Ordinary children, women and men, a million and a half of them, have confounded the state of Israel, Washington’s major military ally in the Middle East, with their incredible courage and resourcefulness. Their resounding demand for political independence then prompted the Palestine Liberation Organization to declare unequivocally for a Palestinian state alongside Israel — a resolution based on “possible rather than absolute justice,” as Yasser Arafat put it. [1] More than a hundred governments have officially recognized the new state. Others, such as the major European states, upgraded their relations with the PLO. The combined force of these developments finally led Washington to open formal talks with the PLO.

This “major recognition of reality” on the part of the United States, as the Boston Globe termed it, marks a new stage in the struggle for Palestinian national rights. It has removed a gag from public discourse in this country which will be difficult to reimpose. Already it has profoundly altered the demon image of the PLO.

It is important, though, now that the enforced silence on this issue has been broken, to guard against any sense of complacency that Palestinian national rights can be achieved without our active engagement. The policy of talking with the PLO is designed to achieve what the policy of boycotting failed to accomplish: to end the uprising through a combination of Israeli repression and vague promises to address “legitimate Palestinian rights.” Only if the Bush administration is persuaded that the uprising cannot be crushed and will not be bargained away, and that the present situation is more threatening to its regional interests than a negotiated settlement, will Washington seriously press Israel to withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank and to negotiate with the PLO.

Clearly this is not yet the case. The year of the uprising was also the year when the US and Israel signed a five-year agreement codifying the extensive joint military, economic, political and intelligence ventures developed over the course of the Reagan administration. There is, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Edward Gnehm told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee in March, “a formalized and highly efficient military relationship” between the two countries, one that almost trivializes tactical differences between the Bush and Shamir governments. [2]

The Bush foreign policy team, moreover, largely comprises men deeply committed to the conception of Israel as a “strategic asset” and themselves responsible for constructing the “strategic relationship” of the Reagan years. Some — Lawrence Eagleburger, Brent Scowcroft, Peter Rodman — are on loan from Kissinger Associates. Dennis Ross, the new director of State Department policy planning, most recently was a senior fellow at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

This institute, founded in 1985 by Martin Indyk, a former deputy director of research for the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has provided what appears to be the policy script for the new administration. The institute’s Presidential Study Group, co-chaired by Eagleburger, cautions against any US peace plan or involvement in an international conference. What is needed, say Eagleburger, Ross and company, is “a different kind of initiative — one designed to reshape the political environment, stabilize the military balance and provide [the] administration with the means to resist pressures to pursue a procedural breakthrough.” [3]

It is not difficult to read the Bush administration’s moves and statements thus far in precisely these terms. Talk with the PLO in Tunis, but not in Washington. Produce an unusually candid human rights report on the Occupied Territories, but veto a UN resolution critical of Israeli practices. Suggest that the Palestinians wind down the uprising in return for Israeli relaxation of repressive measures — in effect restoring the status quo ante. Dissuade the European states from undertaking any initiatives toward convening an international conference.

The administration’s problem, and our opportunity, is that the situation is far from static. The Eagleburger-Indyk-Ross script was out-of-date the day it was published. It presumes a situation of deadlock, when in fact the political field is very much in motion. It dismisses the Palestinian leadership as “inchoate and radical” (while characterizing Israel as “divided between those who seek peace through territorial compromise and those who seek peace through negotiating autonomy”). [4]

The contrast, for instance, between the Washington Institute report and one issued in March 1989 by Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies is instructive. The Israeli team concludes, first, that a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza “would not necessarily threaten Israel” and, second, that no settlement “is possible without direct negotiations with authoritative representatives of the Palestinians,” noting elsewhere that “only the PLO…meets this criterion.” [5] In this setting, Secretary of State James Baker’s March statement that “meaningful negotiations” between Israelis and Palestinians “may” require PLO participation hardly qualifies as visionary. [6]

Sharp differences among the Israeli political elite have been transposed to their counterparts among American Jews. When Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir convened an international solidarity rally of Jewish leaders in Jerusalem in late March, some from the US decided not to attend and even considered organizing an “alternative” event in New York. One was Theodore Mann, a former chairperson of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “The problem is that right now the American Jewish community is running faster than the Israeli government or the US government,” says Seymour Reich, head of B’nai Brith arid present chair of the Conference of Presidents. [7]

What is true for Jewish communities in the US is also true for the broader public. Developments in 1988 — Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign, the ballot referenda in various cities and the successful campaigns led by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee to halt tear gas shipments to Israel and to get a Federal Trade Commission investigation of Israeli treatment of Palestinian trade unionists — all represent the kinds of concrete steps that are possible in the new environment created by the intifada.

Just as the uprising has eroded the political base in Israel for that state’s rejectionist policies, so has it fostered splits in both popular and elite opinion in the US concerning Washington’s support for this intransigence. How should we respond to this opportunity? One thing that is necessary, in our view, is to challenge the level of US aid to Israel. This should be done in the context of a campaign for a moratorium on military aid and sales throughout the region. It seems to us that it would be a vital component of any campaign to transform US policy in both word and deed.

In the pages that follow, people who have been active in speaking out and organizing around US policy in the Middle East discuss these points and offer other specific suggestions. We invite our readers to join this discussion, which will continue in the articles, interviews, editorials and columns in the months ahead.


[1] In his December 1988 speech to the UN General Assembly in Geneva.
[2] Cited in AIPAC’s Near East Report, March 13, 1989.
[3] Building for Peace: An American Strategy for the Middle East (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1988), p. 77.
[4] Ibid., pp. 12, 33.
[5] Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza: Toward a Solution (Tel Aviv, 1989), pp. 20, 22. These recommendations, “conceived and written on an entirely independent Israeli basis,” were published separately from a larger study, The West Bank and Gaza: Israel’s Options for Peace, which was sponsored largely by the American Jewish Congress and B’nai Brith.
[6] Washington Post, March 15, 1989.
[7] Washington Jewish Week, March 16, 1989.

How to cite this article:

The Editors "Palestine and Israel in the US Arena," Middle East Report 158 (May/June 1989).

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