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The Real Lesson of the Oslo Accord: "Localize" the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Cato Foreign Policy Briefing

The Real Lesson of the Oslo Accord: "Localize" the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Cato Foreign Policy Briefing

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Executive Summary

Despite Washington's efforts to broker a Middle Eastern peace agreement, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators quietly concluded the Oslo agreement with virtually no American involvement. Since the agreement was reached, however, Washington has sought to reestablish a prominent American role in the Arab-Israeli peace process. That would be a mistake.

Since the end of the Cold War and in view of the new emphasis on geoeconomic, rather than strategic, priorities, the United States has little reason to commit significant time or resources to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Furthermore, it is very likely that high-profile American involvement in negotiations would actually hinder the process and further inflame radicals in the Israeli and Palestinian communities who oppose the Oslo agreement.

Instead of trying to micromanage the Arab-Israeli peace process, the United States should minimize its financial commitment to Israel and the emerging Palestinian entity and encourage economic cooperation between Israel and the Arab states, which could be the foundation for an interdependent Middle Eastern economy. Regional prosperity will advance peace far more effectively than American payoffs to prop up an artificial pax Americana.
Executive Summary

Despite Washington's efforts to broker a Middle Eastern peace agreement, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators quietly concluded the Oslo agreement with virtually no American involvement. Since the agreement was reached, however, Washington has sought to reestablish a prominent American role in the Arab-Israeli peace process. That would be a mistake.

Since the end of the Cold War and in view of the new emphasis on geoeconomic, rather than strategic, priorities, the United States has little reason to commit significant time or resources to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Furthermore, it is very likely that high-profile American involvement in negotiations would actually hinder the process and further inflame radicals in the Israeli and Palestinian communities who oppose the Oslo agreement.

Instead of trying to micromanage the Arab-Israeli peace process, the United States should minimize its financial commitment to Israel and the emerging Palestinian entity and encourage economic cooperation between Israel and the Arab states, which could be the foundation for an interdependent Middle Eastern economy. Regional prosperity will advance peace far more effectively than American payoffs to prop up an artificial pax Americana.

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Published by: Cato Institute on May 12, 2010
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Cato Institute Foreign Policy Briefing No. 31:The Real Lesson of the Oslo Accord: "Localize" theArab-Israeli Conflict
May 9, 1994Leon T. HadarLeon Hadar is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, an adjunct professor in the School of International Service of the American University, and the author of 
Quagmire: America in the Middle East 
(Cato Institute, 1992).
Executive Summary
Despite Washington's efforts to broker a Middle Eastern peace agreement, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators quietlyconcluded the Oslo agreement with virtually no American involvement. Since the agreement was reached, however,Washington has sought to reestablish a prominent American role in the Arab-Israeli peace process. That would be amistake.Since the end of the Cold War and in view of the new emphasis on geoeconomic, rather than strategic, priorities, theUnited States has little reason to commit significant time or resources to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.Furthermore, it is very likely that high-profile American involvement in negotiations would actually hinder the processand further inflame radicals in the Israeli and Palestinian communities who oppose the Oslo agreement.Instead of trying to micromanage the Arab-Israeli peace process, the United States should minimize its financialcommitment to Israel and the emerging Palestinian entity and encourage economic cooperation between Israel and theArab states, which could be the foundation for an interdependent Middle Eastern economy. Regional prosperity willadvance peace far more effectively than American payoffs to prop up an artificial pax Americana.
Introduction
Nothing symbolized more the role of the United States in the diplomatic efforts leading to the September 13, 1993,signing of the accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization than a cartoon that appeared in theTimes of London. A photolike drawing showed Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin shaking hands with the PLO'sYasser Arafat, as President Clinton--fixing his tie, combing his hair, smiling to the camera--forced himself in front of the pair, trying to upstage them.[1] Washington's role in the drama that brought about the Israeli-PLO dÇtente wasmarginal, confined to stage-managing the signing ceremony. A skillful White House team helped prepare the script forthe show and choreographed its several acts--climaxing in the historical Rabin-Arafat handshake--with Clintonserving as a well-rehearsed and quite effective master of ceremonies.[2]Washington had been a spectator to the Middle Eastern diplomatic drama while low-key Norwegian diplomats playedthe key supporting roles. In fact, the Clinton administration maintained major skepticism all along about the attemptsby Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres to move toward direct PLO-Israeli negotiations. Only after it was faced withthe fait accompli of the accord did the administration give its blessing.[3] After the breakthrough in Oslo, which hadcaught President Clinton and his advisers totally off-guard, self-serving leaks by administration officials suggested thatWashington was the driving force behind the secret negotiations. Similarly, the main goal of the September 13 mediaevent in the White House was to signal to the world that the Clinton administration remained "in control" of the
 
Middle Eastern peace process, that the handshake was indeed an integral part of the pax Americana project in thatregion.[4]To further accentuate its supposedly dominant role in the process, the administration followed up the White Houseceremony by leading the effort to mobilize international support for a financial aid package of approximately $2 billionto build up the economic infrastructure of the Palestinian entity that is expected to emerge in the Gaza Strip and theWest Bank town of Jericho. The United States has pledged $500 million over five years to the Palestinians, three-quarters in grants and one-quarter in loans and loan guarantees from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.[5]In addition, the administration has offered to serve as mediator between Israel and Syria and has indicated that theUnited States is willing to contribute troops to a UN peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights as part of a peaceagreement between Jerusalem and Damascus.The administration's risky position has developed without public or congressional debate. Responding to a questionabout whether the United States would send troops to the Golan to help implement an accord between Jerusalem andDamascus, Secretary of State Warren Christopher responded, "Absolutely."[6]Similarly, after the Hebron massacre--in which a radical Israeli settler killed more than 30 Muslims--Clinton urged theIsraelis and the Palestinians to resume the peace talks in Washington and promised vigorous U.S. leadership of thenegotiations. The heavy media coverage of the massacre and the ensuing statements by the administration created theimpression that the tragic event in Hebron had a major impact on American interests and therefore required thatWashington "do something." All of those proposals and moves, as well as highly publicized efforts by Christopher tomediate an Israeli-Syrian peace, could trigger high-level U.S. involvement in the Middle East, marking a return to thekind of actions that characterized American policy in the region during the 1970s and 1980s.[7]The enthusiasm for Mideastern activism that has swept Washington in the wake of the Palestinian-Israelirapprochement and the Hebron incident is based on erroneous lessons derived from the historic accord. Mostimportant, it fails to consider the major changes that have occurred in the Middle East since the end of the Cold Warand the way in which those changes have affected U.S. interests there.[8] A statement by a Palestinian negotiator afterthe Hebron incident highlighted Washington's marginal position in the peace process. Referring to U.S. envoy DennisRoss's effect on the negotiations, a PLO official stated, "He contributed nothing new," and went on to say that the U.S.delegation that met with PLO officials in Tunis after the massacre "seemed mostly interested in getting in on what washappening."[9]The Oslo agreement reflected the emerging post-Cold War Middle East. Put simply, the Arab-Israeli conflict hasceased to be at the center of Middle Eastern, much less world, politics. With the end of the superpower rivalry, thecontinuing disintegration of the international oil cartel, and the severely reduced importance of Israel and the Arabworld as strategic global players, the conflict has been "relocalized," confined to the more limited dimensions of aPalestinian-Israeli struggle over territory, with minimal danger of escalation into a repetition of the 1973 war and theresulting conflict between great powers. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is turning, therefore, into another of the many"tribal" conflicts of the post-Cold War era, not unlike the struggles between Azeris and Armenians or between IraqiArabs and Kurds, the consequences of which have very little direct impact on American vital interests. U.S. policyshould adapt to the changing reality of the new Middle East and encourage the localization of the Arab- Israeli conflict(more frequently known now as the "Arab- Israeli peace process") rather than provide incentives for its"reinternationalization."
Low-Cost Pax Americana in the Middle East?
As it has in other areas of foreign policy, the Clinton administration's diplomacy in the Middle East has beencharacterized by significant discrepancies between rhetoric and action. The rhetoric has suggested a continuedcommitment to internationalizing the Middle Eastern agenda and to maintaining a leadership position in the Arab-Israeli peace process. But most of the administration's actions have reflected the pressure to localize the Arab-Israeliproblem, implicitly recognizing that the issue is no longer a top American foreign policy priority that requiressignificant time and resources. Before the Oslo accord, the bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Arabs were onthe diplomatic back burner, with no personal involvement on the part of President Clinton. Indeed, the administration
 
has attempted to focus its foreign policy on geoeconomics and the new Pacific community and to minimize militaryissues and the old conflicts of the Ottoman Empire region and its periphery--including the Arab-Israeli conflict,Somalia, and the Balkans.[10]Clinton's approach to Middle Eastern policy could be described as a "Bush-minus" approach, or the quest for a low-cost pax Americana: trying to maintain the status quo in the Middle East--the security of the pro-U.S. Arab states,America's domination of the gulf, and a fragile Israeli-Arab balance of power--without investing any major militaryand diplomatic resources in the form of another Operation Desert Storm or even the Madrid peace conference.Although the administration's so-called dual containment doctrine for the Middle East logically implied high-costcommitments--containing (read, isolating) both Iran and Iraq, maintaining the security of Israel and the Arab gulf states, and trying to facilitate the peace process--it was in fact based on a strategy of low-cost involvement in theregion.[11]First, neither Iraq nor Iran was expected in the short or medium term to acquire the diplomatic or military power tochallenge U.S. hegemony in the gulf. Periodic displays of military and diplomatic force vis-Ö-vis those two players,such as the U.S. missile attack on the Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad or efforts to isolate Teherandiplomatically and economically, would supposedly deter them from taking any aggressive moves against the Arab oilstates. Second, the administration did not expect the Arab-Israeli peace process to progress to the point where majorU.S. involvement and presidential leadership would be needed. Maintaining the facade of progress in the talks inWashington and sending diplomatic fire brigades to prevent crises from exploding would be sufficient to project animage of U.S. diplomatic leadership.[12] Similarly, the Clintonites assumed that continuing direct U.S. military andeconomic aid to Israel at the level of more than $3 billion annually--in addition to increased intelligence sharing andmore technology transfer--would respond to Israel's needs and satisfy its powerful supporters in Washington.[13] Atthe same time, the Clintonites concluded that the secret agreements with the gulf oil states that commit the UnitedStates to come to their aid in case of attack by an aggressor would help preserve their support for American hegemonyin the gulf.[14]
The New Middle Eastern Conflict: Political vs. Economic Man
What the Clinton administration had failed to under-stand was that the same post-Cold War geoeconomicconsiderations that created incentives for it to shift its attention from the Arab-Israeli peace process also producedpressure on the Israelis and the Palestinians to transform the status quo and move toward an agreement. The end of theCold War greatly eroded the strategic significance of Israel and the Arab states, making it more difficult for them toextract economic and military support from patrons in exchange for their services. Syria and the PLO lost their Sovietbenefactors, and Israel could no longer sell itself in Washington as an anti-Soviet strategic asset. At the same time, theglobal economic recession and the drop in oil prices reduced the amount of capital available for aid and investment inthe Arab world. Arab gulf states, resentful of Arafat's support of Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf War andfacing economic problems of their own, cut off much of their financial aid to the PLO. Americans were becomingincreasingly preoccupied with domestic problems, and it became conceivable that a more inward-looking Americamight in the long run be less willing to continue funding its entitlement program for Israel. In short, the internationalsystem seemed unable and unwilling to continue subsidizing the Arab-Israeli conflict or the states and organizationsthat perpetuate it.Moreover, with the emergence of a new, economically oriented international system dominated by the trading powersof North America, Europe, and East Asia, the Israelis and the Palestinians felt that they were being left behind. Theycould continue fighting over graves of Hebrew prophets and Arab sheiks in the West Bank and turn their commonhomeland into another Yugoslavia--becoming globally marginalized losers--or they--and the Jordanians, Syrians, andLebanese--could begin fighting over market shares in the West by ending their conflict and joining the winners of the21st century as successful trading states.[15] If on a macro level the PLO-Israeli accord was an indirect product of theend of the superpower rivalry and geopolitical and geoeconomic realignments, on a micro level the agreement was aresult of the victory of Palestinian and Israeli pragmatism. The election of the Labor government in Israel and theformation of a moderate Palestinian coalition dominated by the increasingly pragmatic PLO leadership in Tunis andthe West Bank brought to power on both sides players who finally recognized the limits to manipulating outsidesupport to advance their narrow interests.[16]

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