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Who Killed the Seeds of Peace?

Jerusalem Post, January 19, 2001

Gerald M. Steinberg

 

A few months after the Oslo Declaration of Principles was signed with great fanfare on the White House lawn, Uri Savir held an informal meeting with a small group of academics and journalists.  Savir, who had been suddenly elevated to Director General of the Foreign Ministry by his patron, Shimon Peres, regaled the participants with tales from behind the scenes in the first negotiations between the Israeli government and the PLO. The main emphasis was on the warm personal relations between the Israeli negotiators and their Palestinian counterparts.  They shared anecdotes about their families, swapped photos, and the common desire for an end to the terrible wars and hatred.  To the Israeli negotiators, the leaders of the PLO with whom they were talking in Norway were no longer members of a terrorist group, but mirror images of themselves, struggling to lead their people to dignity and independence.  These human interludes, as Savir also wrote in his book, were to become the unstable foundation on which the New Middle East would be built.  

A few skeptics around the table asked whether Savir and his partners in this adventure had any other basis for optimism.  By this time, the Palestinian Authority had been created under the Gaza-Jericho agreement, and Yassir Arafat sought recognition as the President of Palestine.  The Palestinian "police" force was being formed from the ranks of militias that had been based in Tunis, Lebanon, and other places, including terrorists, and Israelis protested that they were to be armed, by agreement.  The language, and much of the symbolism of the new Palestinian authority seemed to be indistinguishable from the pre-Oslo frameworks of hatred and violence.  Beyond the idealistic exchange of family photos and the shared excitement of secret diplomacy, the question was whether something more substantive was going on.  Some of the participants in the meeting with Savir suggested that a systematic analysis of the causes of success and failure of other efforts to negotiate peace agreements might be useful.         

Seven years later, in July 2000, President Clinton finally emerged from the intense effort at Camp David, designed to reach the permanent status agreement promised under the Oslo process, to admit failure.  He noted that the issues under discussion were the hardest that he had ever dealt with, but there was also some "good news".  Speaking of the delegations headed by Barak and Arafat, "these people know each other, they know the names of each other's children, they know how many grandchildren the grandparents have, they know their life stories, they have a genuine respect and understanding for each other."  Two months later, the same Palestinian leaders that shared personal stories with Savir in Oslo, and with Barak in Camp David, began (or more accurately, expanded) their war of terror against Israel.         

As this history clearly demonstrates, warm personal relations, even among the leaders at the highest level, are not enough to make the transition from war to cooperation.  The fates of nations are determined by the perception of national interests, and the policies that are pursued to achieve them.  When leaders decide to pursue cooperative policies, rather than conflict, mutual respect can help smooth the way, as was the case with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, or Yitzchak Rabin and King Hussein.        

However, in the absence of the recognition of the need for compromise based on national interests, and the creation of a broad political foundation to support and nurture this transition, warm personal relations cannot fill the void.  In the case of the negotiations with the Palestinians, the warm personal relations described by Savir and Clinton were never translated into mutual acceptance and compromise.  The rejectionism and hatred that provided the foundation for terrorism before the Oslo process began continued without interruption.  As long as the negotiations and interactions focused on the easy (in a relative sense) issues, personal relations across the divide remained positive.  However, when the core disputes could no longer be avoided, such as Jewish rights and links to Jerusalem, the Palestinian claim to the "right of return" (thus destroying the Jewish state), and borders, the process unraveled.    

 In order to make this transition, leaders must invest heavily in order to transmit the fundamental change in direction from confrontation to cooperation throughout their societies.  People-to-people exchanges and programs such as Seeds of Peace, can help, but only when they deal with the substance of mutual understanding, in terms of culture, history, and security, and are not restricted to personal anecdotes.  Most of Israeli society has made this transition, based on the realization that fundamental reciprocal compromises with the Palestinians are in the national interest.  In contrast, Palestinian society clings to the old myths, the old maps, and old slogans.        

The bottom line is that personal links between individuals may be well and good, but experience clearly shows that by themselves, warm fuzzy feelings do not change politics and ideology.  Until this lesson is learned, future rounds of Middle East peace efforts are likely to lead to the same dead end.