Humanistic Judaism journal, “What Does it Mean to be Jewish” Winter 1995
Can Israel make peace with her Arab neighbors? That question has been plaguing the Jewish people and many other nations for forty-seven years, ever since the establishment of the state of Israel.
In 1967, the Egyptian ruler Gamal Abdul Nasser tried to mobilize the Arab nations to crush Israel and failed. Twelve years later the first breakthrough occurred. Egypt, under the leadership of Anwar Sadat, the successor to Nasser, made peace with Israel. But no one else did. Sadat was assassinated. Terrorism continued. War followed in Lebanon. And the fanaticism of Muslim fundamentalism invaded the Arab world with a fury far worse than any that Nasser invented.
Peace was impossible so long as the Cold War continued. So long as the United States and the Soviet Union competed for allies in the Middle East, confrontation was inevitable, and weapons poured into the region, encouraging warlike posturing. But, to everyone’s surprise, Communism fell like a house of sticks. The Cold War ended with more of a whimper than a bang. The Arab world was left without Soviet support. Hating America became impractical. Tolerating Israel became a possibility.
The last bastion of pan-Arab nationalism was Iraq. In an action that defied reason, that nation’s leader, Saddam Hussein, attacked Kuwait, part of the oil empire of the United States. The Gulf War ensued. Iraq was crushed and humiliated. Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which supported Hussein, also were losers. Jordan lost its American support. The PLO lost its Arab support. Both were ready for peace. The question was: Which would take the first step?
The PLO took the first step. It was bankrupt, down and out, and bereft of real allies. It was weakened by civil war and defection. Above all, it was confronted by a formidable Palestinian opposition in the form of Hamas. Hamas was the child of Muslim fundamentalism and the Intifada. It hated Israel. It hated America. But it hated PLO chairman Yasser Arafat with an equal passion. Suddenly the old political principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend worked its wonders. Arafat and Israel shared a common enemy. And so they became reluctant “friends.” In September 1993, the famous handshake took place. Israeli doves were euphoric. Israeli hawks were depressed. Most Palestinians, desperate for good news, were happy. Fundamentalist Palestinians were angry.
The PLO’s action allowed Jordan to take the next step. There were too many Palestinians in Jordan to allow King Hussein of Jordan to do what he had wanted to do ever since he became king: to initiate peace with Israel. But now that Arafat, the official leader of the Palestinians, had made peace, it was easy for Hussein to shake Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s hand, too. In September 1994, peace broke out between Israel and Jordan. The fundamentalists growled again. But they were powerless to prevent the second handshake.
While many Israelis were apprehensive about making peace with Arafat, most Israelis were wildly enthusiastic about making peace with Jordan. After all, the agendas of the PLO and Jordan do not coincide. They both want the same thing. They both want the West Bank. They both want control over East Jerusalem. They both want to win the support and loyalty of the Palestinians in Jordan. While they both share a fear of the Muslim fundamentalists, they share very little else.
Most Israelis like King Hussein. They see him as a sincere supporter of the right of the state of Israel to exist. They see him as the longtime persecutor of the PLO, which he expelled from Jordan in 1970. They see him as a political alternative to Arafat.
Arafat is very worried. He is squeezed between Israel and Jordan. He knows that Hussein hates his guts. He knows that if Israel and Hussein could get together, they would leave him and the PLO out in the cold. He knows that, in a pinch, he has very few allies in the Arab world.
But Hussein needs to move cautiously. He has thousands of fanatical fundamentalists in his country. His population is mainly a refugee West Bank population. He has many enemies who want to overthrow him. His throne is insecure. He relies mainly on the soldiers of his Bedouin army. A betrayal of Arafat would not win him any moderate Arab friends. His survival as the King of Jordan has depended on his unwillingness to take any real political risks. The one time he did, by supporting Saddam in Iraq, he suffered bitter consequences.
For years King Hussein worried about Syria. President Hafez al-Assad of Syria coveted Jordan and Lebanon. He saw himself as the ruler of a Greater Syria, which would include the Palestinians. Assad won the military and political support of the Soviet Union. He offered asylum to Palestinian terrorists and aided them in their ruthless work. He defied
America and the rest of the Arab world. Jordan was afraid to make peace with Israel before Syria did.
When the Cold War ended, Syria was left high and dry. Her chief enemy and Arab rival, Iraq, loomed as more and more menacing. Her option to play one great power against the other vanished. Her only radical support came from Shiite Iran, whose fundamentalist rulers despised the secular nationalism Assad championed.
When the Gulf War erupted, Syria repudiated all her old propaganda by joining the Americans and Israelis as allies against Iraq. By the time the war was over, Syria was ready to talk peace with Israel. Urged on by U.S. Secretary of State Jim Baker, she entered into negotiations. The handshake of Rabin and Arafat came as a cruel surprise. Assad wanted no Palestinian state. He wanted the Golan back. And he was prepared to sell out the Palestinians to achieve his goal.
Peace with Arafat made it less necessary for Israel to make peace with Syria. The hostility of fundamentalists in Syrian-controlled Lebanon was quite manageable so long as the Intifada was extinguished. And peace with Jordan made a rapprochement with Syria even less necessary. Israel had imagined that King Hussein was too cautious to make peace unless the Syrians did it first. When Hussein grew tired of waiting for Syria (because he was afraid that waiting would allow Arafat to take everything Hussein wanted), Assad was furious. Israel no longer urgently needed Syrian cooperation. Israel had Jordan and a friendly eastern border. Finding a solution to the dilemma of the Golan Heights could be shifted to the back burner.
The importance of Jordan to Israel has increased with the events of the past few months. The power of Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank is growing. Arafat’s control of the Palestinians is slipping. Can Israel afford to turn over the West Bank to a Palestinian population dominated by Hamas terror? Can she leave the Jewish settlements to be protected against Hamas aggressiveness by reluctant PLO police? Most Israelis no longer believe that Arafat is either intimidating enough or necessary. The message of the Likud opposition to the Labor party’s peace policy is to suggest that Arafat be abandoned, the West Bank be retained, and the protection of Palestinian rights be shifted to Hussein. And Hussein does not seem averse to assuming that role.
Peace with Jordan has become more important to Israel than peace with Arafat. It means that Syria can wait for concessions. It means that Arafat may never get what he was promised. It means that what Labor accomplished — peace with Jordan — may work to the Likud’s advantage.
History features cruel ironies. Peace with Jordan would not have been possible without peace with Arafat first. Rabin stuck his neck out when he stuck his hand out to meet the hand of Arafat. Now he is burdened with Arafat. And Hussein can just as easily shake the hand of Likud as shake the hand of Rabin.