One-sided concessions won't bring peace

We can no longer be expected to provide the fuel to energize American policy toward the Muslim world.

abbas olmert 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
abbas olmert 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
On a March day in 1969, then-ambassador to the US Yitzhak Rabin was called to a meeting with secretary of state William Rogers. Accompanying Rabin were his deputy, Shlomo Argov, and me. Those were days of tension between Egypt and Israel. Fierce artillery exchanges were taking place across the Suez Canal in an escalating War of Attrition. Secretary Rogers opened, choosing his words, and assistant secretary Joe Sisco elaborated. As Sisco read out details from a top-secret memorandum, tension in the room began to rise. I was feverishly taking notes when Rabin whispered "Yossi, don't miss a word." When Sisco finished, there was a long pause. I glanced at Rabin. He had turned red with anger. Argov was livid and on the verge of exploding. The American initiative was what later became known as the Rogers Plan. Basically, it proposed an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-June 1967 lines, in return for a "juridical peace, buttressed by international guarantees." Normal peace, in the accepted sense of the term was "unattainable in the Middle East at this stage in history." Sisco added that the initiative was to be presented to the Soviets, as a means of testing whether the Arabs were amenable to a peace agreement. Argov could not contain himself. "You are imposing on us your terms. The Arabs will treat it as an Israeli position. They will pocket the huge concessions you are offering and press for more. You are pushing our back to the wall. It will ignite a major explosion." Rabin: "Even if we accept your suggestion on the borders, your initiative will undermine the chances of a bilateral give-and-take that stands a chance of producing results acceptable to both sides." Sisco responded: "We are not asking you to sign on the dotted line. All we want is for you to accompany us, while we apply our plan in an attempt to find out the true intentions of the Arabs and Russians." After a few rough exchanges, we returned to the embassy. Rabin and Argov went into a discussion, which turned into an argument and ended in a break between the two. Argov maintained that Israel should turn down the American proposal outright. He argued that the Arabs would pocket the concessions and then proceed to whittle down what they were supposed to give in return. Rabin opposed a direct rejection of the initiative. "Let them talk. Diplomatic blabber won't hurt us. What is important now is to ensure the continued supply of much-needed military equipment [from the US]." After some hemming and hawing, Golda Meir's government went along with Rabin. FORTY YEARS LATER, with the benefit of hindsight, a few lessons can be learned: First, obviously the Americans were testing Israel no less than the Arabs. Israel went along. Thus the precedent of (all) the territories for (less than) peace was set. By way of compensation, Israel was provided with military hardware for its defense. Second, ironically, in January 1970 the US decided to postpone the delivery of much-needed F-4 Phantom jets to Israel, under the pretext that they would add fuel to the fire. At the same time, the Egyptians (supported by the Russians) rejected the Rogers Plan and increased their artillery barrages across the canal. Nevertheless, Israel paid a price. Supported by the Soviet Union, Egypt and Syria concluded that they could improve on the Rogers Plan and decided to attack Israel on Yom Kippur 1973. Third, "territory for peace" was in reality a cover for a US strategy conceived by Henry Kissinger. Its purpose was to effectively curtail Soviet influence by brokering an Arab-Israeli agreement along the lines of the Rogers Plan. It failed to produce the hoped-for result. Only when the two sides to the conflict decided to deal directly with each other was an agreement reached and a peace treaty signed 10 years later, between Egypt and Israel. Fourth, as could be expected, the Arabs adopted the "territory for peace" formula wholeheartedly. They understood that gaining territory (or a Palestinian state) was tangible and irreversible, while "peace" depended on their goodwill. Realizing that Israel had reached the end of its tether, the Arabs adopted a clever ruse. They would recognize Israel in return for total withdrawal, acceptance of a Palestinian state and agreeing to the "right of return" of the Palestinian refugees. This was not a peace signal. It was a prescription for Israel's demise. Clearly, a thorough review of policy by both the US and Israel is called for. The last two wars that Israel has had to fight, against Hizbullah in the North and Hamas in the South, have dramatically demonstrated that formulas such as the Quartet road map or the Annapolis understandings have become irrelevant and unachievable. They would reduce Israel's strategic stance to one of permanent vulnerability. Israel can no longer be expected to provide, at the expense of its national security, the fuel to energize the American policy toward the Arab and Muslim world. Some Arab governments have come to realize that the real dangers to the region lie in a nuclear Iran and its terrorist proxies, Hizbullah and Hamas. Israeli concessions, of whatever form, will not lessen these dangers, but rather augment them. The only pressing problem today is Iran. Once it is solved, the US and Israel can cooperate in an effort to create a climate of mutual acceptance and respect in the Middle East. Israel cannot be required to make concessions so long as the Arab campaign of demonizing Israel and denying its legitimacy is maintained. Once true coexistence on a people-to-people level is achieved, the issues of territory and borders will become easier to address. The writer served as director-general of the Prime Minister's Office under Yitzhak Shamir and headed the talks with Syria following the Madrid Conference.