Arab-Israeli Conflict: The Exhaustion Factor

Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations

August 2, 2002

This week GSS Chief Avi Dichter declared before the Knesset Foreign Affairs Committee that “there is discernible fatigue in the Palestinian streets.” There are other indications of this Palestinian war-weariness, from anti-PA demonstrations by unemployed workers in Gaza to talk among the Fatah Tanzim of the need for a ceasefire. This exhaustion factor has foreshadowed turning points in Arab approaches towards the Arab-Israeli conflict many times in the past. Could it also serve as one today?

Recall that Anwar Sadat in 1977, declared his willingness to go “to the ends of the earth, even to Jerusalem,” not out of love of Zion but rather because of exhaustion. The Egyptian economy was in desperate shape, the United States was playing around with an international conference that enabled Syria to veto any hope for negotiations, and Sadat’s situation was becoming precarious.

Exhaustion was also an important factor in Arafat’s calculations in 1993, when he accepted Rabin’s offer of a Gaza-Jericho first arrangement which left unresolved all the issues of importance to Palestinians (statehood, territory, settlements, Jerusalem and refugees). Siding with Saddam had led to the expulsion of Palestinians from the Gulf and the loss of Arab support. The PLO’s treasury was empty. The United States had sidelined the Palestinians at the Madrid peace conference where they attended as part of the Jordanian delegation. With the Palestinian cause in dire trouble, Arafat grabbed the lifeline offered by Rabin.

Exhaustion played a role again in December 1999, when Syria’s Hafez el-Assad decided to drop his longstanding demand that Israel first commit to withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 lines before Syria would resume direct negotiations. Realizing that he was coming to the end of his life and losing the use of his mental faculties, Assad suddenly signaled a sense of urgency. He informed the U.S. that he would send his foreign minister to Washington to meet with Israel’s Prime Minister Barak. He had only one uncharacteristic condition: that we conclude the deal quickly. The Arab leader who had most believed in that old Arab adage “haste is from the devil,” was now in a hurry. Why? Exhaustion.

The same exhaustion factor also generated the Saudi peace initiative earlier this year. Crown Prince Abdullah’s world was coming apart. Saudi citizens were responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, leading many Americans to question the relationship. At the same time, the intifadah was fuelling hatred for the United States in the Saudi street. For more than a year the Crown Prince had been trying to convince the new Bush Administration that it had to do something about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But rather than engage in that effort, George Bush was talking about toppling Saddam Hussein. The prospect of US forces occupying Baghdad at the same time as the IDF was occupying Ramallah, could have calamitous consequences for the stability of the House of Saud. The Saudis had always preferred to be the caboose on the peace train, letting someone else drag it down the tracks; now the Crown Prince decided to become the engine.

In each of these cases, Arab leaders took the risky decisions to reach out to Israel, breaking the moulds fashioned and reinforced over decades of hostility. Sometimes they did so because the pain and suffering inflicted on their people by the conflict was generating a threat to their regimes. At other times they found themselves personally reaching the end of the road. Either way, they came to understand that time was no longer on their side.

Could exhaustion bring the Palestinians to understand that it’s time to stop the violence and terror and seek peace with Israel instead? The problem with these historic parallels is that they all required leadership to turn exhaustion with conflict into an initiative for peace. And now there is no such leadership.

Arafat certainly knows he has reached the end of the road yet again but anything he might do as a result doesn’t matter any more. His credibility has been so damaged by his move from peace back to war that if exhaustion were to prompt him to raise the olive branch again it would be met with Israeli—and American—derision. Note that it took an Israeli leader’s initiative to bail Arafat out the last time—all the Chairman did was to grab the rope. It is unlikely that any Israeli leader would now be prepared to bail Arafat out again.

Could Palestinian exhaustion have other consequences, like reinforcing demands for a change in leadership or creating a public mood in the Palestinian street that questions the value of Hamas suicide bombings? Certainly. But that would require courage to replace the fatigue on both sides of this bloody conflict. Zealots would need to be marginalized. Palestinian initiatives to end the violence would need to be reciprocated by Israeli steps to encourage them. But so long as the good lack all conviction and only the bad are full of passionate intensity (to paraphrase William Butler Yeats), we should not expect history to repeat itself. Rather things will continue.