945 conflicts have been resolved must have had an impact on his thinking about the methodology to be followed in the Middle East crisis.

One of the major aspects of the post-1945 international scene has been the failure of all comprehensive attempts at grand solutions and the relative success of piecemeal approaches to concretely defined and specifically circumscribed limited issues. Contrary to the Wilsonian concepts that informed the grand vision of Versailles in 1919 and were (one has to admit) responsible for the collapse of the post-1918 new order in Europe, none of the post-1945 problems has been solved in a comprehensive way. Until this very day, no overall peace conference has been convened to formulate solutions to the loose ends left in the wake of the collapse of the Third Reich; the partition of Germany - an abomination by any standard - has not been done away with; the brutal partition of Berlin, epitomized by the obscenity of the Wall, has not been solved; and beyond Europe, Peking-Washington relations have not yet been fully normalized.

Yet the absence of overall solutions did not preclude successful attempts to decrease tension, to reach limited agreements and to enable all sides concerned to learn to live with half-way houses and sometimes absurd contradictions. While the unification of Germany is today as far away as ever, the two German states have learned to live with each other, to accept - after a tortuous exercise of restraint and some garbled semantics - each other's sovereignty; the Berlin Wall has not been taken down; and the partition of Berlin seems as permanent today as ever. Although no agreement on Berlin's status has been achieved - there appear to be at least five versions as to its status in international law - all sides concerned have learned, at a heavy price, to live with the ambiguities of a situation which is as abnormal and absurd as could be imagined. Yet the chances that World War III is going to break out because of someone's desperate attempt to cross the Wall from the German Democratic Republic are virtually nil.

Similarly, the United States and the People's Republic of China have not yet fully normalized their relations. But, by a process in which private and public diplomacy alternated over a period of time, they were able to move toward some sort of normalization of their relations, identifying issues of common interest while leaving open areas of contention (e.g., Taiwan). In all these cases, and in many more, the way toward agreement and normalization was a process, not an act. Peoples and governments learned to live with contradictions and slowly to grasp the other side's view of the conflict; it was such a process of learning and mutual accommodation, rather than dramatic conferences and verbal declarations, that helped to defuse issues and neutralize areas of conflict. And when declarations were made - the Helsinki agreements, the Shanghai statement - this came at the end, rather than at the beginning, of the process of accommodation. In most cases these declarations were nothing more than a formalization of previously accepted de facto arrangements; or, as in both declarations mentioned, the areas left open and unresolved cover as wide a spectrum of issues as those over which agreements have been reached.

Such considerations have informed Kissinger's approach to Middle Eastern problems: the historian in him might have added that the so-called Eastern Question has been on the international agenda since at least the mid-nineteenth century, and no one has ever successfully proposed a comprehensive solution to its multifaceted problems. Even the much more limited Arab-Israeli conflict has its own multiple aspects: it is, on the one hand, a conflict between two national movements - the Arab national movement and Zionism, i.e., the Jewish national movement; it is also a conflict about the legitimacy of Israel, and will have to decide the future of the Palestinian Arab community; it has religious overtones; because of Jerusalem, it involves the attention of hundreds of millions of people outside the Middle East; it has strategic, economic and geopolitical aspects reaching far beyond the interests and preoccupations of the contending parties; because of oil, it impinges upon the economies of practically all countries of the world; and because of the sympathy for Israel of the Jewish communities in the United States and elsewhere, it is linked to the internal politics of such disparate countries as the United States and the Soviet Union.

To imagine that such a conflict could be resolved through one conference or one single document, brilliantly drafted as it may be, appeared to the U.S. Administrations under both Nixon and Ford, as well as to the Israeli government under Yitzhak Rabin, as sheer naïveté. For this reason, both the United States and Israel chose, after the Yom Kippur War, the piecemeal option; and although this was initially opposed by the Soviet Union as well as by Egypt and Syria, eventually they went along with this approach when the dogged determination of Secretary of State Kissinger proved to the recalcitrant parties that despite their initial misgivings, there was something in this approach for them as well.

Analytically speaking, the two interim agreements between Israel and Egypt as well as the one with Syria may be said to have had a triple function: first, they did bring the contending parties to an agreement about a number of clearly defined issues, limited as they may be; second, by the very dynamics of negotiating the agreement, imminent warfare was avoided and the general temperature in the area was cooled; third, by creating a certain amount of trust between the parties through the process of negotiating the agreements and abiding by them, a certain relaxation in the deep-seated suspicions and mutual fears that have haunted the parties could be perceived, and thus a way for preparing further, and more far-reaching agreements, was made feasible. It is of some significance that President Sadat acknowledged, in his remarks to the Labor Alignment parliamentary party during their meeting in the Knesset, that the interim agreements signed between Egypt and the previous Labor governments in Israel made his visit to Jerusalem possible. Everyone would agree that it would have been inconceivable for Sadat to come to Jerusalem immediately after the Yom Kippur War, when both sides, each in its own way, were still traumatized by the war and its outcome. A process of slow de-escalation and incremental change in mutual perceptions was needed, and this was achieved through the interim agreements.

To this one should add that the Sinai II Agreement enabled Egypt to repatriate the refugees from the Canal Zone towns and to rehabilitate the whole area devastated by the wars of 1967 and 1973 and the war of attrition between the two major wars; to reopen the Suez Canal as a token of normalization and to reorder the national policy priorities of Egypt from foreign involvement to internal socioeconomic development. Similarly, even the much less relaxed Ba'ath regime in Syria, which originally balked at any agreement that would fall short of what it considered to be the only correct interpretation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, did find that the Disengagement Agreement with Israel enabled it to take a longer view of the issues involved, and, if Damascus' first agreement to extend the mandate of U.N. peacekeeping forces on the Golan Heights was accompanied by extreme tension and some blackmail, eventually the Syrians have come to live with these semiannual extensions as matters of routine. In retrospect, Syrian leaders now acknowledge that it was this agreement, with all its imperfections, which also gave them the free hand they eventually needed to intervene in the Lebanese civil war and gradually to establish their hegemony in Lebanon.

All sides involved in the piecemeal process were aware not only of its limitations - it had no automatic built-in mechanism for further agreements - but also of a number of dangers it posed to all parties concerned: to the Israelis, a "step-by-step" approach might appear dangerously close to "salami tactics": they were requested to give up, one by one, sizable chunks of the territory that had been under their control since 1967 without getting in return the kind of full peace and ultimate recognition and security they sought. The Arab countries, on the other hand, might see it as a sly Israeli approach, trying to hold on to these same chunks of territory for a lengthy period of time rather than withdraw from them forthwith as, according to the Arab interpretation, Resolution 242 had called for. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) clearly saw a "step-by-step" approach as bypassing the necessity of coming to grips with the Palestinian issue and ultimately leaving them out in the cold.

To the Americans, a piecemeal approach meant that rather than being able to get the Middle East issue off the President's desk through a dramatic breakthrough, it would continue to haunt American politics for some time to come, and the United States would have to foot the bill for some time for both sides - as indeed happened after Sinai II. That the Soviets were far from happy with this approach, which left them practically without any leverage in the area, is obvious (and had, of course, been one of the intended goals of the exercise as envisaged by Kissinger); it also left them with little alternative but, with gnashing teeth, to go along, since they never possessed a more viable and more acceptable avenue for practically resolving the conflict.

That the piecemeal method did not have built-in mechanisms for further development was pointed out in the Brookings Report,1 and this was perhaps one of the intellectually most persuasive criticisms of Kissinger's approach. This criticism, however, has not been altogether accurate: first, the very mechanism of abiding by agreements and carrying them out, as well as Arab pressure for further concessions from Israel and Israeli pressure for Arab clarifications about the nature of eventual peace, should not be underestimated as wholly ineffectual - the issue was still on the agenda and could not simply be left to linger there. Second, one tends to overlook the fact that it was the civil war in Lebanon, and the resultant split in the Arab world, which made it virtually impossible in 1975-76 to move ahead with further agreements. Given the dissension in the Arab world surrounding Lebanon and a situation that almost verged on a major intra-Arab war - with Syria and the PLO moving from a close alliance against the Lebanese Christians to a shooting war in which the Syrians and the Christians were fighting the PLO with Israel standing by - such a fluid situation certainly did not facilitate any further Israeli-Arab détente.

One should not forget, however, that it was precisely the Syrian-Israeli Disengagement Agreement which made it possible for both Syria and Israel to evolve, by implication, the much more relaxed atmosphere vis-à-vis each other and the mutual restraint which both sides showed during the Lebanese civil war (as well as during the Israeli operation in southern Lebanon in the spring of 1978). Anyone familiar with the signal language exchanged between Jerusalem and Damascus in 1975-76 could not fail to realize that an implicit infrastructure for future bargaining was being laid out during that period and that it would have been unthinkable not to relate it to the fact that interim agreements, for all their imperfections, did have in the Israeli-Syrian arena, just as in the Israeli-Egyptian arena, a beneficial impact on the quality of mutual perception and public rhetoric, resulting in a much more sophisticated reading of each side's signals by the other.


All these finely balanced structures, with their potential for further evolution and development, were abruptly upset with the new quest for a comprehensive solution adopted by the Carter Administration. As early as Secretary of State Cyrus Vance's first visit to the Middle East in February 1977, it became immediately clear that the new Administration not only had set its mind on an overall solution, but had also decided its substance. Both President Carter and Secretary Vance have identified three aspects of the conflict to be solved and, through "identifying" these areas, have also given formulas for this solution. Despite the various formulations, this "agenda" boiled down to: (a) the establishment of a full peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors; (b) Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 borders, with minor modifications; and (c) a solution to the Palestinian problem, involving - as President Carter has repeatedly said - a "homeland" for the Palestinians.

The very publication of such an "agenda," buttressed as it was by the authority of a newly elected and popular President, created expectations as well as fears among all concerned in the Middle East. It brought latent differences of opinion between the United States and Israel into the open and thus contributed to the further weakening of the Labor government in Israel just before the crucial elections of May 1977. It strengthened the PLO in its aspirations against the more moderate Palestinians working within the framework of the Jordanian polity - and it committed the United States to seeking a mechanism for the implementation of this "agenda."

Such a mechanism was found in the reconvening of the Geneva Peace Conference. Between 1974 and 1977, only the Soviet Union and the Secretary General of the United Nations viewed a full-fledged conference as an adequate mechanism for the settlement of the conflict. Since the first meeting of the Conference in December 1973, the United States has realized that nothing useful could be achieved from a formal reconvening of such a meeting, unless it were for the formal ratification of an agreement already achieved outside its format. The format itself was exactly the sort of formalistic structure that would precipitate confrontation, polarization and futility. Serious negotiations could never take place in such a context, and like U.N. Resolution 242 "Geneva" should be viewed as a convenient code word whose ambiguity enabled all sides to push their disparate aims under the umbrella of verbal unanimity.

But the Carter Administration took the view that the reconvening of the Geneva Peace Conference was a viable political objective and set itself the task of bringing it about during 1977. When it found itself bogged down toward the fall of 1977 in what it called "procedural problems," it only reaped the whirlwind it had sown earlier.

The attempt to reconvene the Geneva Peace Conference meant that before its very opening some very basic substantive decisions would have to be made. According to the ground rules worked out for the opening of the first Geneva Peace Conference in 1973, it was to be chaired by the United States and the Soviet Union, and its participants were Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria (the latter did not appear and was in a somewhat tortuous way represented by Egypt). Once the Arab countries called for the participation of the Palestinians in the conference and decided that the PLO was to be considered the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, the reconvening of the conference meant, under such conditions, one of two things: either the Palestinians, in the guise of the PLO, would participate or they would not. Even the proposal to include Palestinian representatives as part of a joint Arab delegation presupposes a prior commitment by all Arab front-line governments. If the PLO were invited to participate, this means that before the opening of the conference, Israel would be asked to make the major concession of recognition of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians. If, on the other hand, the conference met without Palestinian representation, it would again mean that prior to negotiations, the Arab countries would have given up their major demand of Israel - recognition of the PLO.

In either case, a major concession by one of the parties became the conditio sine qua non for the very convening of the conference. And, while it could be argued that during a process of complex and protracted negotiations Israel might be persuaded to shift its position on the Palestinian issue or, alternatively, the Arab countries might be persuaded to shift their position toward giving the Jordanians a mandate to speak on behalf of the Palestinians, it was sheer naïveté, to say the least, to imagine that either side (and for the purposes of this discussion it does not matter which) would make such a substantive concession before the start of negotiations. The parallel to this would have been to make a Washington-Peking rapprochement dependent upon a prior formal agreement between both sides about the status of Taiwan, or to make the very beginning of German Ostpolitik dependent upon prior agreement between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic on the status of Berlin.

The United States also found itself in a position in which it was taking the most moderate Arab governments - Jordan and Egypt - for granted, while wooing the extremist elements, like Syria and the PLO. In a piecemeal approach you naturally start from the more moderate elements; in a comprehensive approach you have to bring everyone to the negotiating table. Hence President Carter found himself courting President Assad of Syria to the consternation not only of Israel but of President Sadat as well. Carter's going out of his way to meet Assad in Geneva and the fulsome praise he lavished on that occasion on the Syrian President were, while tactically necessary given the comprehensive strategy adopted by the United States, a very deep humiliation for President Sadat, who saw himself virtually punished for his more moderate stance. Similarly, the convoluted way in which the United States tried, through its Saudi connection, to exact from the PLO some verbal statement that could be construed even most indirectly as an acceptance of Israel, unnerved not only the Israelis but also Jordan's King Hussein, who began to wonder whether his steadfast adherence to American policy in the Middle East would now be rewarded with U.S. support of the very organization that had tried to bring him down in September 1970.

To crown all this, the joint U.S.-U.S.S.R. communiqué of October 1, 1977 signaled to all concerned that the American attempt to go for an overall solution necessarily meant giving the Soviets a great say in the very process of peacemaking, rather than leaving them out of the process itself and making them underwrite the product - as Kissinger had so deftly done during 1973-75. The October 1 communiqué made the Israelis lose whatever trust they still had in the sound judgment of the American Administration, and it was a slap in the face to Sadat, who must have contemplated whether all his efforts - taken at considerable risk to himself and to his country - of rather brutally kicking the Soviets out of Egypt were not being nullified by the phantasmagoric approach of Washington, which was trying to bring back into an active role in the area the one global power that certainly had no interest in resolving the conflict.

Had it not been for the dramatic move initiated by Sadat that eventually brought him to Jerusalem, American Middle East policy would have been an utter shambles toward the end of 1977: the Geneva Peace Conference was not about to be reopened; the PLO had not been nudged toward a more conciliatory approach toward Israel; Syria had not been detached from its Soviet connection and had not given evidence of a more relaxed policy vis-à-vis Israel; and Israel itself was not assured that it could rely on some modicum of understanding in Washington.

It would be futile to suggest what another American administration, guided by the spirit of a piecemeal approach, would or could have done. But while the most cogent criticism voiced by the authors of the Brookings Report of the Kissinger approach has always been that his approach does not appear to move on to further agreements in the Middle East, it is now beyond any doubt that the inept handling of the issue by the Carter Administration in 1977 did not move the area one inch nearer to any agreement either. By trying to do too much, by attempting to reach a comprehensive solution that did not work in any other area of international conflict, the Carter Administration only exacerbated the situation. It penalized the moderates (Egypt, Jordan - and Israel); it put a premium on extremism and intransigence (Syria, the PLO) - and achieved very little in return for its pains.

In all fairness to the Carter Administration, one has to add that, ironical as it might seem, it had a strange ally in its approach: the newly formed Likud government in Israel under Menachem Begin. Observers abroad sometimes tend to overlook the fact that among the issues that have divided the Labor Party from Likud in the last decade has been the question of how to approach a peace settlement with the Arab countries. Labor - perhaps out of its experience in government and its moderate, somewhat world-weary outlook - always believed that the only feasible agreement would be a series of piecemeal agreements; therefore it followed the policy suggested by Kissinger after 1973 and signed three interim agreements, in each case trying to maximize the benefits to Israel. The Likud, on the other hand - perhaps out of inexperience in government, perhaps out of its generally formalistic and all-or-nothing general attitude to politics - always opposed piece-meal agreements and vowed that when it would come to power there would be no more interim agreements.

So when President Carter met Prime Minister Rabin in March 1977, he immediately found that they basically disagreed - because the Israeli leader strongly opposed President Carter's choosing the comprehensive approach; but when President Carter met the newly elected Prime Minister Menachem Begin, he surprisingly found in him a person who wholeheartedly agreed with him that the next step should be a full, ultimate and comprehensive peace agreement. Was it inexperience that gave both leaders the same outlook? Was it their deep religious feelings, which pointed toward a common belief in peace on earth, here and now? It would be idle to speculate - just as it would be idle to speculate on who fell into whose trap in July 1977: Was it Carter who mistook Begin's biblical quotations about peace in our time for political moderation, or was it Begin who mistook Carter's promise to bring peace to the Middle East for a commitment to accept the Likud's views of what the peace requirements of Israel would be? In any case, it was an exercise in futility.


It was this same comprehensiveness, the attempt to reach an ultimate and final agreement, that bedeviled the most dramatic event of the last year - Sadat's visit to Jerusalem. This is not the place to try and ascertain the reasons that prompted President Sadat to undertake what was by all tokens a very daring step. The joint American-Soviet communiqué of October 1, as well as his feeling that the United States was favoring Syria in its attempt to bring it into line for a comprehensive agreement - these and other elements must have had an impact upon his timing, if not upon the very reasoning itself which prompted him to undertake his journey. The Carter Administration, it should be recalled, after an initial shock and some hesitation welcomed and endorsed the initiative, and since then has been instrumental in maintaining its momentum.

Again, precisely because even these limited negotiations between Israel and Egypt had as their aim a full and final peace agreement, this attempt was destined to be futile. Granted that all sides have made serious mistakes in the process of negotiations: Sadat by not sufficiently covering his flanks and thus isolating himself in the Arab world; Israel by going on with the construction of new settlements during the process of negotiations itself; Sadat by inexplicably recalling his delegation from the Jerusalem meeting of the Political Committee. These, and probably other moves as well, could be cited as serious blunders, but what was basically wrong in the approach appears to be much more fundamental and refers again to the methodology rather than the substance of the negotiations.

Let us try to define - beyond the mistakes and blunders of both sides - what the basic issues of disagreement between Israel and Egypt turned out to be, first, on the bilateral level and, second, on the broader issue of the future of the Palestinian question.

On the bilateral issue regarding Sinai, it is sometimes forgotten that both sides agreed very early in the negotiation process on the disposition of about 95 percent of the territory of Sinai; the bone of contention does not amount to much more than five percent of Sinai's territory - the Rafiah-Yamit salient and the area of the two airfields, Etam and Etzion, that the Israelis have built in the Sinai area immediately adjacent to the old Egyptian-Israeli international boundary. Because of the comprehensive approach, the negotiations got stuck despite the broad basis of agreement.

In negotiating an agreement that would determine the final border between Israel and Egypt under conditions of full peace, it would be very difficult to imagine Egypt - the first Arab country to sign a full peace agreement with Israel - ceding formally to Israel Egyptian territory in Sinai. Even Israelis who would like to see this have to realize how difficult this would be for Egypt, and Moshe Dayan said as much in a Knesset debate. On the other hand, neither is it easy for Israel, under conditions where it might achieve peace with Egypt but could still be under attack from Syria and Iraq, to give up those airfields whose chief importance is that they are as far away from the northeastern front as possible and that within the old borders of Israel there can hardly be found adequate substitutes for them. Similarly, the Rafiah-Yamit salient, strategically aimed at creating a wedge between Egyptian-controlled Sinai and the Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip, is an area that Israel may find difficult to give up as long as the security considerations connected with the dangers of Palestinian terrorism have not been resolved.

Again, one might argue that Israel should be more flexible, just as one might argue that Egypt should not stand by its pounds of flesh - uninhabited minor areas of desert in Sinai - if they are stumbling blocks to peace. Both sides have good arguments against the other, but it is difficult to see how these arguments will make it easier for them to accept the other side's view. Consequently, since the aim is to achieve - even on the limited Israeli-Egyptian front - a full-fledged peace treaty, to disagree over merely five percent of Sinai means that no agreement can be signed at all.

If, on the other hand, both sides were to lower their aims and try for another interim agreement, which might, of course, be euphemistically called "Phase I" of an Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, they could agree upon Israeli withdrawal from 95 percent of Sinai, including Sharm-el-Sheikh, in return for some sort of demilitarization of the evacuated area - a procedure to which Egypt does not appear to object. Since this would not be a full peace agreement, there would not be full normalization in bilateral Egyptian-Israeli relations. Instead of moving immediately toward full diplomatic relations, both sides would have to do with a more limited form of relationship - e.g., merely consular relations, or a trade mission, or some other sort of low-profile representation that would not amount to full diplomatic relations (U.S.-China relations have been very imaginative here, as have been those between Federal and Democratic Germany during their initial stages of rapprochement).

Under such an agreement, the issue of the Rafiah-Yamit salient and the airfields would be referred to further negotiations, conceivably with a time limit that should indicate to the Egyptians that the Israelis do not view this as just a delaying tactic.

This could then be tied to further progress toward an agreement on the Palestinian issue. As long as Israel and Egypt aim at a full peace treaty, agreement on the Palestinian issue has to be concurrently achieved on this issue pari passu with an agreement on the bilateral Egyptian-Israeli issues. Since the Ismailia meeting of December 1977, when both sides decided to work for a declaration of principles on the Palestinian issue, not much progress has been registered on this. Both sides have been caught in a vicious circle: Egypt claiming it is not interested in more than a mere declaration about Palestinian rights to self-determination; Israel claiming that such a declaration, verbal as it might be, would prejudice any further possibility of negotiating the future of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Conversely, Israel's detailed autonomy plan for the West Bank and Gaza has been flatly turned down by the Egyptians as a recipe for continued Israeli occupation - nay, more, say the Egyptians, the Begin government now wants the Egyptians, by endorsing the autonomy plan, to legitimize Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Again, both sides have good reasons to stick to their positions. The process of negotiation is certainly not helped by this reiteration of the constraints each party feels itself laboring under.

If, on the other hand, Egypt and Israel were negotiating an interim agreement, the time factor could be brought into play by separating the negotiations on bilateral Egyptian-Israeli issues from the much more complex Palestinian problem. Obviously, Egypt would need some indication from Israel that it is not signing a mere separate peace and that Israel would be ready for concessions regarding the West Bank and Gaza. In negotiations for full peace, Egypt needs a specific declaration from Israel about its intentions toward the West Bank and Gaza; in negotiations for a limited agreement a much more general statement from Israel, to the effect that the future of the West Bank and Gaza would be negotiated later by all parties concerned, might suffice. The very ambiguity of the terms "by all parties concerned" might help each side to present such a declaration as expressing its view on the subject - a function similar to the blessed ambiguities of Resolution 242.

Such a phased agreement would then make it possible to bring Jordan into the picture. Jordanian readiness to enter into serious peace negotiations with Israel has never been in doubt, but Jordan could never be the first Arab country to deal openly with Israel, nor could it be the first Arab country to openly flout the Rabat decisions which legitimized the PLO as the "sole representative of the Palestinian people." Egypt, by Sadat's move, has broken the taboo on both issues: it has openly begun negotiations with Israel, and Sadat no longer reiterates his demand that the PLO be recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians or that a PLO-controlled state should be set up on the West Bank and in Gaza. His present position is much less specific and much more inclined toward a Jordanian option. Nonetheless, King Hussein still finds it extremely difficult to join negotiations at this stage. If, on the other hand, a major interim agreement between Egypt and Israel were to result in an Israeli withdrawal from 95 percent of Sinai, Hussein might see it as a reason for, as well as legitimization of, joining public negotiations with Israel.

It is here that one should add a caveat about the format of any future negotiations about the West Bank and Gaza. As with the issue of Berlin, clarity may be the enemy of peace, and some obfuscation may be the useful handmaid of reasonableness and ultimate agreement. It is my conviction that at this stage no explicit agreement about the ultimate frontiers on the West Bank and Gaza Strip is feasible - not only with the Likud government but also with a Labor government in Israel. Any government in Israel, no matter how willing it may be to return the bulk of the area to Jordan, will find it extremely difficult to give up the (largely unpopulated) cordon sanitaire along the Jordan River; nor will it be feasible to think of an Israeli government accepting the obscene repartitioning of Jerusalem. Conversely, it would be very difficult for Hussein to cede the Jordan Valley to Israel, just as it would be most unthinkable for him to sign away, publicly and formally, the Old City of Jerusalem.

The solution to the West Bank and Gaza has to be found in an incremental and implicit agreement that starts not from the end result but from an adequate reading of the present situation, for the present situation on the West Bank and in Gaza is not just that of Israeli occupation. On the ground, the situation is much more complex: in purely analytical terms (without the highly emotional terminology of "occupation" versus "liberation") the area is virtually an Israeli-Jordanian condominium.

This does not mean that Israel and Jordan have equal power in the area - certainly not. But it does mean that Israel does not have the monopoly of power. True, in matters of security - and this is naturally quite widely interpreted - Israel controls the West Bank and Gaza rather tightly, and its no-nonsense approach has made it possible for it to maintain relative tranquility in the area for 11 years. But there is another side to the equation: on everything outside security, there is a silent partner very active in running the area - and this is Jordan. Public servants in the West Bank are paid a Jordanian salary on top of the salary they receive from the Israeli Military Government; municipalities have their budgets approved by the Ministry of Interior in Jordan; Jordanian currency is legal tender on the West Bank; schoolbooks and school curricula are decided upon in Amman; municipalities receive development loans from the Jordanian government; and every local decision - a town receiving a loan from the Israeli Military Government or deciding to join the Israeli power grid or irrigation system - is checked with the appropriate Jordanian authorities. The population on the West Bank holds on to its Jordanian passports, and the Gaza population (which has not had valid passports since 1948) now has the option of quietly applying for Jordanian passports through the Gaza municipality, which is acting, for all practical purposes, as a Jordanian consulate (on the West Bank proper this Jordanian consular function is carried out by the local Arab Chambers of Commerce). The Israeli Minister of Education would have no difficulty in changing schoolbooks in Israel overnight; he can hardly change one comma in a West Bank schoolbook without a major conflagration, and has therefore refrained from doing this.

Yet this condominium (like the "open bridges" policy, which the Jordanians view as an expression of their claim that the West Bank is merely under temporary Israeli military occupation and remains an integral part of Jordan) has not been achieved through any explicit agreement, nor could it have been achieved in that way. It grew out of numerous implicit piecemeal agreements, mutual blackmail and mutual consideration of even worse alternatives. It has worked for 11 years; it has given Israel its modicum of security; it has made it a little more palatable, never pleasant, for the Palestinian population to live on the West Bank and Gaza under Israeli occupation without feeling that they have been cut off from an alternative and Arab form of legitimate sovereignty - Jordan.

This de facto condominium should be the starting point for imaginative and constructive development undertaken in the spirit of the Byzantine doubletalk that has made the present status quo possible, and not through a dramatic public agreement on the ultimate disposition of the area. The latter is unachievable. What is achievable is a judicious move toward a change in the mix of the condominium: less salience for Israeli power, more power to the Jordanians and the local population. For example, departmental directors general could slowly replace Military Government staff officers in charge of various functions; Jordanian banks could be reopened; provincial authorities - district officers, etc. - could be appointed from the local population by joint agreement, creating another intermediate layer of power between the municipal and the central government.

Such cooperation is not unthinkable: one has only to see how the more pro-PLO mayors elected on the West Bank in the April 1976 municipal elections have learned to work within the Byzantine Israeli-Jordanian de facto condominium in order to realize that such piecemeal solutions, objectionable as they may be to the abstract logic of the constitutional lawyer, do indeed serve a positive and constructive purpose as far as the local population is concerned and make it easier for the contending parties to move from one situation to another one without publicly appearing to do so.

Such an approach, and such a solution, is far preferable to an attempt to establish an independent state on the West Bank and in Gaza. Even if such a state did not automatically become a base for PLO activities against Israel, which is doubtful, it would be unable to solve the existential and national problems of those Palestinians who still linger as refugees in camps. The West Bank is an overpopulated area that has served for the last three decades as an area of emigration; it cannot absorb and rehabilitate any sizable number of refugees. This population could, on the other hand, be absorbed on the East Bank of the Jordan River, which is not only part of historical Palestine but also is more than ten times larger than the West Bank and is sparsely populated.

For this reason, the Palestinian problem has to be solved on both banks of the Jordan, especially since about a million Palestinians today live on the East Bank, not as refugees but as well-integrated members of the Jordanian polity and economy. They serve in the Jordanian army, sit in the Jordanian parliament, and fill top positions in the Jordanian bureaucracy and economy. The establishment of a separate, West Bank Palestinian state would seriously jeopardize their integration into Jordanian society and would create constant friction between the West Bank Palestinian state and the Palestinian population in a truncated Jordan limited to the East Bank.


At this stage it appears that all attempts at a grand solution have failed. The American attempt to reconvene the Geneva Conference has turned out to be futile, and any similar attempt in the future is doomed to be equally counterproductive. The wish to reach a comprehensive agreement has borne no fruit, and Sadat's visit to Jerusalem - also aimed at a final agreement, albeit on a more limited basis between only Israel and Egypt - has turned out to be stillborn.

There is now only one way open to all sides concerned: to revert from the comprehensive to the piecemeal approach; to try to define areas of limited agreement between Israel and Egypt and to reach such agreements; to move slowly toward deemphasizing Israeli presence on the West Bank without having to achieve at this stage a clear delineation of the form of the ultimate arrangement; to try to create, on the basis of a wide interim agreement between Israel and Egypt, a new structure of relationships between the two countries, which may lead them toward further agreements; to open avenues for a moderate Palestinian leadership to find for itself a place in the sun within the framework of slowly reestablishing more elements of Jordanian authority on the West Bank; and, one would hope, to draw the Syrians into the network of these changing relationships.

While this is being written during the summer of 1978, it appears that the U.S. Administration is slowly beginning to realize that this may be the only way out of the impasse. Similarly, Sadat's gropings for an Israeli gesture - as evidenced in his hint to Defense Minister Ezer Weizman at Salzburg that Israel could gain Egyptian goodwill by returning the Sinai town of El-Arish - also suggest that Egypt may be quietly accommodating itself to a drawn-out series of agreements; and on July 24, 1978, Begin announced in the Knesset that if a full peace treaty between Israel and Egypt could be achieved, Israel would be ready to contemplate "peaceful relations" in the absence of a formal peace, more or less on the "post-1945 German model": a significant, yet not widely acknowledged departure from the Likud's erstwhile position of "no more interim agreements."

Peace cannot be achieved by fiat: it requires a period of gestation and mutual accommodation in which both sides will learn to live with each other, fear each other a little less, and trust each other a little more. The attempt to reach a comprehensive agreement over a short period of time is a counsel of despair; it tries to abstract from the real complex relationships among the contending parties, to overlook the constraints of intra-Arab rivalries as well as those of the internal politics of Israel, in order to arrive at a neat and tidy solution. But no international conflict since 1945 has been solved in a neat and tidy way, and there is no compelling reason to believe the Middle East should or could be different.

It requires patience and a lot of goodwill, as well as a willingness to live with ambiguities, half-way houses and some hypocrisy. Some of these virtues may be questionable or even abhorrent, but they are necessary if an agreement - any agreement - is to be found. Gordian knots may be cut through by a sword, but knots are not made of people, with their hopes, ideologies and conflicting aspirations. Therefore, there are no Gordian knots in the Middle East, only bundles of peoples trying to find their way, within their respective cultures, in a world of national, ideological and economic conflicts. They need time to accommodate to each other; their leaders need enough elbow room for complex maneuvers - and all this can be achieved only through a return to a piecemeal approach to the problem. The alternative - a comprehensive approach - only maximizes the dangers of war by presenting false alternatives - either a comprehensive peace agreement or war.

There is a third alternative to full peace and the outbreak of war - the alternative of piecemeal agreements; and the sooner all sides concerned will pick up this option again, the better.


1 Toward Peace in the Middle East: Report of a Study Group, Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1975.

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  • Shlomo Avineri is Herbert Samuel Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He served as Director-General of Israel's Ministry for Foreign Affairs under the Labor Party government in 1976-77. He is the author of The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, Israel and the Palestinians, Hegel's Theory of the Modern State, Varieties of Marxism, and other works.
  • More By Shlomo Avineri