The fall of the government in Israel means that U.S.-sponsored efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians together will be set back for months. Rather than see this as time wasted, it can be used to reconsider the peace process as a whole.
There are two main problems. First, even if Palestinians were to accept an agreement, they are too weak to call off the Arabs' conflict with Israel. Second, available evidence suggests they cannot be satisfied by any solution short of the destruction of Israel. In all, efforts to negotiate a settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians are doomed to failure. Accordingly, American diplomatic efforts would be better directed towards the Arab states.
The support of the Arab capitals is far more crucial to an agreement's success than is the support of the residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Arab states still seek to control part or all of Palestine, even if they now disguise this aspiration. Jordanian and Syrian ambitions are most evident; their leaders actually consider Palestine rightfully part of their patrimonies. Against this, the PLO has little independent power.
Nor can Arafat impose his will even on the many Palestinian groups who reject his leadership.
A hypothetical illustration brings home Arafat's weakness. Suppose, by some miracle, he and the Israelis came to a complete agreement on Palestinian self-government. What could change? Not much. Syrian missiles and Jordanian soldiers would remain in place, as would the cold peace with Egypt, while anti-Arafat elements of the PLO would continue to engage in terrorism. The intifada would probably go on, even if weakened.
In contrast, suppose Syria's Hafiz al-Assad signed a peace treaty with the Israelis. In that case, the interstate war would come to a virtual end because Amman would immediately follow Damascus' example. Some of the Syrian-backed Palestinian groups would come to terms with Israel, as would Arafat. Even though Palestinian extremists would continue to riot, the conflict would become much less dangerous.
Thus it is a mistake to focus on the Palestinians. As Max Singer points out, "for Israel to make peace with the Palestinians while the Arab war against Israel continues would be like making peace with a hand while the rest of the body is trying to kill you." Only when peace has been attained at the state level will it become possible to deal with Palestinian aspirations.
Assuming, that is, that it will ever be possible for Israel to satisfy these aspirations safely. For there is a second major problem with the American preoccupation with Israeli-Palestinian negotiations: It postulates a Palestinian willingness to compromise and to coexist with Israel.
This postulate flies in the face of abundant evidence that most Palestinians have always sought and still seek to destroy Israel. A 1987 poll conducted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip found 78 percent of the population supporting "a democratic Palestinian state in all of Palestine," whereas only 17 percent accepted "a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip." The researchers who conducted the poll justifiably concluded that "the current leadership of the PLO is far more moderate than the Palestinian population residing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip."
The unhappy conclusion cannot be avoided: There can be either an Israel or a Palestine, but not both. To think that two states can stably and peacefully coexist in the small territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is to be either naïve or duplicitous. If the last 70 years teach anything, it is that there can be only one state west of the Jordan River. Therefore, to those who ask why the Palestinians must be deprived of a state, the answer is simple: Grant them one and you set in motion a chain of events that will lead either a chain of events that will lead either to its extinction or the extinction of Israel.
Therefore, if it once appeared that progress in the Arab-Israeli conflict was contingent on getting the Palestinians involved, it now seems just as critical to keep them away, and to pay more attention to the Arab states. Unfortunately, Washington is so insistent on making peace between Israelis and Palestinians that it no longer presses the Arab states to come to terms with Israel.
The key is Syria. However much weakened, it remains Israel's single most formidable opponent. In the aftermath of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979, the basic diplomatic question has been "Who will be the second to make peace with Israel?"
King Hussein of Jordan knows that he lacks the strength to do this; the Palestinians are also deficient. If the first Arab party to make peace was the strongest, then it follows that the second must be the second strongest—Syria. And given the "new thinking" in Moscow and Syria's dire economic situation that country is now vulnerable to outside pressure. The time has come for such pressure to be applied.
Daniel Pipes is director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. This piece is adapted from an article that appeared in the April issue of Commentary.