Reprinted from The Jerusalem Post of August 2, 1999

GAMBLING ON OUR FUTURE

By Yossi Ben-Aharon

Barak must face some hard questions before he resumes the political process.

The attitude of the Arab people toward the State of Israel...Labor believes that government-to-government agreements can themselves change the environment and fuel change on the popular level... The Labor Party... believes in a less perfect, yet achievable peace. Israel is strong enough to take calculated risks for peace based on the country's strengths, capabilities and resources."

Addressing a forum of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in August 1998, Ehud Barak, then leader of the Labor opposition, said the following: "The fundamental difference between Labor and Likud lies in their willingness to take risks for peace. Likud believes that the first step toward peace is a change in the basic attitude of the Arab people toward the State of Israel... Labor believes that government-to-government agreements can themselves change the environment and fuel change on the popular level... The Labor Party... believes in a less perfect, yet achievable peace. Israel is strong enough to take calculated risks for peace based on the country's strengths, capabilities and resources."

These words provide an insight into Prime Minister Barak's approach to the negotiation process. They echo very similar words by his predecessor, the late Yitzhak Rabin. In a meeting with American rabbis in New York shortly after the Oslo Agreement was signed, Rabin was asked what would happen if his gamble turned out bad and the Palestinians did not live up to their undertakings. Rabin answered:

We're much stronger than them and we will deal with them accordingly.

I am no apologist for the Likud and after three years under Netanyahu's leadership, nobody knows what the Likud's policy really is. Nevertheless, Barak's statement needs to be challenged by facts. We have already experienced 20 years of peace with Egypt, five years of the Palestinian Authority and many years of various covert and/or open relations with an assortment of Arab governments. Barak and his advisors must ask themselves: Has any Arab government or Arab leader made a move to influence and educate his people toward true peace with Israel, toward acceptance of Israel as a legitimate entity in the region? Can the prime minister point to any statement by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak or any of his ministers, or by Yasser Arafat or any of his associates to this effect?

Has the map of Israel finally made it into the tourist guides, school textbooks, or official maps of the region? Has any imam, in any mosque throughout the Arab world or in the Palestinian territories, preached coexistence and accommodation with Israel?

To put it bluntly, beyond constant repetition of abstract slogans such as "peace of the brave," or a "just and comprehensive peace," has any Arab leader shown that these words are not just a respectable cover for extracting territory from Israel and reducing its capacity to defend itself?

In the years 1980/81, Israel concluded some 50 memoranda with Egypt which were designed to translate the peace treaty into normal, peaceful relations between the two states. The Egyptians condescended to sign them all, that is, as long as Israel had not concluded its total withdrawal from Sinai. Since then, we have been treated to a host of excuses for not implementing any of those agreements. Today the memoranda are no longer worth the paper they were written on. When Anwar Sadat was attacked by the other Arab leaders for having signed a peace agreement with Israel, his defense was that it was the only way to retrieve the territory.

WHEN Labor came into power in 1992, they swept away the lessons of the past. The negotiations they held with Syria and the PLO were replete with one-sided concessions by Israel. The chief Israeli negotiator with Syria, Prof. Itamar Rabinovitch, characterized the Syrian position thus: "Israel remained a rival, if not an enemy, and the peace settlement should not serve to enhance its advantage over the Arabs, Syria in particular, but rather to diminish it."

Any normal person must ask: what, then, is the point of delivering the Golan Heights to Syria? There is no reason to believe that the Palestinian scenario will be any better than the Egyptian. Most probably, it will be much worse. There have been many indications to the effect that Palestinian terror has subsided only because Arafat has succeeded, by influence or by threats, to convince the Hamas to suspend their attacks as long as there is a chance of gaining more land from Israel.

Once the process of withdrawal from Israel-held territory ends, the war of attrition against Israel - psychological, diplomatic, economic and terrorist - will resume. There will be no lack of pretexts, or of extremists, who will be blamed for violating the agreements. But the main blame will be placed on Israel, either for not being generous enough in delivering territory, or for not permitting the exercise of "the right of return" of Palestinians, or for perpetuating some settlements beyond the "Green Line."

Prime Minister Barak and his government must face some hard questions before they resume the political process. What can Israel's sophisticated military might do in the face of a continuing violation of agreements by the Arab side, or in case of a resumption of Palestinian terror? Are we going to bomb Gaza or Ramallah?

Hasn't Israel taken enough "calculated risks" to its security and made enough "painful decisions"? Wouldn't it be proper to first require Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to carry out all their undertakings under the various agreements and, above all, to put an end to incitement and education against Israel? Finally - and most important - how much longer can the government of Israel continue to gamble on the security and the future of the country?

(c) Jerusalem Post 1999

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Yossi Ben-Aharon is a former director-general of the Prime Minister's Office.



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