by David Saperstein
Yitzhak Rabin (of blessed memory) was right. The current Middle East crisis, which many have seen as evidence that the peace process was fundamentally flawed, dramatically affirms the late Israeli prime minister's four core assertions regarding Israel's stake in the peace process.
First, Rabin argued that Israel had only three options for resolving what to do with the territories it controlled since the 1967 "Six Day War." It could invoke Jewish defense extremist Meir Kahane's option of ethnic cleansing, of forcing the Palestinians out of the territories - an option, Rabin argued, which was morally anathema to the deepest values of Israel and the Jewish people. Or, it could hold the territories by use of force, feeding the growing frustration and anger of the Palestinians, ensuring an escalating intifada, and requiring responses that Rabin repeatedly warned would demoralize the soul of the Israeli people (including Israel's army), evoke persistent condemnation of the world, and increase the prospects of full-scale war with the Arab world. Finally, Israel could develop a relationship with the Palestinians rooted in a just and secure peace and in normalization with her neighbors.
The "I told you so" gloating of the Israeli right notwithstanding, Israel must live with its neighbors. To this day, the right has never offered an alternative to Rabin's analysis.
Second, Rabin asserted that only a peace process could address Israel's long-term security needs. The current violence vividly reminds us what the peace process wrought for much of the 1990's - no intifada and unprecedented low rates of terrorism, in no small measure due to effective cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces. Most importantly, Israel's gravest long-term threats come from the extremist regimes of Iraq and Iran, which are not only the most belligerent but also the ones most likely to obtain non-conventional weapons. Rabin, like Barak, understood that peace agreements with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria could allow Israel to focus its strategic planning to address these most important long-term threats and help isolate the extremists. [While the crisis may well worsen, today, it is the Iraqis who have sent forces to their borders ostensibly to support the Palestinian violence, not the Egyptians, Jordanians, or, for that matter, the Syrians.]
Third, a process of normalization with Israel's neighbors, Rabin argued, was indispensable if Israel was to have political and economic relations with the world community, sustained economic growth, and the ability to address regional economic and environmental challenges. Indeed, the peace process brought just such international normalization (including diplomatic relations with ten Arab nations) - and with it the most extraordinary economic expansion and growth in Israel's history. These strategic and economic improvements helped ready the Israeli public to accept compromise in exchange for a real peace.
[Sadly, the same was not happening on the Palestinian side. Inadequate international investment and aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the PA's inept and corrupt bureaucracy cheated the Palestinian people of the economic benefits of peace, even as they saw the Israelis prosper. The peace process was further undermined by too many Palestinian religious, cultural, and educational entities inculcating hatred towards, and distrust of, the Israelis. Relatedly, the persistent Israeli failure to provide its Arab citizens with equal rights and opportunities and equal government and social services exacerbated the mounting tensions and the rising Palestinian identification of these Israeli citizens.]
Finally, Rabin knew that the path to peace would not be easy or straight. There would be detours, pitfalls, and obstacles. As Abba Eban often observed, "Nations will always do the right thing after they have exhausted all other possibilities." Rabin and Barak helped a majority of Israelis see that they had reached that point. Clearly, Palestinian Chairman Yasir Arafat believes the Palestinians have not yet exhausted other options. [As violence seemingly brought gains against Israel in the Intifada, the Tunnel controversy, and the Hezbollah opposition in Lebanon, Arafat apparently felt it was a more useful approach now than taking the courageous steps towards an agreement and then leading his people to embrace the compromises that could fulfill much of the aspirations of the Palestinian people.] But he is wrong. When even the majority of the Israeli people who supported the peace process no longer believe in Mr. Arafat's ability to bring peace, it will take far longer, with tragic consequences for many Israelis and Palestinians, to get it back on track. At a minimum, the economic plight of the Palestinian people will worsen as investment and aid dry up. These trends are likely to intensify, especially if the Palestinians unilaterally declare independence.
Where to from here? Neither the Kahane option nor the indefinite occupation/intifada option holds out hope for either side. Only a real peace provides Israel long-term security, the Palestinians a viable state, and both of them economic growth and stability. But it may be that former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, rather than Rabin, will have the next word. Dayan long held that Israel could unilaterally withdraw and erect strong borders that met its needs - and leave the Palestinians within their borders to fend for themselves. With all the problems of removing settlers within the Palestinian areas and maintaining the Jordan River as the Israeli defense line the Dayan approach entails, this will be a tempting short-term alternative to a full peace agreement. But it will not solve the long-term geopolitical and strategic challenges Israel must address nor will it give the Palestinians the viable state they can get at the bargaining table.
Rabin was right. The only question is how long it will take the parties to see it.