Interviews with Daniel Pipes
The Gulf, the Arabs, and Israel
Translation of the original text: Le Golfe, les Arabes et Israël
Translated from French
Politique International: Does the allied victory in the Gulf War create new opportunities to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict?
Daniel Pipes: To a limited extent, yes, for the issue was going nowhere a year ago and the Iraqi invasion thoroughly reshuffled the pack. Questions closed for years are now being looked at again in a fresh light.
But there are also dangers. Too much preoccupation with the Arabs and Israel diverts attention from the truly fluid, dynamic situation in Iraq, Kuwait, and the rest of the Persian Gulf. In contrast to the Arab-Israeli conflict, with its deep roots, knotted diplomatic history, and legendary hatreds, the Persian Gulf confrontation is shallow, straight-forward, and emotionally quite tame. At this moment, both the opportunities and the pitfalls are greatest there. We should devote most of our attention to the Gulf, and only after some stability has been achieved revert to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Where does the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) stand today?
Having backed the wrong horse, Yasir 'Arafat lost his funding from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and all the other Arab members of the anti-Iraq alliance. (To rub salt in the wound, he also lost the $50 million or so he used to get annually from Iraq.) Making matters worse, Kuwait was the Palestinians' El Dorado, and they almost completely lost their considerable wealth in that country.
It's also safe to say that misalliance with Saddam cost the PLO its number two figure, Salah Khalaf (also known as Abu Iyad) through assassination. Khalaf was the inside man, the one who ran the organization while 'Arafat presented its public face. He was very talented and he will be sorely missed. An Israeli once told me that Khalaf was the only Palestinian leader he wished was working on Israel's side, and he's probably got a point.
If the PLO is as weak as you say, why do the residents of the West Bank and Gaza insist on getting its agreement before taking any steps on their own?
They are being cautious. The PLO has come back many times before; who is to say it won't this time too? Palestinian politics is a dangerous game and players know much better than to make enemies gratuitously.
In recent years, the PLO was at the forefront of reaching out to Israel; does its weakness mean that the extremist organizations will gain strength?
Virtually every rival of 'Arafat's-Abu Musa, Abu Nidal, Ahmad Jibril, George Habash, Nayif Hawatma, Sheikh Tamimi-adopts a harder line toward Israel. It is only those who actually live under Israeli rule (Faysal al-Husayni, Hanna Sanyura, Sari Nusayba) who show some willingness to coexist.
Will PLO weakness set back the chances for an Arabs-Israeli settlement?
I think not. Yasir 'Arafat is not the one to reach out to Israelis, for they mistrust him profoundly (probably with good reason). 'Arafat's great accomplishment was to bring the Palestinian issue to world attention; he is not the one to settle with Israel.
Are there any conditions-great power guarantees, borders, demilitarized zones, restrictions on sovereignty-in which a Palestinian state could survive and live in an enduring peace with Israel?
Considerable efforts have been to define a Palestinian state that would not endanger Israel. Ze'ev Schiff, the Israeli military analyst, would have it prohibited from deploying its own troops or weapon systems, establishing military alliances, allowing foreign military forces on its territory, or producing military weapons. The Palestinian answer to these ideas has not been encouraging, to say the least. 'Arafat has said he would accept such limits only if they applied in exactly the same measure to Israel.
But even if the Palestinians did accept restrictions, these would fail in the long run, for sovereignty has a logic of its own that would lead to crisis. Can two states stably and peacefully co-exist in the small territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River? No, the last seventy years tell us. There can be either an Israel or a Palestine, but not both. To think otherwise is to be either naïve or duplicitous. 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 to its extinction or the extinction of Israel.
Is the Palestinian-Israeli dimension the key to the Arab-Israeli conflict?
Clearly not, and for three reasons. In the first place, the Palestinians lack the power to make the ultimate decisions of war and peace. Not having the resources of a government, they can cajole or engage in terrorism, but not much more. Specifically, they cannot unilaterally end the conflict, for at least some of the states would ignore them and continue the anti-Zionist struggle.
A second reason has to do with the Palestinian unwillingness to make peace. Westerners-myself included-assume that two peoples can live together if the conditions are made right. But what does one make of the Palestinians? Anyone willing to live in peace with Israel they denounce as a collaborator and reserve the right to murder. They cheer on Saddam Husayn's Kuwait folly and name their children Scud. In opinion surveys and elections, they regularly stake out positions of breathtaking unreality. As time goes on, the Palestinian body politic appears ever more extremist. Frankly, I also find it ever more mysterious.
Finally, there is the outstandingly poor leadership of the Palestinians. The leaders themselves-the Mufti Amin al-Husayni in the inter-war period, Ahmad Shuqayri in the 1960s, Yasir 'Arafat since-and the organizations they head have been good at gaining publicity but terribly ineffectual at achieving their aims. Abba Eban once noted that the Palestinians never miss a chance to miss a chance, and he is right. Since 1920, they have turned down one opportunity after another, only to try to redeem it later. Yasir 'Arafat conditionally accepted the 1947 U.N. resolution partitioning Palestine over four decades later, in 1988; but the Israelis were no longer interested, to put it mildly. Earlier this year he indicated a willingness to talk to Jerusalem without preconditions; this would have been big news in 1988, but hardly anyone is paying attention today.
Is there a better chance for settlement by the Arab states?
Very much so. They are hierarchical institutions set up for taking decisions, unlike the Palestinian organizations. Raison d'état keeps the states from the same pur et dur positions adopted by irredentist movements. Also, the states don't need an Arab Palestine; it's a luxury for them.
The U.S. government recently adopted a "two-track approach" to the Arab-Israeli conflict; what do you think of this change in policy?
I am delighted by it. Think back: the heroic era of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East-the Kissinger and Carter years-was all premised on negotiations between Israel and the Arab states. Then, for a variety of reasons (the Iran-Iraq war, ideological drift, economic troubles), the states dropped out and let themselves be replaced by the Palestinians. From about 1985 until the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, virtually all diplomacy in the region focused on the PLO and Israel. There was no real chance of this working, for it demanded concessions from Israelis without giving them anything in return.
The two-track deals with this problem, for it both asks something of the Israelis and gives them something. Sure, they have to make concessions to the Palestinians, but in return they get something from the Arab states. What makes this parallel especially functional is the fact that what Israel seeks from the Arab states-recognition and acceptance of its national identity-closely parallels what the Palestinians seek from Israel.
Which will be the second Arab state to make peace with Israel?
Israelis used to say that Lebanon would be the second state to make peace. The Lebanese wanted to end the conflict with Israel but lacked the strength to do so against the furies of Arab opinion. For a moment in 1983 it looked like this would be the case. The Egyptian-Israel peace treaty was signed in 1979, then came the Lebanese-Israeli accord of May 1983. But the latter did not even last a year. Under Syrian pressure, the Lebanese government abrogated it.
I conclude from this episode that the strongest Arab state was the first to make peace with Israel; and that the second strongest will come second. That excludes Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and well as a hypothetical Palestinian state. For the moment it also excludes Iraq. Syria is that state.
This raises the obvious questions: Is Hafiz al-Asad interested in peace with Israel?
There are now two models of Arab negotiation with Israel, the Sadat model and the 'Arafat model. Sadat was essentially sincere; even if he did harbor some Machiavellian ideas about undermining Israel by accepting it, he changed his policy and made peace with it. 'Arafat, to the contrary, was insincere. He used the negotiating process as an end in itself (primarily to split the United States from Israel) and never had a change of heart about Israel.
I believe Asad fits the 'Arafat model much more closely than the Sadat one. This makes me pessimistic about his reaching an accord with Israel.
Why such pessimism? After all, Asad is more like Sadat than 'Arafat; he heads a state and he seeks to regain some real estate. Why doubt his sincerity?
Because of internal Syrian politics. Here the key fact is that Asad comes from a despised minority community, the 'Alawis. This is a large and complicated issue, but suffice to say that an 'Alawi ruling in Damascus is about as unacceptable to the Sunni majority as an Untouchable ruling India or a Jew becoming tsar of Russia. This opposition puts immense pressure on the Asad regime to find mechanisms by which to reach out to the Sunni majority. Several means have been tried-allowing a measure of capitalism, bringing Sunnis into high positions into the government-and anti-Zionism. I believe (but Syria being a closed society, I have no proof) that standing up to Israel wins Asad popular support in Syria, in large part because Syrians see Palestine rightfully as a part of their own country.
This being the case, Asad will be very cautious about foregoing anti-Zionism. Should he abandon this theme, he may have a very hard time finding a justification for his continued rule. He is little inclined to losing this instrument of power. The Golan Heights under Israeli rule for twenty-four years is an embarrassment, to be sure (especially as Asad himself was defense minister when they were lost), but regaining them may not be worth the price. Put the other way around, Asad may gain from the occasional punch in the nose administered by Israel.
I admit that this is a fairly elaborate explanation, and that it might well be all wrong. Accordingly, I support efforts to bring Asad into a negotiating process with Israel. My expectations are low, however.
What needs to change for a Syrian leader to be prepared to make peace with Israel?
That requires a Sunni ruler. As an 'Alawi, Asad is especially suspect, for his community historically has been indifferent or even positively inclined toward the Zionist enterprise. For example, six 'Alawi notables, possibly including Asad's grandfather Sulayman, signed a petition to Léon Blum in June 1936 which expressed solidarity with the Zionists in Palestine. ("Those good Jews brought civilization and peace to the Arab Muslims, and they dispersed gold and prosperity over Palestine without damage to anyone or taking anything by force.") This sort of thing is hard to live down. Asad has to be more Catholic than the pope, more Sunni than the Sunnis.
A Sunni leader would have a wider menu of policy options. I am not predicting peace with Israel, but it is something he could much more readily engage in.
Will the Lebanese pay the price if Damascus reaches an agreement with Israel?
The two issues are hardly related. The Syrian government has since the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975 steadily increased and consolidated its hold over that unhappy country. No outside power is now ready to take on the Syrians. (Three have tried-France, the United States, Israel-and all failed.) And the Lebanese themselves will long remain too divided to push the Syrian forces out. So, the Syrians will control most of Lebanon, regardless of their relations with Israel.
Is King Husayn of Jordan in a stronger position domestically now that he has won the enthusiastic support of his subjects?
The idea is now making the rounds that the king can exploit his new popularity with the Palestinians to push Yasir 'Arafat aside and represent them. Given the long history of Jordanian-Palestinian tensions, including the Jordanian destruction of PLO power in 1970 and the Jordanian claim to the West Bank, this strikes me as highly unlikely.
Yet the king's unfortunate alliance with Saddam Husayn has done him surprisingly little damage. For all their anger at him, the authorities in Jerusalem and Washington realize they need him (the alternatives are far worse), and those in Riyadh and Cairo will probably soon follow suit.
What about the long-term identity of Jordan; is demography destiny? Is it fated to be ruled by Palestinians?
The unclear identity of Jordan once again became a major issue during the Kuwait Crisis. A prosperous lawyer working near the Royal Palace in Amman told a reporter last fall, "I have never felt Jordanian-never"; similarly, a trucker observed, "I'd sacrifice everything for Saddam, anything. Even Jordan." These sentiments typify Palestinian views. They raise profound questions about the country's long-term future. Recognizing these tensions, Crown Prince Hasan announced last November (in a highly unusual statement for someone of his standing) that "our small country of 3.5 million is on the brink of extinction." While extinction does not appear likely at this time, the country (like Israel) is in jeopardy so long as a sizeable group of people challenge its essential nature, in this case the Hashemite monarchy.
If Palestinians take over Jordan does it become the Palestinian state? Is the Palestinian issue thus solved, as Ariel Sharon would have it?
It would be a Palestinian state, but not the Palestinian state. Amman cannot be substituted for Jerusalem. The PLO would gladly take Jordan-think how much stronger it would be ruling a territory adjoining Israel-but it would never be satisfied by it. Palestinian leaders are absolutely unequivocal about this. Salah Khalaf asserted in late 1990 that "there is no alternative to the Palestinian land for establishing our independent state. . . . We will not accept any solution outside Palestine." Mr. Sharon's scheme would augment Palestinian power but not solve the Palestinian issue.
Have attitudes towards the PLO changed in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the other Gulf sheikhdoms?
Yes, very much so. Take the Saudis. For decades, their publicists celebrated Yasir 'Arafat; but the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait prompted them to articulate their true feelings, and these were not pretty. Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, called 'Arafat "that clown," a mild epithet compared to those in newspaper articles, which referred to the PLO leadership as "hungry wolves" and "terrorists." The sense of betrayal is very acute; and I expect it will remain for many years to come.
Nor is it just the PLO as an organization that comes in for abuse; the Palestinians as a people have become suddenly non grata. The lynchings and vigilante justice against Palestinians in Kuwait is the most extreme manifestation of a widespread anger.
The war also created a hitherto unknown sense of Arab community with Israel. Perhaps the best example of this was the CNN coverage of Scud attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia, in which the anchor would go back and forth between the reporters from those two countries. Saudis felt a common interest with Israelis in having Patriots work and the U.S. air force root out the launchers. Suddenly, Gulf Arabs understood what it meant to be under the gun of an aggressive Arab leader.
Gulf Arabs are still careful to repeat, as ever, that they support the Palestinian cause. But this has more of a pro forma quality than ever before.
Do these changes have importance?
Some. The Gulf Arabs will never have decisive influence on the conflict with Israel, but they have means and they do contribute to the Arab consensus.
How about Egypt, what is its importance?
The Egyptian government has the unique option to enter or exit the conflict with Israel, depending on its own interests. King Faruq went in then got out; Gamal Abdel Nasser got the country deeply involved; Anwar as-Sadat disengaged; and Husni Mubarak has stayed out. I think it unlikely that an Egyptian leader will follow Nasser's lead and take his country back into the fray, for the simple reason that it achieved so little but cost the country so much in blood and treasure.
If I am right, Egypt will remain essentially uninvolved. Mr. Mubarak has very correctly concluded that the country's domestic issues demand his attention, and he is making a serious and admirable effort to address them. This might make him open to ridicule as the Mayor of Egypt, but it is exactly what his country needs.
Any thoughts on French policy?
I discern some shift away from the old notion that the establishment of a Palestinian state will solve the Arab-Israeli conflict; to the extent such change has occurred, it is very welcome.
May I close on what may sound like a very arrogant remark, but one which is meant in a constructive spirit? Unlike the French, who have been trading, fighting, proselytizing, and traveling in the Middle East for nine hundred years, Americans are recent newcomers to the region. As late as World War II, the U.S. presence there was mostly limited to oilmen and missionaries. Still, we have in the past decades acquired a expertise about the contemporary Middle East that results in a public debate on that region far surpassing anything now found in Europe. Beyond any specific policy recommendation, I most hope that you will catch up with us.
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