In late February 2002, shortly after Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah presented columnist Thomas Friedman with his famous Saudi peace plan, the director of Israel’s vaunted Mossad went to his boss, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. His advice: Welcome the initiative as a bold step toward peace.
The plan offered Israel full recognition and normalized relations with all 22 Arab states, plus a declared end to the Israeli-Arab conflict, in exchange for Palestinian statehood along the pre-1967 lines. The Arab League was due to discuss the plan at a summit in Beirut at the end of March. An Israeli green light would help it along.
Sharon responded warily, then-Mossad chief Efraim Halevy told me some years later. He wanted clarifications. They agreed to ask that Sharon be invited to Beirut to get answers first-hand. Halevy approached an Arab League contact, who returned with a question: What would Sharon say in Beirut? Sharon replied that he would decide once he got there. And that ended that.
In Beirut, emboldened by Israel’s silence, the Syrians demanded a poison-pill clause calling for a “just solution” to the Palestinian refugee problem with an implied right of return. The drafters softened it with words requiring Israeli consent. Israelis hardly noticed; for them the plan had died a day before, on March 27, when Hamas bombed a community Seder in Netanya, killing 30 Israelis, in a declared attempt to derail the pact. In fact, it had been buried weeks earlier in the prime minister’s office.
The Sharon-Halevy exchange encapsulates the fraught relationship between Israeli political leaders and security professionals over handling of the Israeli-Arab conflict. It also helps to explain some of the frustration American and international leaders feel when they try to navigate Middle East diplomacy and repeatedly find themselves lost in the thicket of Israeli and Diaspora Jewish politics.
Ever since Israeli Military Intelligence first concluded in 1988 that the Palestinian leadership had turned a corner and accepted Israel’s existence, the generals and spymasters have been interrogating the enemy, listening in on meetings, studying documents and weapons inventories, becoming increasingly convinced that an agreement is within reach that will leave Israel safer than it is now.
And ever since then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir rejected that 1988 Military Intelligence report, the political leadership has been following Palestinian public statements, tracking public opinion and concluding that the benefits of conceding territory are not worth the risk.
Neither side is unanimous, though the defense community is nearly so. Of the 18 living ex-heads of the IDF, Mossad and Shin Bet, all but one — former IDF chief (and current defense minister) Moshe Yaalon — believe the Palestinian leadership is willing to make a deal for a separate state and that Israel would be safer with it, even based on the 1967 lines, than with the status quo. Most have spoken out in favor of welcoming the Arab Peace Initiative as a basis for talks. No Israeli government has done so.
On the other hand, Israeli governments have seesawed between left and right. Every government of the left has entered formal peace talks with the PLO, under Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, Ehud Barak in 2000 and 2001 and Ehud Olmert in 2008. Each round advanced in grueling fits and starts — including Arafat’s famous walkout from Camp David in July 2000, which was promptly followed, less famously, by continued talks.