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US Cannot Solve the Palestinian Problem

THE Bush administration has indicated that after victory in the Gulf crisis it may make an earnest effort to resolve the Palestinian problem. Analysis of the political realities in Israel, the United States, and among the Palestinians, however, indicates that any optimism about the US ability to resolve the Palestinian problem is baseless. The issues of the return of the Arab land that Israel occupied in the 1967 war, and the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip in return for recognition of Israel by the Arabs, constitute the essence of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The ruling Likud-led coalition in Israel not only rejects the formation of a Palestinian state, but has never accepted the principle of returning land for peace.

Indeed, Likud's tough stand on the occupied territories is an important factor in its electoral strength. In 1989, Israeli Prime Minister Shamir, in response to the Palestinian peace offensive and pressure from Washington, promised to hold elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip so that Palestinians could choose their delegates to negotiate their future with Israel; but other prominent members of the Likud coalition forced him to abandon his plan.

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Although the opposition Labor Party has accepted the principle of returning land for peace, it rejects the establishment of a Palestinian state and negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Demographic changes have been important considerations in Labor's acceptance of returning land for peace. Labor believes that given the large Palestinian population in Israel and the occupied territories (over 30 percent of the total population) and the high rate of population growth among the Pa lestinians, the continuation of the post-1967 status quo could gradually change the Jewish state into a binational state of Arabs and Jews.

However, the recent large influx of Soviet Jews into Israel has seriously reduced the weight of the demographic argument. Similarly, although before the Gulf crisis public opinion in Israel was evenly split between support and opposition to the principle of returning land for peace, the pro-Saddam stand of the Palestinians is likely to reduce public support in Israel for returning the occupied territories to the Arabs and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Thus, political realities in Israel do n ot favor any quick resolution of the Palestinian problem.

The same conclusion holds for the Palestinian side. Although Yasser Arafat's support for Saddam Hussein has weakened Arab and international support for the PLO, the organization is still very popular among the Palestinians. At present, there is no serious alternative to the PLO leadership. The top leadership of the PLO may change, but its policy of seeking an independent Palestinian state is not likely to change. Similarly, if the Arab states were to negotiate with Israel, bypassing the Palestinians, th ey cannot make serious territorial concessions to Israel.

This gap between the Arabs and the Israelis makes US intervention in favor of a comprehensive settlement of the conflict necessary. The US is the principle financial, military, and political supporter of Israel. Consequently, the US is expected to have significant leverage over Israel. However, Israel's strength in the US Congress neutralizes American leverage over Israel. It is not that the US government does not desire a speedy resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict; rather, because of domestic polit ical constraints, the executive branch is unable to implement any comprehensive and fair solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Upon assuming power, the Bush administration put the Arab-Israeli conflict at the top of its foreign policy agenda. Following the PLO's 1988 decision to denounce terrorism and to recognize the state of Israel (a historic and excruciating concession), provided that Israel agreed to the establishment of a Palestinian state, there was a great deal of optimism that the Bush administration might be able to resolve the Palestinian problem. Despite persistent and earnest efforts by Secretary of State Baker, ho wever, the Shamir government did not accept Baker's suggestions, nor did it offer its own peace plan. Both Bush and Baker were very frustrated with the Israelis.

Despite Israel's financial dependence on the US, the Bush administration could not exert any pressure on Israel. This is because Israel has strong support within Congress, which protects Israel against any pressure from the executive branch. Congressional support for Israel is closely tied to the US electoral process. American Jewish organizations exercise tremendous electoral power. Most American Jewish organizations advocate the continuation of strong American financial, political, and military suppor t for Israel. Because of their electoral importance, the views of the American Jewish organizations are always strongly reflected in Congress.

Thus, it is unlikely that the Palestinians will abandon their demand for an independent state, or that the Arab states will make serious territorial concessions to Israel. Similarly, the Likud-led coalition government in Israel is not likely to accept a Palestinian state or the principle of returning land for peace. And congressional support for Israel will not allow the Bush administration to pressure Israel to cooperate in the resolution of the Palestinian problem.

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Consequently, those who expect the resolution of the Gulf crisis to be followed by a strong and effective American initiative to resolve the Palestinian problem are bound to be terribly disappointed. Ironically, a strong Iraq threatening Israel might have pressured Israel to seek American help in achieving peace, based on the principle of returning land for peace, with its Arab neighbors. With the defeat of Iraq, and the absence of a threatening Arab force, Israel has little incentive to seek a comprehe nsive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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