Despite the recent visits of Prime Minister Netanyahu and Chairman Arafat to Washington, and irrespective of the flood of statements promising the reinvigoration of the "peace process," little is going to happen. Yassir Arafat arrived in Washington expecting the Clinton Administration to deliver significant and unilateral concessions from Israel. In the White House, Arafat openly demanded that Israel immediately turn over 60% more of the West Bank. He specified that the new withdrawal he is demanding should be in addition to the 27% Israel has already turned over to the PA, along with Gaza." Coming out of a meeting with President Clinton in which he was told about the latest Israeli offers, Arafat quipped that "what he [Netanyahu] is offering us is peanuts and we cannot accept it."
The most significant and most telling aspect of Arafat's visit to Washington was his addressing of the Palestinian Covenant issue. Arafat brought with him a letter to President Clinton that was a recycling of earlier letters to Israeli and European leaders. A close examination of this letter shows that the PLO acknowledges that the Covenant has not been amended yet. The key paragraph of the letter reads: "All of the provisions of the Covenant which are inconsistent with the PLO commitment to recognize Israel are no longer in effect. As a result, Articles 6 through 10, 15, 19 through 23, and 30, have been nullified. And the parts in Articles 1 through 5, 11 through 14, 16 through 18, 25 through 27, and 29, which are inconsistent with the above-mentioned commitments have also been nullified. These changes will be reflected in any [future] official publication of the Charter." In other words, even Arafat's own letter acknowledges that the changes will only be reflected in some future "official publication of the Covenant" and not in any current document.
Meanwhile, Arafat adamantly refuses to convene the full 600-member PNC -- the only legal body capable of amending the Covenant in accordance with the Covenant's own charter. Instead, Arafat offered the Clinton Administration a compromise. He proposed to convene the PLO Executive Committee whose 20 members represent his own faction of the PLO as well as are elected PNC delegates. "The PLO Executive Committee is the alternative to the PNC," Nabil Shaath explained. "In its absence, the PLO Executive Committee will explain the decisions of the PNC regarding the Charter [=Covenant] to the Israeli and American sides." Even Shaath acknowledges that the PLO Executive Committee will not have the legal power to formally amend the Covenant.
Other Palestinian officials openly acknowledge that the Covenant issue is an instrument of exerting pressure in order to extract more concessions from Israel. Back on May 5, 1996, the head of the PNC's Judicial Committee, Gaza lawyer Faisal Hamdi Husseini announced that a new covenant would be submitted in three months for ratification by the PNC. On January 22, 1998, Husseini explained to IMRA's Aaron Lerner that the actual amending of the Palestinian Covenant depends on Israeli actions. "There has been a decision to change the Covenant. The change has not yet been carried out." Husseini stated that there were no technical problems holding up the amending process. "When one side advances matters" he said, "the second side will also advance."
Indeed, even State Department spokesman James Rubin could not certify that the Palestinian Covenant has been changed. He would not call Arafat's document anything more than an "important step for completing the process of revising the Covenant."
In any event, irrespective of the interpretations of any nuance of Arafat's words and deeds while in Washington, ultimately, the lingering importance of these events lies in their deriving from, and contributing to, the continued evolution of the "Peace Process." Thus, the significance of these and related developments should be examined in the context of both the overall situation in the Middle East and the doctrines of Yassir Arafat and his Palestinian Authority (PA).
The essence of the peace process with the Palestinians amounts to Israeli withdrawal from the strategically vital West Bank in return for a series of agreements signed by Yassir Arafat. Even though this process has started in Oslo in 1993, and even though the PA repeatedly assured the US of its determination to abide by outstanding commitments (as stipulated in the 'Ross note' signed during the Hebron negotiations in January 1997), to-date Arafat is yet to abide by a single important commitment he has made:
1. The Palestinian Covenant that explicitly calls for the destruction of Israel by force of arms is yet to be amended. Deputy PNC Chairman Salim Zaanun has repeatedly denied reports, including these emanating from official Palestinian sources, that attributed to him overseeing an effort to formulate a proposed draft for a new Palestinian National Covenant, let alone that such a new version exists.
2. The PA has entered into numerous agreements of tacit cooperation and coexistence with the HAMAS, Islamic Jihad, and other terrorist organizations. Their "fighting" of terrorism is lack luster at best, and the PA adamantly refuses to extradite to Israel suspects in terrorist operations in violation of signed agreements.
3. The PA is accumulating weapons and other military equipment far beyond the quantities permitted for their "police." The latest estimates of the Palestinian illegal arsenal talk about over 35,000 small arms (almost twice the permissible number), as well as a host of types of weapons the PA is not permitted to have: surface to air missiles, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, katyusha rockets, mines and bombs. Moreover, the PA has embarked on an active program of fortification, digging of obstacles, building roads, and preparing for a major armed clash with Israel. Indeed, Arafat himself warns of the resumption of violence -- a new Intifadah -- if he does not get what he wants. The latest statement to this effect was made on January 18, 1998 -- on the eve of the visits to Washington. "We are ready to sacrifice for Palestine with our souls and blood," Arafat told a crowd of thousands of supporters in Gaza. "Did you forget the Intifadah? We had seven years of Intifadah, and we are ready to start anew, and from the beginning, so that everyone should know we are ready," Arafat declared. "Our people is a people of martyrs." And to ensure the impact of his declaration, Arafat repeated: "I want to tell the people, far or near, that we are ready, that we are a nation of martyrs."
On the eve of Arafat's visit to Washington, Palestine National Council Speaker Salim al-Zaanun reiterated the viability of the armed struggle and terrorism options. "We will resort to all resistance methods if matters reach an impasse or if Netanyahu cancels the peace process and the Oslo agreement," Zaanun explained. In case Washington fails to deliver on Arafat's demands, "the Palestinian people will be compelled to recover their own land by all means." The mere threat of renewed violence is a major issue. The essence of any peace process is the renunciation of the use of force (including threats) as a legitimate and viable means of resolving outstanding disagreements between the parties involved. Moreover, Arafat's September 9, 1993, letter to Rabin that started the formal peace process includes Arafat's commitment that the PLO "renounces the use of terrorism and other acts of violence." This promise was a precondition for the Israeli recognition of the PLO and the subsequent signing of the Oslo Accords. Hence, Arafat's repeated threats to renew violence are in contradiction with the most profound tenet underlining Israel's entry into the peace process with the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians continue to clearly state their ultimate objective in the peace process. In early January, 1998, Arafat reiterated that the peace process with Israel takes place in accordance with the June 1974 decision of the Palestinian National Council (PNC) that formally adopted the "program of phases." This "program of phases" authorizes the PLO to establish a Palestinian state on any area Israel will withdraw from in order to organize there a springboard for the ultimate liberation of the entire Palestine -- the destruction of Israel. Presently, senior PA officials do not conceal the validity of this interpretation. For example, in early January 1998, Abdul Anis Shaheen, the PA Minister of supplies, told the PA's official newspaper al-Hayah al-Jadeedah: "The Oslo Accord was a preface for the Palestinian Authority, and the Palestinian Authority will be a preface for the Palestinian State, which, in turn, will be a preface for the liberation of the entire Palestinian Land."
Moreover, the PA continues to insist on the implementation of the "right of return" principle -- namely, the flooding of pre-1967 Israel with the families of the refugees of 1948. If the right of return is honored as demanded by the PA, Israel will cease to exist. And the "right of return" is a sacred cause for Arafat. After all the PLO has been established, and original Covenant signed, in May 1964 -- three years BEFORE the Six Day War and Israel's acquisition of the territories. Arafat's veteran and loyal constituency comes from the pre-1967 Israel, and for them no Palestinian State in any part of the West Bank and Gaza constitutes a solution of the Palestinian Problem.
Arafat himself shares this perception. In the first week of January 1998, Arafat delivered a stirring speech in which he appealed to the residents of the refugee camps in Lebanon (all of whom are from families of the refugees of 1948) to support him in their common struggle for a Palestinian State. Discussing his forthcoming talks in Washington, Arafat stated: "We have now placed the refugee problem at the top of our list of priorities. We are one people and we will insist on all our rights, including the right of return."
Thus, rhetoric not withstanding, there is no indication that the Middle East is heading toward an era of peace. The dominant trend in the Middle East in the continued militarization and large- scale build-up of both conventional forces and weapons of mass destruction. Israel is faced with emergence of a coalition led by Iran, Syria and Iraq, as well as a wavering Egypt. Moreover, the build-up of Palestinian forces places hostile forces at the heart of Israel.
This trend creates an unprecedented level of threat to Israel. The lethality of conventional forces makes it impossible for Israel to absorb an Arab attack in its pre-1967 boundaries. The forces arrayed against Israel are bigger than the Iraqi army that faced the US-led coalition in 1991. Yet the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) cannot deploy to the same type of defensive positions that the coalition forces did simply because this will put them in the middle of the Mediterranean. Even with the West Bank, Israel is too narrow. With the defensive positions in the Jordan Valley, the mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria, and the Golan Heights, the IDF may still be able to withstand an Arab-Iranian offensive -- albeit suffering extremely heavy casualties. The Iranian commitment is not a theoretical scenario. Since the Spring of 1996, Iran has conducted several exercises of its Velayat Force -- a multiple-division strong expeditionary force dedicated to participation in a regional war against Israel. Thus, without the current defensive positions, Israel will live on edge, just like before 1967, compelled to preempt if it wants to survive the emergence of a hostile coalition.
The ballistic missiles tipped with weapons of mass destruction arrayed against Israel, can for the first time in Israel's history actually annihilate the civilian population. This represents a level of threat that did not exist before. And no government can expect to yield strategic assets while this kind of a threat keeps hanging over its citizenry. Thus, given the dismal track record of Palestinian compliance with their signed commitments, and given the unsettling statements of intent and ultimate objectives made by Yassir Arafat and his close aides, Jerusalem must concentrate on addressing the mounting security challenges before considering the White House's demands from Israel to undertake yet another cycle of unilateral concessions.
Yossef Bodansky has been the Freeman Center's world terrorism analyst since 1994.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, the U.S. Congress, or any other branch of the U.S. Government.