The more things change, the more they stay the same. Nowhere does this cynical adage seem more descriptive than regarding United States policy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The changes have been enormous. On the ground, in the West Bank and Gaza, a resilient popular uprising against military occupation extends into its third year, while for the first time ever an Israeli government has collapsed over the question of peace with the Palestinians. In the region, the Soviet Union has radically scaled back virtually all of its military and political commitments. Beyond the borders of the Middle East, the collapse of Communist regimes and Moscow’s disengagement from the Cold War have undermined much of the rationale for the US “strategic relationship” with Israel. And in the United States itself, signs of erosion in public support for Israel’s military occupation have become increasingly apparent, especially in American Jewish circles.

Despite all of this, Washington has embraced the “peace plan” of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir as its own, notwithstanding Shamir’s obvious intent to stall and immobilize rather than facilitate any movement toward a political settlement. The Pentagon has widened and deepened the military relationship between the two countries — the latest Memorandum of Understanding, signed in early September 1989 by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, has the US “lending” Israel war materials and equipment for “research and development”; a month later the two countries reached agreement on pre-positioning $100 million worth of US weaponry and ammunition in Israel for “dual” use. And in October 1989, Washington closed off US entry to most Soviet Jews wishing to emigrate, channeling them to Israel and strengthening the hand of the annexationist forces there.

Two Elections, One Team?

The reason Washington became attached to Shamir’s “peace plan,” with its centerpiece provision for elections in the Occupied Territories, is that it essentially was a US plan to begin with. This attachment may also explain, in part at least, Washington’s current irritation with Shamir and his Likud compatriots for finding even this dilatory scenario too daring.

Here is one way to look at the contretemps of the last year. There were two elections in November 1988. The election in the United States brought to power George Bush and James Baker. Neither of these Texas gentlemen, with their political base in oil country, have the same visceral attachment to Israel, the same infatuation with Israeli military prowess, that had captured the imagination of the Reagan crowd. But neither are they disposed to alter radically an alliance that has, after all, seemed to advance American hegemony. They appointed to key policymaking positions, furthermore, proponents of a close US military relationship with Israel: in particular, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger; Director of State’s Policy Planning Staff Dennis Ross; National Security Council expert for Middle East affairs Richard Haass; and National Security Counselor Peter Rodman.

The other election of November 1988 was in Israel, which left Yitzhak Shamir as prime minister but moved the foreign ministry from Labor’s Shimon Peres to the Likud’s Moshe Arens. The new Israeli foreign minister, who had grown up in the US, chose as his second-in-command another American, Binyarnin Netanyahu, whose talents for demagoguery had been amply displayed during his stint as Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. So while Bush’s Middle East policy machinery was left in the hands of men well disposed toward Israel, the Israeli foreign ministry was now led by individuals with a mastery of the American political idiom and skilled in the media game of spin control.

This remarkable fit raises questions about the paternity of the “Shamir peace plan.” Before Bush took office, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy published a report, Building for Peace, that set out the approach adopted in all its essentials by the new administration. The Institute is headed by Martin Indyk, former deputy director of research for the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Along with Indyk on the “Presidential Study Group” that produced the report were Eagleburger, Ross and Haass. Their prescription featured “free elections in the territories to produce a representative Palestinian leadership” that would serve as an alternative to the PLO. Small surprise, then, that Eagleburger “wholeheartedly” endorsed Shamir’s proposal and Ross hailed it as “the only game in town.” [1]

The Study Group saw elections as a concluding phase of a “prolonged process.” By the time Bush and Baker took office, though, the outgoing Reagan administration had already agreed to talk with the PLO in Tunis, and developments in the Territories had created just the sort of urgency that the Study Group counseled against. On January 20, the date of Bush’s inauguration, Israeli Defense Minister Rabin floated the idea of elections once Palestinians had halted the intifada. Pressures on Shamir came from an unaccustomed quarter as well. In early February, at a meeting in Jerusalem, Foreign Minister Arens failed to get the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to join Israel in condemning the US-PLO talks.

In Washington, meanwhile, officials told Shamir confidant Elyakim Rubinstein that the US wanted Shamir to present “a serious, tempting offer of real autonomy.” [2] This was necessary, officials said, to “shield” Israel from mounting European pressure for an international peace conference. Arens received similar counsel when he visited Washington in mid-March, and not just from the State Department. At a closed-door meeting with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, senators told Arens that public support for Israel was eroding and that Israel should appear “willing to go the extra mile.” “It was a discussion between friends,” one senator said later, “and he understood exactly what we were talking about.” [3] In Israel, newspapers cited an Israeli intelligence agency report concluding that no alternative leadership to the PLO existed in the Occupied Territories. Secretary of State Baker twice told Congress he would not rule out the need for negotiations between Israel and the PLO, although he did repeat US opposition to a Palestinian state.

The plan extracted from Shamir when he visited Washington in early April followed the Washington Institute prescription and allowed Ross and other US officials to indulge, for a time at least, their penchant for burying substance under mounds of procedure. Ross was the US official primarily responsible for day-to-day efforts to get Shamir to embrace the “Shamir plan.” This had the consequence, doubtless intended, of granting endless opportunities for delay to the Israeli opponents of any change in the status quo.


There is, however, a difference between the US conception of the elections scheme and that of Shamir’s Likud. The US idea — and this coincides with the strategy of Israeli Labor Party leaders Rabin and Peres — is to draw out a team of Palestinian negotiators, albeit with PLO sanction, whose existence will then justify the marginalization of the PLO. Shamir, by contrast, is determined not only to avoid substance but also any procedural step that might have implications for substance. Thus he will not even use the bait of interminable talks with the PLO to undermine the PLO. He sees “his” proposal solely as a device to obstruct any such “progress,” convinced that conceding any legitimacy to Palestinian aspirations, no matter how slight, risks starting Israel down a slippery slope toward an independent Palestinian state.

The Bush approach of tying up Israelis, Palestinians, and Egyptians in issues of procedure may have reached its apogee in the Baker plan: variations on the Mubarak plan, which was itself a gloss on the Shamir plan, which derived from the Washington Institute report. The Baker scheme proposed a process of exasperating complexity and indirectness: a) American contacts with the parties to bring about b) a meeting in Cairo between American, Egyptian and Israeli foreign ministers to select members of a Palestinian delegation which would c) sit down with the Israelis to discuss the framework of negotiations which would d) lead to elections in the Occupied Territories to choose Palestinian negotiators who would e) decide with Israel on the terms of an autonomy scheme for these territories for a period of several years, which would eventually, in the fullness of time, produce f) final status negotiations on issues of substance.

This scheme was designed to protect Israel from having to decide whether it really wanted to make any concessions toward a settlement. But neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians were born yesterday. They immediately perceived in this ludicrously convoluted plan the outlines of crucial issues of substance, such as the status of Jerusalem and the issue of Palestinians outside the Occupied Territories.

The US, by insisting that Shamir was indispensable to any successful negotiations, participated in paralyzing any movement. The administration did evidently believe that Shamir would find it difficult to detach himself from the plan which bore his name, and devoted its efforts toward pressuring the PLO to sanction the process. The PLO seems to have adopted the successful Israeli strategy of old: simply declining to say no, despite the most serious reservations. This forced Shamir’s hand.

This is significant because it means that even the containment tactics, the endless delaying maneuvers, and the bloody-minded obstructionism of Shamir and so many supporters of Israel in the United States have not been able to smother the impact of the intifada. The apparent fit of Arens and Netanyahu in Tel Aviv with Eagleburger and Ross in Washington would, in years past, have been more than sufficient to ice any settlement agenda that includes the question of Palestinian national rights. The intifada (with no help at all from the supine Arab states, we might add) has forced into the open some potentially significant differences between the US and Israel — the various remarks of Sen. Bob Dole on the subjects of aid and Jerusalem represent the tip of this iceberg — and within Israeli and American Jewish political communities.

Signs of opposition within leading American Jewish circles to the hardline policies of the Likud to some extent reflect political differences in Israel itself. What is new is that the Israeli government is no longer able to suppress those differences in the US. “The problem is that right now the American Jewish community is running faster than the Israeli government or the US government,” acknowledged Seymour Reich, of B’nai Brith, after meeting with George Bush in March 1989. [4] Reich himself has long been a loyal flackmaster for the Israeli government, but unlike Shamir he is not content to deny the abundant signs of disaffection. Among these are:

  • When Rep. Ted Weiss sent out a constituent questionnaire to his Seventeenth Congressional District on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which includes a high proportion of Jews, 10,000 responded and 81 percent favored Israeli-PLO negotiations; [5]
  • Rep. Sidney Yates found that 66 percent of his constituents in Illinois’ Ninth District, also with a high proportion of Jews, favored “a PLO state”; [6]
  • When Israel campaigned to cut off US-PLO talks in July 1989, three prominent organizations — the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations — openly lobbied against such a step; [7]
  • When the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, a major Jewish umbrella group, met in late February 1990 to forge a “joint program plan” to guide local councils, the document had to acknowledge “non-consensus” over US-PLO talks and the “legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism”; [8]
  • A poll conducted by the Tel Aviv-based Israel-Diaspora Institute among 780 officials and leaders of American Jewish organizations found 74 percent in favor of talks between Israel and the PLO and 76 percent in favor of territorial compromise. [9]

The Bottom Line

These important shifts of opinion, though, do not affect the bottom line — US aid to Israel. Sen. Dole’s suggestion in January 1990 for a 5 percent cut in foreign aid to major recipients (to fund programs in Eastern Europe) brought indignant howls from supporters of Israel. The tide of Soviet Jewish immigrants will likely elicit further funds, although Sen. Daniel Inouye’s plan for $500 million in additional grants was headed off by other partisans of Israel who feared Inouye’s bill might indeed pass but then create a popular backlash. Two more level-headed colleagues, Sens. Bob Kasten and Patrick Leahy, proposed instead a mere $400 million in housing loan guarantees (which if passed will represent a virtual Israeli takeover of that particular aid program).

What the intifada has accomplished, in terms of US policy, is this. It has forced American policymakers, including those partisan to Israel, to acknowledge that simple suppression of Palestinian national demands is not working, that a policy of political cooptation is needed as well. This is in line with the calculation made by Israeli Labor Party leaders like Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, and has precipitated the present confrontation with the ruling Likud Party.

Given the extent of political division in Israel and among American Jews over the occupation, to the point that even religious Zionist parties are endorsing “land for peace,” and given the weight that Washington’s views must have in determining Israeli policy in this regard, even a new government headed by Yitzhak Shamir will come under heavy pressure to sign on to the Baker plan.

This in itself will mean very little, though. Palestinian self-determination is expressly not on the agendas of the major political coalitions in either the US or Israel. All the issues that have bedeviled negotiations so far — status of Jerusalem residents, role of Palestinians outside the territories — will be compounded once meetings commence. There is no reason to expect pressures from any quarter, and especially not from Washington, to achieve any breakthrough. Matters of procedure will continue to obscure matters of substance. US funding will continue at the pace of more than $8.5 million per day.

The old political blocs of intransigence surrounding the Palestine question in the US are beginning — but just beginning — to come apart. New hegemonic alignments favoring a “land-for-peace” formula along with Palestinian political self-determination have not yet formed. The Palestinians themselves will bear the main burden of forcing this transition to continue. It is necessary for their supporters in the United States and Israel to join them in raising the costs of the status quo. We endorse efforts of groups like Act on Conscience to raise directly the need to tie US aid to Israel to that country’s violations of Palestinian rights and international law. The aid question should not be mainly a matter of redirecting resources to Eastern Europe. It is time for the list of changes in the world to include US policy in the Middle East.


[1] Jerusalem Post, October 7, 1989.
[2] New York Times, March 6, 1989.
[3] New York Times, March 15, 1989.
[4] Washington Jewish Week, March 16, 1989.
[5] Mailing to constituents, 1989.
[6] Mailing to constituents, March 18, 1989.
[7] Washington Jewish Week, July 27, 1989.
[8] Washington Jewish Week, March 1, 1990.
[9] New York Times, February 10, 1990.

How to cite this article:

Rashid Khalidi, Joe Stork "Washington’s Game Plan in the Middle East," Middle East Report 164-165 (May/June 1990).

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