1988 Oped

The Leopard's Spots
December 23, 1988

After a few false starts, Yasser Arafat finally uttered the magic words demanded by George Shultz and the United States administration. He condemned terrorism, apparently accepted the right of Israel to exist, and agreed to seek a negotiated compromise over the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, for many, including Yitzhak Shamir and most of the Likud and the Israeli "right," Arafat's words in Geneva, like the resolutions adopted in Algeria and the meetings in Stockholm, were nothing more than a change of tactics, designed to further the inflexible goal of destroying the Jewish state.

For this group, no formula, no speech, and no conceivable action could legitimize Arafat or the Palestine Liberation Organization and render either a suitable partner for negotiation. After more than 60 years of violence directed at the Jewish presence and claim to Israel, many Israelis argue that the Palestinian leadership, and the PLO in particular, is incapable of the radical changes necessary for peace. Negotiations would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state, which would then be used as the foundation for the continued assault on Israel.

HISTORICALLY, this perspective has broad support. Hitler frequently spoke of peace, particularly after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938. In the 19th century, the leaders of the Serbs pledged that, in exchange for the establishment of an independent state, the violence and terror in the Balkans would cease. After it was created, Serbia became a centre for terrorist operations in the Balkans, and contributed greatly to the outbreak of the First World War.

According to this view, revolutionary groups and nations in the international system are incapable of fundamental change, and assertions of such changes are merely tactical, designed to obscure the unchanging ultimate goal. For this reason, similar cases have often been received cautiously and sceptically. In 1977, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat announced that he was coming to Jerusalem to make peace with Israel, Chief of Staff Mordechai Gur was convinced it was a trick - the prelude to a surprise attack - and placed the armed forces on alert.

Similarly, the U.S. treated Gorbachev's initial statements about, and moves towards, glasnost with scepticism.

For decades, the Soviet Union had been the leading revolutionary power in the international system, threatening to "bury" the capitalist system. The "Evil Empire" had been responsible for instability and violence all over the world. The Kremlin supported Castro and invaded Afghanistan, and, according to the Reagan administration, armed and supported Nicaragua in an effort to subvert Central America.

While there is still room for debate, the evidence shows that both Sadat and Gorbachev were indeed capable of a radical change of direction. The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty survived the assassination of Sadat, and has held for 10 years. Similarly, Reagan, America's most anti-Communist president, has been to Moscow and signed a major arms-control agreement with the Soviets.

Gorbachev has gone a long way towards implementing major changes in Soviet society, including significant liberalization measures which were unimaginable five years ago.

How, then, is it possible to distinguish individuals or political movements that are capable of change from those which are not? A careful analysis of the above cases suggests a number of criteria.

In the first place, even in a closed and non-democratic system, radical change in the objectives of a state or political movement cannot be accomplished secretly or in isolation. Such change must be visible to the general population, and gain their support.

Sadat's trip to Jerusalem was carried out in full view of the Egyptian people and the Arab world, and while there was, and continues to be, considerable opposition to the peace process, relations with Israel have continued for a decade despite his assassination.In the same way, Gorbachev has clearly fought for and developed broad support for glasnost, and opponents of arms reductions and other actions have been removed from office. These are clear indications that the changes are not merely tactical.

In order to sustain a radical shift, a political movement must also confront the past realistically. Only through this psychologically painful process can the contrast between the new and the old be illuminated. Such confrontation will prevent, or at least make more difficult, a drift back to previous policies and objectives.

Thus, Gorbachev realized the need to further repudiate Stalin and his legacy, and to "rehabilitate" Stalin's victims. He clearly blamed the mistakes of the past for the problems of Soviet society.

Although less forthright about Egypt's responsibility for the conflict and wars with Israel, Sadat acknowledged the errors of the past on the Arab side.

MEASURED BY these standards, there are some indications of a basic change in PLO objectives, but the evidence is far from clear.

In contrast to previous hints to Western reporters regarding the acceptance of Israel, the statements of the PNC in Algiers, and of Arafat in Stockholm and Geneva, were made in public after intensive discussion within the PLO leadership and throughout the Arab world.

Each statement was the carefully crafted outcome of these discussions, and not the words of Arafat alone. After 40 years during which any discussion of compromise or acceptance of the State of Israel was unthinkable, these speeches and statements, broadcast in Arabic mark a major change. The often angry opposition within the Palestinian movement is an indication of the extent of change inherent in these statements.

On the other hand, precisely because Arafat's statements were directed at the outside world, and specifically at the U.S., and were not designed to signal change to the Palestinians themselves, they appear to be more tactical than strategic.

The condemnation of terrorism was obviously made reluctantly to please the Americans, and George Shultz in particular, rather than to influence the behaviour of the Palestinians. To end the decades of terrorism, including hijacking, brutal murders, and the murder of children, statements for foreign audiences are not enough.

Similarly, the recognition of Israel, even in the final version as drafted by the U.S. State Department, fell short of full and unequivocal acceptance of Israel's right to exist in peace as a sovereign Jewish state.

Most importantly, the Palestinians have yet to confront the past and their responsibility not only for their own tragedy, but for the decades of violence and terror they forced on Israel.

In accepting the two-state solution and UN resolution 181 over 40 years too late, the PNC in Algiers tacitly acknowledged these mistakes. But radical changes in objectives and strategy require more than tacit recognition: these must be made explicit and the consequences must be addressed.

When the true story of the 1967 war, in which the West Bank and Gaza became "occupied territories," is acknowledged, real change may be possible.

Only when Palestinian children are taught to understand the terror and fear that Israel experienced at that time will they be prepared for peace. As long as they are told, and believe, that it is Israel which is responsible for their problems, the psychological conditions necessary for major change will be absent.

Much, of course, will depend on the actions of the Palestinians and the PLO, especially with regard to terrorism. If Arafat and the PLO take the steps necessary to demonstrate that a change in objectives has taken place, and that the Palestinians are indeed ready to live in peace, they will, in time, find growing acceptance in Israel.

If, on the other hand, terrorism continues, and the PLO hides behind various organizational facades, rather than acting to end the terror that it began, all the recent statements, and the American response in particular, will be less than meaningless. In that case, Shamir and the Israeli right will have been proven correct, and it will be that much harder for the process to begin again.