It has been a remarkable five years in the Middle East. Beginning in October 1991, when Arabs and Israelis first met face to face in Madrid, it went on to include two Israeli-PLO accords, an Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, two grand regional economic conferences, the repeal by the U.N. General Assembly of the 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism, serious peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, and decisions by several Arab states and many other governments around the world to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. For the first time in modern history, it did not sound foolish to speak of solving the Middle East problem.

That era, if five years can be said to qualify as an era, is over. Several factors account for this abrupt end, not just the June 1996 election of a more conservative Israeli government. Indeed, the era of treaties in the Middle East might well have come to an end even if the Labor government of Shimon Peres had triumphed at the polls. The inability to conclude new treaties will have profound consequences for both the peace process and peace itself. But the end of the era of treaties does not have to lead to the demise of either peace or the peace process if the parties and diplomats involved do not act as if nothing has changed or everything is lost. What is called for is a new approach to diplomacy, one more modest in what it attempts but no less demanding in what it will require.


What made the era of treaties and other agreements possible, above all, was the end of the Cold War and the trauma of the Persian Gulf War. Arab governments lost their Soviet benefactor, and Iraq, the center of secular Arab radicalism, was thrashed on the battlefield. Meanwhile, most Arab governments came to accept Israel as a permanent, if not welcome, reality. Palestinians faced two additional problems: the PLO lost its Arab financial backers in the Persian Gulf region when it made the mistake of backing Saddam Hussein in his bid to conquer Kuwait, and the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, was losing steam.

The result was a decision by all of Israel's immediate neighbors and by Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza to attend the October 1991 Madrid peace conference. Israelis, meanwhile, saw Madrid as a way out of the costs and burdens of occupation. Moreover, during the gulf war Iraqi Scuds underlined Israel's vulnerability to a new generation of weapons. Syrian acceptance of the U.S.-Soviet invitation to attend the peace conference put Israel's Likud government on the political defensive, a position it did not want to be in when American primacy was so pronounced.

By contrast, the failure of post-Madrid diplomacy made possible the 1993 Oslo agreement, which gave Palestinians effective control of Gaza and Jericho, and its 1995 successor, which extended Palestinian authority to the major cities of the West Bank. Neither Yitzhak Shamir nor Yitzhak Rabin had been able to strike a deal with Palestinian "insiders," who proved both unwilling and unable to negotiate in the absence of explicit participation by the PLO. What made Oslo possible was Israeli willingness to accept the PLO as a negotiating partner, along with the PLO’s willingness to accept a step-by-step process with no guarantee of where it would end -- and a shared perception that both sides would have to take matters into their own hands, given that the United States no longer appeared to be an active and forceful mediator.

The first Oslo agreement, signed on the South Lawn of the White House in September 1993, also yielded a formal peace treaty between Israel and Jordan as an unexpected dividend. What prompted the October 1994 treaty was a change in Jordan's political calculus: it would lose all influence over the future of Jerusalem and the Palestinians unless it entered into a peace treaty with Israel. In addition, Yasir Arafat's and the PLO’s open willingness to come to terms with Israel made such a step for Jordan's monarch less risky.

Is there any chance of further treaties? For the next five years, the short answer is no. Israel and the PLO began "final status" talks just before Israel's recent election. The goal is to complete these talks and sign a treaty in three years, by May 1999. There is no conceivable way this goal will be met. The issues of final status are the most difficult: Jerusalem, Palestinian control of territory and statehood, the right of millions of Palestinian refugees to return home, and water. These issues would be difficult and perhaps impossible to negotiate even if all sides had the will to do so. It is instructive to recall here that the relatively dovish Shimon Peres, Israel's prime minister in the aftermath of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, reportedly balked at a final status blueprint negotiated by one of his senior lieutenants and an aide to Yasir Arafat. Although Peres may have had his own reasons for doing so -- he opposed the separation of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples implicit in the plan and was concerned about allowing that track to get too far out in front of Israel's negotiations with Syria -- it also suggests that gaining Israeli and PLO agreement on final status, as well as popular backing for it, would have been a monumental task.

Today, there is neither the will nor the ability to conclude an Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement -- that is, peace. The PLO leadership fears it will lose support and, in the end, legitimacy, if it is seen to compromise important political goals. There is the additional fear that Hamas and other Islamic radical groups would gain at the expense of the PLO if anything were done to weaken the Palestinian claim to Jerusalem. It is often safer to espouse dreams that are whole than to accept inevitably incomplete realities. For its part, the new Likud government of Benjamin Netanyahu campaigned on a platform, subsequently enshrined in government guidelines, that opposes a Palestinian state, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and any dilution of exclusive Israeli sovereignty over a united Jerusalem. For Israelis, too, it is politically less risky to live with an imperfect status quo than to contemplate controversial alternatives.

Prospects are even bleaker for a treaty between Syria and Israel. The new Israeli government has been explicit in its intention to maintain sovereignty over the Golan Heights and in its refusal to return all of the territory gained in the 1967 conflict. The Likud's notion of minor agreements in exchange for peace and some normalization appears unrealistic. There is no evidence that Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad is prepared to accept half a loaf when he rejected the Rabin government's position of offering most or even all of the area in exchange for peace, security arrangements, and a degree of normalization. Indeed, Assad's priority may be keeping power for himself and the minority Alawite sect that runs Syria. Arguably, maintaining Israel as an adversary and keeping Syria closed to the outside world serves these ends better than would peace.

Similarly, there is no chance of an agreement between Israel and Lebanon. Lebanon is not an independent actor. Syria, which continues to maintain thousands of forces there and would be in a position to intimidate the Lebanese even if it did not, will not permit a separate peace between those two countries. No amount of Israeli inducement, not even a withdrawal from southern Lebanon, could bring about an agreement.

There are also more general explanations for the poor prospects for peace agreements. The close outcome of the recent election underlined that Israel is a divided country. It is impossible to define what mandate, if any, Netanyahu can rightfully claim. He got elected by tapping Israeli frustration with a peace that did not deliver absolute security. But it was not absolute insecurity either -- more Israelis were killed in traffic accidents than by terrorist acts in the first half of 1996 -- and there is no reason to conclude that less peace will bring more security.

The new Israeli government, or at least the prime minister, should be in place for four years, given changes in Israel's electoral law that will work against attempts in Israel's Knesset to vote no confidence and force an early election. Some observers believe that Netanyahu will prove far more pragmatic in governing than he proved in opposition or in a previous stint as deputy foreign minister in the Shamir government. One often hears the parallel of Richard Nixon going to China. But unlike Nixon, who before assuming office wrote that the United States needed to engage China, Netanyahu has not shown a readiness to change. Netanyahu may go to China, but he is unlikely to go to Syria.

There are also factors in the Arab world that will make reaching any new agreements difficult. Egypt, the first Arab state to make peace with Israel, is doing little to build bridges to its neighbor, working instead to placate domestic critics and regain a position of leadership in the Arab world. King Hussein of Jordan enjoys little support at home for engagement with Israel. The gulf states face increasing economic problems and are distracted by internal political challenges and the threats posed by Iran and Iraq. Indeed, home-grown Islamic groups and their external benefactors will discourage further normalization or compromise with Israel.

Agreements that have already been reached further reduce the prospects for treaties. There is less urgency now than before. The status quo is better than it was five years ago and is in many ways tolerable -- possibly more tolerable than the risks of compromise. Similarly, the passage of time has hurt the prospects for peace. The psychological impact of the demise of the Soviet Union and the outcome of the Persian Gulf War has waned. So, too, has the stature of the United States. Somalia, Bosnia, a secretary of state more familiar than feared, an administration and a Congress seen as overwhelmingly pro- Israel -- all have made it easier for local parties to go their own way.

There is an obvious danger in all this. The current situation in the Middle East -- armed deterrence between Israel and Syria, together with a patchwork quilt of Palestinian population centers, Jewish settlements, and Israeli-controlled land -- is neither stable nor sustainable. Syria and Israel must communicate even if they do not negotiate, much less agree. And autonomy must continue to grow in both breadth and depth, or the current modus vivendi will collapse.

The collapse would be costly. Palestinians would suffer a loss of autonomy, increased economic hardship, and a future of open-ended occupation. But it would be no better for Israelis, who, in addition to facing the expense of occupation and increased terror, would forfeit a chance to gain economic access to the region. Fewer resources would be available to focus on the emerging and ultimately more worrisome threats to Israel's security posed by Iran and Iraq. A radicalization of Palestinian and Israeli politics alike would result; any chance for peace would be postponed if not destroyed. A deterioration in Israeli-Syrian relations could have equally serious consequences. Another war between these two antagonists could well involve weapons of mass destruction. Urban areas could become battlefields; civilians could become combatants. And even if this nightmare did not materialize, a conventional war would still involve staggering human and financial costs on both sides. But it would be wrong to equate poor or even negligible prospects for agreements with an end either to the peace process or to peace itself. At a minimum, history shows that, thanks to deterrence, it is possible to maintain "no war, no peace" for extended periods. There is a level or plateau between a solution and peace on the one hand and collapse and conflict on the other. Establishing such a plateau and making it stable ought to be the purpose of the next era of diplomacy.


It may help to think of Middle East peace over the past five years as a stock whose price has soared: a correction is inevitable. The goal of American diplomacy ought to be to minimize the size of the correction and avoid giving back all the hard-earned gains. Succeeding in this effort will demand accepting the notion that diplomacy can still achieve progress in the absence of treaties and other formal agreements. Formal pacts are just one tool of diplomacy, not a synonym for it. Three alternatives stand out: unilateralism, confidence-building measures, and signaling. All three can and should be used, to avert the worst and even to bring about some gain.

Israel and the Palestinians should focus on a mixture of unilateralism and confidence-building measures to implement and supplement existing agreements. Palestinians currently control day-to-day life in Gaza and all the principal West Bank cities except Hebron. Israel and the Palestinians have joint responsibility for roughly 450 villages and towns that comprise one-fourth of the occupied territories. Israel still has sole control of the remaining two-thirds, an area that includes the bulk of its settlements, military installations, and so-called state lands. In October 1995, the second Oslo agreement called for further Israeli withdrawals from this last territorial zone at regular intervals. Accomplishing just that would be an important confidence-building measure. Similarly, Israel could transfer greater control of towns and villages to the Palestinians. Steps short of the agreed division and transfer of authority in Hebron -- the issue with the greatest potential to trigger a crisis in Israeli-Palestinian relations -- should go ahead if the Netanyahu government refuses to implement the full Oslo II approach. The result would be a series of de facto Oslo IIIs, a form of evolving autonomy. These efforts need to be buttressed by increased contacts and exchanges in the business and academic worlds and by easing the travel restrictions and closures that limit the opportunity for Palestinians to travel to Israel to work.

For its part, the Palestinian leadership must do everything possible to deal with the security threat to Israel. No one can expect 100 percent success -- Netanyahu is wrong when he says that "peace means the absence of violence" -- but Israel has every right to expect 100 percent effort. Palestinian leaders should resist calls for a new intifada. Here Israel can help its own case. Israel is more likely to get what it wants in the way of the antiterrorist cooperation in a context of increasing rather than contracting autonomy. Such a context would make sustaining popular support for tough measures while diminishing the appeal of radicals easier for the Palestinian authority.

Confidence can also be built by what is not done. Israel should resist the temptation to cast aside the PLO to work with Jordan on resolving Palestinian matters. That would not work, and it would almost certainly provoke violence on the Palestinian side and weaken the position of King Hussein. If the PLO is to be weakened or replaced by something better (and not, for example, Hamas), it will have to happen through the ballot box.

Settlements are another potential flash point. Palestinians see them as unilateral action by Israel that prejudices final status and renders negotiations meaningless. To allow for modest growth in existing settlements is one thing; to accelerate their growth dramatically or to start new ones is quite another. A decision to expand settlements would almost certainly lead to a breakdown of all talks and renewed violence -- particularly in the absence of any good-faith effort to achieve progress toward peace. Netanyahu suggested during his July 9 White House press conference with President Clinton that his government could not be expected to conduct less settlement activity than the Labor government he replaced, which increased the settlement populations by between five and ten percent a year. This may be so, but it is no less true that Palestinians and the U.S. government were prepared to look the other way during Labor's tenure only because they had confidence in its commitment to a fair peace.

Lebanon could well be an opportunity for unilateralism. Israel's aims in Lebanon are security-related, not territorial. No mention of Lebanon per se is to be found in the new government's guidelines. The Israeli military presence in the south of Lebanon has failed to deter rocket attacks against northern Israel. Moreover, Israeli forces themselves have increasingly become a target of Hezbollah attacks. Israel could simply pull its forces out. Withdrawal from Lebanon would reduce the vulnerability of Israeli forces and give Israel a major diplomatic accomplishment. It would put pressure on Syria and Iran to halt their interference in Lebanon's internal affairs and to stop arming -- or, better yet, disarm -- Hezbollah, something that would reduce the chances for both renewed fighting in Lebanon and conflict between Israel and Syria.

With or without such a unilateral step, Israel should make clear to Syria that it will be held accountable for Hezbollah's actions in Lebanon. Syria is the dominant force in Lebanon, and Hezbollah continues to operate there thanks not only to Syrian tolerance but to its active support. Arms regularly go through Syria on their way from Iran to Lebanon and Hezbollah. What Netanyahu should not do is repeat the error of the Peres government, which was to respond to Hezbollah attacks on northern Israel by attacking the Lebanese people. Instead, Israel should retaliate against any Hezbollah target that can be reached and communicate to Damascus that it is even prepared to attack Syrian forces in Lebanon and interrupt Syrian support for Hezbollah. Such action would risk widening any conflict, but such clarity might influence Syrian behavior and thereby help avert war. Israel's only alternative is to accept the politically unacceptable: mounting attacks on its citizens from Lebanese territory.

Similarly, Israel should signal Syria regarding any red lines involving common water resources. There is no need to try to negotiate a specific accord with Syria, which would be impossible given Assad's refusal to entertain such normalization. But Israel can communicate its expectations and the consequences of Syria's diversion of more than a stated percentage of the water.


The United States remains the critical outside actor in the region. Russian co-sponsorship of the Madrid peace process is mostly a gesture, while Europeans, whether individually or through the European Union, have little to offer beyond economic assistance. To remain effective, however, the United States needs to alter its approach to the Middle East. It would be futile to carry on as if nothing had changed. Moreover, to do so would bring with it a considerable opportunity cost. There is only so much time and energy for the president and his top aides to devote to foreign policy, and it is impossible to argue that two dozen more visits to Syria would be more useful to U.S. national security than spending that time consulting with leaders in Japan, China, Russia, and India. Even in the Middle East, other issues, including dealing with Iraq and Iran and helping states contend with internal political and economic challenges, deserve more attention from senior U.S. officials than does the traditional peace process.

Any time that senior officials devote to the peace process should involve limited but potentially feasible efforts. This is not a moment for drama. Washington should counsel restraint, promote confidence, and support continued Palestinian participation in final status talks. It would mitigate despair to remind the two sides that they were never likely to meet the three-year goal -- not a deadline -- for agreeing to final status. The United States should work to help make the Palestinian entity more democratic, a worthy outcome in itself that would also increase Israeli willingness to negotiate. U.S. counsel would be taken more readily if it were accompanied by economic help, be it direct, in the form of generous amounts of assistance, or indirect, as investment guarantees.

What the United States should not do is compromise its basic beliefs. It is one thing to adapt tactics to a changed circumstance, quite another to adapt principles. Consistency will pay off. It will help persuade Palestinians that moderation can still work. It will lead Israel to consider the consequences before departing from existing policy. And it will make it easier for the United States to sustain cooperation with moderate Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Toward these ends, the U.S. government should speak out when it disagrees with what any party says or does. The United States retains considerable moral authority, something that must be used if it is not to be squandered. Washington should oppose violence and lean on Palestinians when they fail to do what they can to stem it. The United States should oppose increased settlement activity; it is not a question of legality but of practicality. Washington should also oppose any Syrian support for terror, including the facilitation of Hezbollah activities in Lebanon, and keep Syria on the list of state sponsors of terrorism until it changes its behavior. Going further than that, as urged by those who would treat Syria the same as such rogues as Iran and Iraq, is not without real risks, however. If Syria could be a better citizen, it could also be much worse, creating crises in southern Lebanon and undermining moderate Palestinians.

The United States should not walk away from its historical commitment to the notion of territory for peace. The reason is not to engage in an endless round of theological debates -- the phrase is shorthand for a series of tradeoffs that must include security for Israel -- but to buttress a process that will survive as much on perceived potential as it will on actual results. There is no other basis for negotiations between Israel and Syria, if and when they are resumed. And there must be a territorial basis for Palestinian nationalism. This will probably mean something that is more than autonomy but less than a full-fledged state. Israel must come to accept that status if it wants to be predominantly Jewish, truly democratic, and relatively secure. The new prime minister says it is a goal to make Israel more normal and, like his counterparts in other countries, to focus on economic issues. That can happen only if Israel continues to support a legitimate process toward normal coexistence.

The informal approach to diplomacy advocated here has its advantages. It is realistic and does not waste time seeking the impossible. It minimizes the need for intense negotiations. It avoids the requirement of submitting controversial agreements to uncertain and often critical political processes. This is not to diminish the value of treaties or other agreements. On the contrary, they are highly useful in locking in progress. The Egyptian-Israeli peace, however cold, is far more resistant to the passions of the day than would be informal understandings. What is more, the time may come when it is again possible to negotiate agreements in the Middle East. There could, for example, be political evolution in Israel, such as a National Unity government in which Netanyahu would replace some of his current associates with more moderate Labor Party leaders, or a successor Labor government. There could be a change of leadership in Syria. The Palestinians could become more democratic and more willing to compromise. Diplomacy would have to be reoriented if such developments should come about. An ambitious, high-profile initiative might be called for. Until then, however, the United States will need to content itself with something more modest, if only to avert something far worse. In the new Middle East, the best is not only the enemy of the good, it is the enemy of peace.

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  • Richard N. Haass, a principal adviser on the Middle East to President George Bush, is Director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.
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