Through seven years of the Oslo process, one issue keeps coming up: Are Israel's concessions the result of its own sovereign decisions, or are they due to US government pressure? Now, as the Clinton administration enters its final lap, a definitive answer is finally at hand.
It was pretty clear from the start that the decisions were made in Israel; sure, American politicians appreciate the giveaways, but they do not demand them. Symbolically, the diplomacy got started in the cool woods of Norway, far from madding Washington and without even any American knowledge.
Also, as Aaron Miller of the State Department points out, the US government gets involved not of its own volition but at the request of Israeli politicians. In September 1996, widespread Palestinian violence followed the opening of a Temple Mount tunnel and saw prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu rush to Washington to engage the Americans in solving this problem.
Recently, it was Prime Minister Barak who pressed President Clinton to convene the Camp David II summit; and it was Barak's insistence that the president offer "bridging proposals" that explains the current flurry of diplomacy.
The amazing prospect of a caretaker prime minister, one lacking any sort of parliamentary or public mandate, and relying on speed diplomacy to solve his country's deepest problems in advance of an election, further confirms where the diplomatic initiative is coming from - namely, Israel.
Ehud Olmert, the mayor of Jerusalem, got it right: "The initiative to divide Jerusalem is not the fruit of American pressure but the fruit of Barak's own capitulation."
The idea that Washington pressures Israel to make concessions has some grounding in reality - it just happens to be out of date.
The American "land for peace" policy that emerged in the aftermath of Israel's victory in 1967 was for 20 years (1973-93) a source of tension with Israel. During that period, Arab states and the Palestinians, understanding this was a prerequisite to the voluntary return of lands they had lost in 1967, increasingly talked about "peace" with Israel.
At the same time, Israelis suspected the sincerity of their statements, which were usually issued through gritted teeth, in English, freighted with conditions and angry demands. Washington pressed a reluctant Israel to accept those statements as valid, and to respond by turning over land in exchange.
Then came a historic shift. In 1992, Yitzhak Rabin came to office intent on trading the territories for peace agreements. His intensive efforts notwithstanding, he managed no land-for-peace exchange. Rabin concluded that persisting in this approach would leave Israel without agreements and with the territories he was trying to unload.
So, as Douglas Feith points out, Rabin tried something very different: "Seeing that he could not insist on a secure peace while bringing the occupation to a prompt end, Rabin decided, fatefully, that the latter took priority." In other words, he began a policy of unilateral withdrawal, which yet remains in effect.
With this shift, the government of Israel effectively abandoned its old worries and adopted the carefree American approach. Out went two decades of doubts; in came a willingness to ignore Arab statements and actions. Which brings us to the present and the strong, autonomous Israeli desire for paper agreements, independent of US pressure.
For those skeptical of the Oslo process, it is consoling to blame Israel's downward spiral of the past seven years on Americans. For one, this implies that the old Israeli spirit is still alive, submerged somewhere under American demands. For another, it suggests that a change in Washington could lead to improved Israeli policies.
But these cheery illusions can no longer be indulged. Reality must be faced. Israelis are making their own choices and forging their own destiny.