The reaction of the Arab world to Benjamin Netanyahu's victory at the polls provides important insight into both the expectations and direction of the peace process. From "radicals" to "moderates", the message was clear: if Netanyahu refuses to withdraw to the 1967 borders (including Jerusalem) and accept the right of the refugees of 1948 to return to their homes inside Israel then confrontation is inevitable. Even Egypt, whose willingness to parlay a cold peace for the return of the entire Sinai has been rewarded so far with close to $9 billion dollars in advanced American weapons, has made it quite clear that peace with Israel is subject to Israel remaining on track.
Just what track are they talking about? What is behind the slogans? The Egyptians speak of bringing Israel down to its "natural size" as a first step. And "size" is not just in terms of territory. They want Israel to be stripped of its nuclear weapons and to be at parity with Egypt in terms of conventional weapons. Syria would also like to reach conventional weapons parity with the Jewish state and the Saudis do not want to be left far behind. And since one plus one plus one does not equal one, it follows that under this scenario, a combination of Arab armies would enjoy a considerable military advantage over Israel. The additional demand that the many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of 1948 refugees and their offspring be permitted to settle within what would remain inside the pre '67 border Israel would drive yet another nail into Israel's coffin.
Simply put, the peace process as envisioned by the Arab states is ultimately a "gangplank" process for Israel.
None of this is new. And so the question is raised: if the above is true, then why did former Prime Minister Shimon Peres and others support the gangplank process?
One popular explanation in the "peace camp" was that the Arabs value the Israeli concessions made in the course of the process. When Israel's true red lines are reached, the argument goes, the Arabs will compromise because they won't want to forfeit all the gains which they made from the peace process up until then. It remains unclear, however, why the Arabs would have any reason to think that whatever gains they made until a stalemate, would have to be forfeited. After all, Mr. Peres and his associates openly stated that one of the reasons for their rush to create concessions/facts on the ground was the belief that even a victorious Likud would be unable to undo their work.
A further criticism of this explanation is that it assumes that the concessions which Israel makes - even if they disturb the Arab-Israeli balance of power - won't lead the Arabs to war in the event of a stalemate. Underlying this premise is the unstated hypothesis that the Arab decision to opt for diplomacy over war because of Israel's superiority on the battlefield is a static rather than dynamic decision. It is as if the Arabs will never again make the calculation to see if the balance has tipped in their favor.
Is the Israeli peace camp so naive? Certainly there must be more to the story than this.
Shimon Peres now provides a radically different explanation for his support of the peace process. The Israel he sees is not a regional superpower who can afford to take reasonable risks for peace. In sharp contrast, he casts Israel as a pathetic, helpless nation on the very edge of nuclear destruction. Speaking on Israel Television's popular "Popolitica" program on July 15th, Mr. Peres compared Israel's choices today to that of the Jewish People moments before the Holocaust. Israel has to continue the peace process, come what may, he explained, because otherwise the United States won't address the Iranian and Iraqi nuclear threat. Israel has to pull out of the Golan Heights in the desperate hope that in return Syria, Egypt and the other "moderate" Arab states will join in battle against Iran.
Is this a realistic assessment? Does the American decision to stop Iran and Iraq from becoming nuclear powers really hinge on Israel's willingness to divide Jerusalem? What grounds are there to assume that an Israel "reduced to its natural size" could set the agenda of her neighbors, let alone spur them into battle against third parties?
The threats which Israel faces are real. But a simplistic view of American policy combined with wishful thinking will not bring Israel any closer to an answer to these threats. No. There is little, if anything to gain from continuing down the gangplank.
Dr. Aaron Lerner is Associate IMRA (Independent Media Review & Analysis) POB 982 Kfar Sava [16 July 1996].