Could Israel Make Peace With an Arab Democracy?

What does it mean that the only two peace treaties signed by Israel that are still intact were with dictatorships? What kinds of steps toward peace are possible in the current environment?

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Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin join hands on the day of the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty in 1979.
Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin join hands on the day of the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty in 1979. Credit: Yaakov Saar
Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens

What do we learn from the two peace treaties we have signed, with Egypt and Jordan? And from the agreement we reached that has not matured into a peace treaty – the Oslo Accords – with the Palestinians? And from the peace treaty we were close to reaching, with Syria? And from the agreement we reached with Lebanon, that was renounced by Lebanon a few months after it was signed?

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The common denominator in the cases of Egypt and Jordan is that both countries were run by dictatorial regimes at the time the agreements were signed, and the treaties have been preserved until now by nondemocratic regimes in those countries. The Oslo Accords were signed with Yasser Arafat, certainly no paragon of democratic rule. The treaty with Syria, had it been concluded, would have been signed with Hafez Assad, a dictator. The agreement with Lebanon was approved by a Lebanese president, Amine Gemayel, too weak to assure its implementation. In all cases, had the treaties or agreements been subject to approval by a free vote of the Egyptian, Palestinian or Jordanian peoples, they would most likely not have been approved.

The territorial aspect of the treaties or agreements were based on lines that had been embedded in people’s minds as legitimate for a long time. In the case of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, they were the lines defined by the British mandate for Palestine, in place since 1919. As for the Oslo Accords, they were based on the armistice lines that were agreed between Israel, Egypt and Jordan, at the conclusion of Israel’s War of Independence in 1949, even though they had never been intended by any of the parties to the armistice to be permanent borders. Any deviations from these lines in Israel’s favor were considered by the Arab interlocutor, whether Anwar Sadat, King Hussein, Hafez Assad, Amine Gemayel or Yasser Arafat, then, and Mahmoud Abbas, today, as dishonorable, and therefore not negotiable.

Egypt serves as a good case study. Anwar Sadat will no doubt go down in history as a peacemaker, even though he led Egypt’s fourth war of aggression against Israel. Sadat was a dictator who imposed the peace treaty with Israel on the people of Egypt. His assassination was an expression of the disapproval of many Egyptians, possibly the majority, of peace with Israel. His successor, Hosni Mubarak, though he did not promote full normalization between Egypt and Israel, did impose the treaty’s continued implementation on the people of Egypt, observing its dry language. By the looks of it, the present ruler of Egypt, Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, will continue on the same path. Sadat insisted on an Israeli withdrawal to the line that delineated the border between the Palestine Mandate and Egypt, even though that line did not go back to Pharaonic times, but was of relatively recent vintage, being the result of British pressure on the Ottoman Empire in 1906. But to Sadat it was seemingly sacrosanct.

Arriving at a peace treaty with Jordan became relatively straightforward after King Hussein abandoned Jordan’s claim to Judea and Samaria in favor of the Palestine Liberation Organization in July 1988. The border between Eastern and Western Palestine as determined by the British was unchallenged by either party.

King Hussein was in a position to impose the treaty on the people of Jordan. His policy has been continued by his son, King Abdullah II. The peace treaty with Israel is not popular with the majority of the Jordanian population. The stability of peaceful relations between Israel and Jordan seems to be closely linked with the stability of Hashemite rule there.

Uncertainties of peacemaking

A peace treaty with Syria is a might-have-been. Negotiations conducted by Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak came close to reaching an agreement. The demand of Syrian dictator Hafez Assad for a withdrawal of Israel from the Golan Heights to a line defined by the border between French-mandated Syria and British-mandated Palestine was accepted in principle by Israel. But for a number of reasons there was never closure. In view of events in Syria during the past few years, very few Israelis at this time regret that. The Syrian case is a dramatic demonstration of the uncertainties connected with peacemaking with the Arab world.

The Lebanese case is one in which Israel negotiated with a quasi-democratic Arab state, which, however, was dominated by Syria at the time, and for many years thereafter, and was therefore not in a position to determine its own foreign policy. It is a case of an agreement that was signed but not sealed. In recent years, Syrian domination of Lebanon has been replaced by Iranian domination. That has eliminated any hope of reaching a peace agreement with Lebanon in the foreseeable future.

The existing peace agreements, then, are treaties with nondemocratic countries. Does this suggest it is only such countries that can make peace with Israel? Would that imply that Israel in its quest for peace should support dictatorial regimes in Arab countries? Might Israel welcome the intervention of Putin’s Russia in the fighting in Syria intended to restore the rule of Bashar Assad over all of Syria, in the expectation that a peace treaty with Syria would then become a possibility? Obviously these are rhetorical questions intended to emphasize the dilemmas facing Israel’s democratic society in its desire to reach peace with its neighbors.

Negotiations with the Palestinians, although stalled now for many months, are seen by many as the only possible pathway to another Israeli-Arab peace treaty. Such talks are also seen as the most urgent, considering the almost daily friction between Israel and Palestinians. Are the Palestinians really next in line to make peace with Israel?

Morally reprehensible

On-and-off negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have been going on for the last 22 years. They were begun when Yasser Arafat headed the PLO. It was Israel who granted him recognition as the representative of the Palestinians, brought him from Tunis and imposed him and the leadership of the PLO on the Palestinians living in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. It was his autocratic rule that made it possible to reach a series of agreements that were considered to be steps toward an eventual peace agreement. After his death, in 2004, the election of Mahmoud Abbas to succeed him, and the bloody takeover by Hamas in Gaza after the Israeli pullout in 2005, the Palestinians ceased to be represented by a functional political entity capable of negotiating, concluding, or enforcing and maintaining an agreement on their behalf. Arafat’s dictatorial rule had opened that possibility, but at the negotiations held with Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000, it became clear he was not aiming for peace with Israel, and instead loosed a wave of terror against Israel. The one person who could have reached an agreement with Israel did not want such an agreement. Since then, no one among the Palestinians has had that kind of authority.

Some Israelis seeking peace with the Palestinians possibly wish for a Palestinian dictator, like Arafat, who would have the power to close an agreement with Israel. Israel does not have the power to bring this about, and in any case it would be morally reprehensible.

So what is next? An agreement with Jordan representing the Palestinians would in theory be the easiest to reach. Jordan is a Palestinian state in everything but name, had at one point annexed Judea and Samaria, and granted Jordanian citizenship to the population there. But this does not seem to serve the interests of Jordan’s Hashemite rule at present.

Although Abbas is incapable of reaching a peace agreement with Israel, his continued presence in Ramallah, considering the alternatives, is in Israel’s interest. His continued presence there is in no small measure dependent on Israel’s direct and indirect support.

The paradox of the peace process with the Palestinians is that Israel supports the Hashemite regime in Jordan and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah – neither of which, each for its own reasons, can at this time move toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

That leaves the person-to-person approach. Israel’s Arab citizens – the Israeli Palestinians – and the Palestinians in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. Here a great deal can be done, and it is in Israel’s power to do it – to further the integration of the Arab-Israeli population into Israeli society and to improve the living conditions of the Palestinian population in Judea and Samaria, and Gaza. That is the real, and actually the only, agenda for peacemaking at this time.

The writer was Israeli defense minister and foreign minister and is a regular contributor to Haaretz’s opinion page.

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