The 1980s: Missed Opportunities
The decade of the 1970s was, for Israel, the era of the Yom Kippur War and the peace with Egypt that came in the war’s wake. The 1990s were the time of the Oslo agreement and the peace with Jordan that followed it. Sandwiched in between, the 1980s were a decade of missed opportunities. Ushered in by the diplomatic radicalism of the Begin-Sharon school, the decade was marked by a continuing political paralysis that resulted from electoral deadlock and the rotating premiership of Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir.
Menachem Begin, prime minister when the decade began, had been unnerved by the huge compromise he reached with Egypt at the Camp David peace conference in 1978. He could take comfort, however, in the fact that his agreement with Egypt could forestall demands for compromise on the West Bank. In the years that followed, the pace of settlement-building in the territories continued and even accelerated. In 1980, the Knesset passed the Law of Jerusalem: Capital of Israel. This affirmed the status of Jerusalem as a united city within its newly drawn municipal boundaries. The law, hailed at home, caused Israel considerable damage internationally. Thirteen foreign embassies, located until then in Jerusalem, were moved to Tel Aviv. Negotiations over Palestinian autonomy in the occupied territories, part of the Israel-Egyptian peace accord, sputtered along fitfully, prompting Defense Minister Ezer Weizman to quit the government in protest.
In 1981, violence along the Lebanese border reached a new high. The Palestine Liberation Organization, which had exploited Lebanon’s weakness to create the state-within-a-state known as Fatah-land, was bombarding Israeli villages in the Galilee with rocket fire. The fire was halted for 11 months by a cease-fire agreement negotiated by an American diplomat, Philip Habib. But in June 1982, newly named Defense Minister Ariel Sharon used an assassination attempt on the Israeli ambassador in London to persuade the government to launch a war against the PLO in Lebanon.
Through all this, the peace with Egypt endured. It did not break down, not even after the assassination of Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, in October 1981. Nor was it upended in December of that year when Begin succeeded, from his sickbed, in passing the Golan Bill annexing the captured heights to Israel. It looked as though Israel could have its cake and eat it, too.
And yet, as the decade proceeded, the nation’s mood darkened. The 1982 war against the PLO in Lebanon turned into a quagmire for Israel. Sharon failed to fulfill his vision of Lebanese regime-change at Israeli gunpoint. Events reached a low point in September 1982 with the massacre by Lebanese Christians of hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps outside Beirut, which led to Sharon’s removal from the Defense Ministry. The Israeli public, shocked and disappointed, began calling for change in Jerusalem.
With these events in the background, President Reagan proposed a plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace in September 1982. The plan called for letting the Palestinians in the territories take control of their own domestic affairs in coordination with Jordan, which had controlled the West Bank before Israel captured it in 1967. Israel was to freeze settlement construction while negotiations proceeded, within the framework of the Camp David Accords, on the final status of the territories. Begin dismissed the Reagan plan without hesitation, ending the plan’s historic role before it even began. Separately, the Israeli-Egyptian talks about Palestinian autonomy had been suspended with the outbreak of the Lebanon War. They were never renewed.
The attempt to bring about an Israeli-Lebanese peace ended in failure, too. Negotiations were begun, and a draft treaty emerged. It was ratified by the Knesset in May 1983 and by the Lebanese parliament a month later. Syria, however, was unequivocally opposed to Lebanon’s independent behavior, and the treaty remained a dead letter.
In 1984, following Begin’s surprise resignation and the failure of his successor, Shamir, to hold together his shaky coalition, Israel went to early elections. The Labor Alignment, led by Shimon Peres, managed to win the election, but it could not assemble a governing coalition from among the squabbling parties of the fractured Knesset. In the end, Peres was forced into a partnership with the Likud. The coalition deal bore a high price: a rotation agreement under which Peres and Shamir took turns as prime minister.
Peres’s electoral victory, as slim as it was, resulted from several key factors. One was the continuing bloodshed in Lebanon. The other was a disastrous economic situation. In 1977, when the Likud came to power, Begin had promised to privatize Israel’s semi-socialist economy and end the dominant role of labor institutions. What he got was near-collapse. By 1983 inflation was running at some 600%. The Labor-Likud unity government succeeded rapidly in stabilizing the economy and bringing down inflation to a manageable 16%.
The unity government also pulled Israel’s troops out of most of the territory seized in Lebanon in 1982 and resolved a nagging border dispute with Egypt over the demarcation of the line near Taba in the Sinai. Finally, it managed to secure the return of the Egyptian ambassador to Israel. But because of the standoff between right and left, the government was not successful in making progress toward an overall diplomatic resolution to the conflict.
King Hussein of Jordan tried during these years to reach an understanding with the PLO. His proposal was to convene an international peace conference with the participation of key states in the region. The Labor Party agreed to the idea, but the Likud was opposed. On the other hand, attempts by the Likud to expand the settlements were frustrated by Labor. The greatest successes of the two parties were in preventing each other from fulfilling their respective visions. A disappointed Peres completed his assigned half-term in 1986 and became foreign minister in a Shamir government.
A few months after the rotation, Peres met secretly in London with King Hussein. A series of such meetings ensued. In the end, the two leaders tried to produce a joint document, intended for the American government, in which the main thrust was the convening of a nonbinding international conference. The Palestinians would be represented by the Jordanian delegation and would include Palestinian representatives who recognized Israel, disavowed terrorism and were prepared to accept a resolution based on Security Council Resolution 242, which mandated trading land for peace.
I participated in the London meeting, just as I had joined Peres in previous meetings; indeed, the agreement was written in my handwriting. The emotions were powerful that day at the home of Lord Victor Mishcon, who hosted the meeting. It seemed at that moment that history was being made and that it would not be difficult to convince the ministers of the Israeli government, or the American administration, to endorse the document. I flew to Finland to present the paper to Secretary of State George Shultz, who was there preparing for an important meeting with Gorbachev. I expected that his reaction would be strongly positive.
But in Israel the situation turned out to be different from what we expected. The five Labor Party ministers in the diplomatic-security Cabinet supported the document enthusiastically, but all the Likud ministers opposed it. Instead of a discussion of the substance of the proposal, a debate emerged on the question of whether Peres was entitled to try and achieve a proposal in which the prime minister was not involved. Once again, mutual prevention took over: Each side succeeded in blocking the other’s initiative, but neither could convince the other of its own initiative.
A sense was growing in the region that things were at a diplomatic dead end. Eight months after the London agreement, in December 1987, the first Palestinian uprising — the intifada — erupted. For the first time, it became clear to the Israeli right that the occupation was not a simple matter and could not be maintained cost-free. Rock-throwing and firebombs became daily occurrences in the West Bank and Gaza. Confrontations between soldiers and residents of the occupied territories continued for several years, eventually penetrating beyond the territories into Israel’s sovereign territory.
Shultz made one last attempt to present a modest plan of his own to Hussein, Shamir and Peres. Because nobody dismissed his proposal out of hand, Shultz allowed himself to call it “the first Middle East plan that no one rejected outright.” He visited the region several times and received a “flickering yellow light” from all parties. But with each visit his optimism dimmed, until it darkened altogether.
On July 31, 1988, Hussein appeared at a press conference and announced that he had no further claims regarding the West Bank and that he no longer considered the area’s residents his subjects. He would stop issuing passports and cease paying salaries to teachers and civil servants there. This was not an impulsive outburst but a declaration of a dramatic shift in policy. Moreover, it allowed him, six years later, to reach a peace agreement with us, with no mention of the West Bank anywhere on the agenda.
Two months after that, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat took up the challenge. He convened the 19th meeting of the Palestine National Council in Algiers in September 1988 and announced Palestinian acceptance of the United Nations partition plan of 1947 and a positive view of Security Council Resolution 242, which included indirect recognition of Israel. In a visit to Stockholm shortly afterward, Arafat said that the Algiers resolution constituted, in effect, recognition of Israel. In December, he appeared before the U.N. General Assembly in Geneva and called for an international conference with the participation of both Israel and the PLO. The following day, the Reagan administration — already a lame duck presidency, just six weeks away from ceding power to a new administration — announced its recognition of the PLO and the opening of direct negotiations with it in Tunis.
But the Israeli government did not know how to take up the challenge. After another electoral standoff between Likud and Labor (40 seats in the Knesset for Likud, 39 for Labor) a new government had been established. This time it was headed by Shamir alone, with no rotation of prime minister. The new government rejected what it called Arafat’s “trick,” since he had not met all the conditions expected of him, having failed to offer unequivocal condemnation of terrorism. I tried to convince my colleagues that it was in Israel’s interest to recognize the PLO, particularly given the founding of the even more hard-line Hamas, but I was unsuccessful.
The picture had now changed. At the end of the decade, Israel had lost American support for its refusal to talk to the PLO. That obliged it to come up with its own proposals for sidelining the Palestinian organization. In May 1989, aiming to discuss the future of the territories with only selected residents, Israel released a plan to hold elections in the territories. No one took the proposal seriously. In September, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt offered a 10-point plan for conducting Palestinian elections, but Israel rejected his proposal. In October, the new secretary of state, James Baker, tried his hand and offered his own five-point plan for an Israeli-Palestinian meeting in Cairo. The new Israeli foreign minister, Moshe Arens, one of the leading hawks in the government, was ready to accept Baker’s five points, but Shamir rejected them. The rejection led to the breakup of Israel’s national unity government. I am happy to say that I had a part in the effort to pressure Labor into leaving the government against the background of this missed opportunity.
Looking back on the 1980s, it would have been possible early in the decade to move forward on the basis of the Camp David Accords, particularly with the help of the Reagan plan. Israel could have participated in an international conference that could have begun the process launched a decade later at the 1991 Madrid conference. It could have accepted the Hussein-Peres agreement that would have created a Jordanian-Palestinian state to Israel’s east. It could have recognized the PLO as early as 1988 and not waited until the Oslo agreement of 1993, by which time Hamas had already gathered strength. It could have accepted the Baker recommendations at the end of the decade. Some of the missed opportunities of the 1980s were recovered during the 1990s, but with greater difficulty and at a much higher price.
Yossi Beilin serves as a Knesset member representing the Meretz party. He served as a minister in the Rabin, Peres and Barak governments during the 1990s. During the 1980s he served as spokesman of the Labor Party, secretary of the Cabinet, director-general of the Foreign Ministry and deputy finance minister.