At a recent panel discussion at the Middle East Forum, three experts from the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center at Bar-Ilan University -- one of Israel's leading think tanks dealing with strategic issues -- analyzed their country's current situation. Overall, they argued that recent years have seen Israel's situation change in fundamental ways. Efraim Inbar is director of the BESA Center and a strategist. Barry Rubin and Shmuel Sandler are both political analysts at the Center.
Left and Right in Israel. Inbar began by commenting that observers tend "simplistically [to] view the Israeli public and the Israeli political elite as divided into two, into doves and hawks, into left and right, into the peace camp and the national camp." Rather, Israel has a large center -- about 40 percent of the population -- with 30 percent on the left and 30 percent on the right.
With the majority in the middle, Inbar noted that the debate on the peace process can be analyzed by looking at how Israelis view several key issues. The most important of these is the question of threat perception -- "how the Israelis view the world around them, particularly the Middle East." The Left sees fewer threats, with many subscribing to former prime minister Shimon Peres's vision of a nonviolent Middle East, what Inbar characterized as a "very optimistic view." The Right finds that Israel still faces serious threats, including terrorism, rogue states, and fundamentalist Islam.
A second key issue concerns the use of force, which the Left views as less and less useful because Israel must, in the course of the peace process, change Arab perceptions about its being "militaristic and expansionist." The Right counters that force remains important for deterrence and negotiation, that "the Arabs have come to terms with Israel because Israel is militarily stronger." It also holds that force accompanies diplomatic negotiations in the Middle East -- just look at the actions of Arafat and Asad.
Third, Israelis differ over the territories necessary to defend the state. Doves find territory less vital for defense because, according to Inbar, "in the era of missiles territories are not important." But hawks note the necessity of ground forces in the Kuwait War as evidence that "topography still has a role to play in conventional war."
Finally, the time factor separates the two sides. Doves want to reach an agreement quickly, worried that a "window of opportunity" may soon close: Arab regimes "willing to make a deal with Israel may not be able to maintain power." Hawks argue that Arab regimes have not yet changed their views of Israel, so there's no rush. To the contrary, prolonging negotiations may win Israel a better bargain.
Inbar finds that Israelis now have a "much more realistic view of what is feasible in the negotiations." He cited a recent BESA Center poll showing that 70 percent of Israelis believe that if the Palestinians are given everything they want, they will not be satisfied. "We have this feeling that . . . Israel faces a difficult customer," he concluded.
The roller-coaster peace process. Barry Rubin described the volatility of negotiations with the Palestinians. "The peace process we're engaged in with the Palestinians is a very, very tough bargaining process," with moments of euphoria and despair. Likening the process to a roller-coaster, he finds that the media often makes the mistake of seeing what exists at any particular moment as a permanent reality.
In the end, he expects things will work out. "Sooner or later" Israel will reach a conclusion with the Palestinians, but along the way both sides -- and particularly the Palestinians -- use brinkmanship to threaten that everything is going to collapse unless it gets what it wants. Rubin's optimism derives from most of the Middle Eastern states having realized that the attempt to destroy Israel has instead destroyed them. However, the radical states (Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, and Syria) have not recognized this reality. "These states want conflict," Rubin said. At the same time, he finds them "weaker and more divided than they have ever been in the modern history of the Middle East."
Rubin believes the majority of Arab states want peace with Israel and an escape from the conflict, but the timing and the demands they make vary considerably. Egypt fancies itself the leader of the region and fears Israel will usurp its position. The Saudis "basically don't want to do anything." Progress with Syria is far off for "Syrian national interests are opposed to making peace with Israel," he said, concluding that peace between Israel and Syria would be a "disaster for Syria."
Turning to U.S. policy, Rubin found the Clinton administration "more friendly" than its predecessors and endorsed its stand: "the best way the United States can affect Israeli policy is by flattery."
Sandler on the final price. Shmuel Sandler noted a basic flaw in the Oslo agreement that explains both the current crisis and future ones. "We signed an agreement . . . in which we did not know the final price. However, we made a non-returnable down payment." When the final price comes up, it will be very high: Arafat expects 90 percent of the occupied territories, all of East Jerusalem, and a Palestinian right of return -- a "frightening" scenario in Sandler's view.
Sandler does not believe that the current crisis has much to do with housing at Har Homa. "The real issue here is that Arafat expected 30 percent [of the West Bank] and we were ready to give him only 9 percent," he said.
The final price of peace with the other Arab states is also unknown, although Sandler predicts it too will be steep. Damascus will demand the entire Golan Heights because Asad will not settle for less than Sadat received in 1977. Egypt, although at peace with Israel, will probably ask Israel to dismantle its nuclear program.
The Israeli negotiators in Oslo hoped it would create the basis for confidence-building measures but the opposite has happened, exacerbating mistrust. "This should be expected in any good negotiation," he added with a touch of cynicism, "especially in the Middle East, where people enjoy bargaining more than the results."
Ending on a positive note, Sandler remarked that the peace process has led many Middle Eastern states to accept Israel as part of the region. Israel's economy has also strengthened greatly in recent years; with a GNP of $17,000 per capita, it enjoys a Western level of economic development. The Russian aliyah has helped greatly by adding highly skilled workers to the economy.
Sandler advised that Israelis must be patient and sober about the future. "We have many accomplishments which we have achieved in the last few years," he said. "But yet, we shouldn't be foolish and think that the Middle East is a neighborhood which is not dangerous."
Inbar basically worried, Rubin pretty sanguine, and Sandler in between: they represent a microcosm of the Israeli body politic as Inbar himself explained it.
Summary prepared by Adam Schupack, an undergraduate at Brown University and an intern at the Middle East Forum.