by Daniel Kurtzer
What motivates leaders to lead, or to reverse course, to move in a political direction far different from what was pursued in the past? Are there innate qualities within such leaders that predispose them to be open to such course corrections? Are they risk-takers or contrarian thinkers by nature? Are they stimulated by changing political fortunes or by a different strategic context?
As Israelis and Palestinians mark the 50th anniversary of the June 1967 war, analysts and commentators will offer numerous assessments about the unresolved conflict and the efforts to negotiate peace that have not reached fruition. They will assess the responsibility of each party for the failures and setbacks and will look for specific factors that account for the breakdown of the peace process — Palestinian violence and incitement, Israeli settlements and occupation practices, political weaknesses within each polity and the like. There is surely much to learn from these analyses, but, I would argue, there is nothing as important as understanding the calculations of the leaders on both sides of the conflict in deciding whether to stand pat, negotiate peace or go to war.
Even Arafat Changed, to a Degree
After 1967 and until his death in 2004, Yasser Arafat dominated the Palestinian national movement. Having created the Fateh movement in 1958, Arafat took over the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1969 and became, effectively, the leader and spokesman for Palestinian interests and the ultimate decision maker with respect to Palestinian politics, violence and diplomacy. Arafat made his reputation as a cunning “charismatic revolutionary leader.” He was not, however, a political risk-taker, preferring instead to maneuver through the intricacies of Arab politics to build support for the Palestinian cause and to direct or encourage violence and terrorism against Israel as a means of weakening Israel’s resolve.
In the name of “armed resistance,” Arafat’s methods were ruthless. His arsenal of tools and tactics included acts of terrorism directed against civilians, airline hijackings, bloody terrorist attacks and suicide bombings. He persistently but unsuccessfully tried to establish a base of operations in or close to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, ending up in Tunis following the Israeli army’s siege of Beirut in 1982. He presided over a fractious coalition of disparate Palestinian resistance movements, by playing off individuals and factions against one another in a classic “divide and rule” strategy. His tactics alienated friends as well as foes, from King Hussein in the momentous 1970 “Black September” civil war to Arab kings and presidents after the establishment of “Fatehland” in South Lebanon. Indeed, the PLO’s presence in South Lebanon upset the delicate sectarian and confessional balance in the country, thereby contributing to the outbreak of a prolonged civil war and prompting two Israeli invasions in 1978 and 1982 in reaction to terrorism and shelling.
Arafat did not change strategy or tactics until 1988, which started out as a very bad year for him personally and for the PLO. In March, presumed Israeli special forces assassinated one of Arafat’s key lieutenants, Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad) in Tunis, showing Arafat that distance from Israel provided no security for him or his movement. Meanwhile, in December 1987, Palestinians in the OPT had risen up in what became known as the first intifada. Driven to act as a result of growing occupation pressures and the growth of Israeli settlements, a young indigenous leadership emerged that planned and acted independently of the PLO in Tunis. They came together in a “Unified National Command” that advised Tunis of what it intended to do and then did it.
Arafat and the PLO tried to play catch-up ball: he named his senior deputy and loyalist, Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad) — who would also be assassinated in Tunis in 1991 — as the PLO’s coordinator of the Intifada. In response to the intifada, the Israelis cracked down hard. These events prompted U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz to act, and he advanced what became known as the Shultz Plan for bringing about an international peace conference “interlocked” with bilateral negotiations to resolve the conflict.
Neither the Israeli counter-offensive nor the American peace offensive worked, but they drove Jordan’s King Hussein to act. In July 1988, Hussein relinquished Jordan’s claim to the West Bank. As pressures grew — mounting Palestinians and Israeli casualties — and with PLO options narrowing, Arafat convened the Palestine National Council (PNC), the highest decision making body in the national movement. The PNC voted to accept United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 (adopted in November 1967) and renounce terrorism, accepting the idea of a two-state solution. Signifying yet further change, in December, following frantic backchannel and largely uncoordinated efforts by Sweden, American and Palestinian academics, and a group of American Jews, Arafat announced acceptance of the three conditions for opening a dialogue with the United States — recognition of Israel, acceptance of Resolution 242 and renunciation of terrorism.
Arafat had changed, largely as a result of circumstances and significant upheavals in the regional and local environment. Decades of attacking Israel had not weakened the country, and armed resistance had all but failed. Local Palestinians in the OPT had begun to act semi-independently of the PLO. Jordan had essentially stepped away from the conflict. And so Arafat engineered fundamental change in PLO policy.
To be sure, it is not clear how much of Arafat’s change of heart was sincere: Within 18 months of the start of the U.S.-PLO dialogue, the United States broke it off after Arafat refused to condemn and dissociate the PLO from a PLO faction for carrying out a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv. And in 1990, Arafat backed Iraq after it invaded Kuwait, bucking the trend among the likes of Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia who opposed Iraq and ultimately joined the U.S.-led international coalition that drove Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991. Nonetheless, the PNC decision paved the way for the next 25 years of peace-making. In 1993, the change became embedded in the Oslo Accords and the PLO’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist.
The Prime Ministers — Security and Peace
Five Israeli prime ministers underwent equally, if not greater, transformative change in the years since 1967 — Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Olmert. Begin, the fiery Revisionist leader and underground fighter of the pre-state period became the fiery right-wing oppositionist of the 1950s, 1960s and much of the 1970s. In 1977, his Likud party shocked the Israeli political system by defeating the Labor party, and Begin assumed the premiership. For the Israeli settlement movement and the proponents of no territorial compromise, Begin’s victory was a godsend. Settlement activity expanded dramatically, including into the populated heartland of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
No one could have foreseen that within a year of his election, Begin would be a peacemaker. He reciprocated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s dramatic diplomatic initiative and, after intense negotiations, signed a peace treaty in which Israel agreed to hand back the entire Sinai Peninsula and to dismantle the settlements that had been established there. To be sure, Sinai did not hold the same religious-nationalist significance as the West Bank, but it had been touted after 1967 as the strategic depth that Israel required between itself and its enemies. Begin overcame the opposition that his decision for peace with Egypt caused: He built a de facto political alliance with former and future Labor stalwarts Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman, and he withstood significant opposition from the settlers he so admired who fought the evacuation of Yamit and the other settlements in Sinai.
The same Begin who had burnished his credentials with blistering oratory against the Israeli left realized that an extraordinary opportunity for peace had presented itself. He was wise enough and politically brave enough to reverse course, in the process dismantling settlements and withdrawing from strategically valuable territory.
The transformative experience of Yitzhak Rabin was equally astounding. As chronicled in Itamar Rabinovich’s rich new biography, Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman, Rabin seemed an unlikely peace advocate in his early career as a rising star in the pre-state Palmach and in the Israeli army. Rabin’s meticulous attention to detail and planning and his innate caution contributed to his deserved reputation as a security hawk, better known for preparing the Israeli army for victory in 1967 and responding harshly to the Palestinian Intifada in 1987 than for “blue sky” thinking about peace.
But something clicked in Rabin as the intifada progressed and the world changed with the demise of the Soviet Union and the over-the-horizon threat posed by an ascendant Iran. In the early 1990s, even before his election to the premiership in 1992, Rabin addressed these issues head-on: He spoke publicly about the strategic necessity of comprehensive peace with the Arabs, in order to free up Israeli capabilities to deal with Iran.
Once in office, Rabin wasted no time translating this strategic outlook into action. He authorized Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin to explore what became the Oslo channel involving secret talks with the PLO. In this regard, Rabin was certainly not motivated by respect or admiration for Yasser Arafat, whom Rabin viewed as little more than a terrorist. Rather, Rabin recognized the need for an authoritative decision-maker on the Palestinian side, and there was no one else besides Arafat who could command the respect associated with possible future concessions. In parallel with this exploration of the Palestinian issue, Rabin also delivered to the American secretary of state, Warren Christopher, one of the most significant diplomatic “gifts” possible: a semi-hypothetical description of his bottom lines with respect to peace with Syria, the so-called “deposit.”
Rabin did not live to see these dramatic and transformative diplomatic moves translate into peace, but dramatic and transformative they were. Indeed, Rabin’s diplomacy — at Oslo, regarding the deposit and with respect to the urgency of peace in order to deal with Iran — became a strategic foundation for many within the Israeli security and political establishment for many years afterwards. He was motivated as a peacemaker by the same impulses that had driven his career as a soldier: to protect Israel and ensure its long-term security and survival. And he was agile enough to change, from warrior to statesman, in pursuit of those goals.
Ehud Barak rose to become chief of staff within the Israeli army as a noted warrior, reportedly responsible for heroic actions behind enemy lines. His election to the premiership in 1999 was largely attributed to his security credentials which attracted a following among the recently arrived Russian immigrant community. But he moved almost immediately to try to advance peace with Syria, as played out in important meetings in Washington’s Blair House and at a summit with President Bill Clinton and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
Despite the relative brevity of his tenure as prime minister, Barak changed the strategic posture of Israel. In May 2000, he ordered the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon and the termination of Israeli support for a local Christian militia. This ended almost 22 years of Israeli occupation and resulted in the UN’s confirmation that Israel had fulfilled the conditions of Security Council Resolution 425. Two months later, Barak prevailed upon Clinton to convene a summit at Camp David to try to resolve the Palestinian issue. Barak made a substantial and serious offer on territorial withdrawal. However, what he offered fell short of Palestinian demands, and in any event Arafat was in no mood to negotiate, and thus the summit failed. Yet, Barak had transformed at least a part of Israel’s strategic landscape and had established a baseline for Israeli concessions in the peace process that would be built upon several years later.
Ariel Sharon, the security-focused “bulldozer,” was a product of Labor Zionism who catapulted from a long military career into right-wing politics at the time of Begin’s ascension to power. He soon became the patron and driving force of the settlement movement. Sharon built where he saw fit to build, on hilltops in the West Bank and in corridors in Gaza. For Sharon, cabinet decisions were relevant only when they agreed with what he wanted to do, and he did what he wanted regardless of what the Cabinet decreed. By way of example, during my time as the U.S. ambassador, during a late-night meeting Sharon recounted how he had built the settlements in Gaza despite the fact that the cabinet had voted down his plan.
Sharon came to power in 2001 in the midst of the second Palestinian intifada. For two years, Sharon fought as he had in the past against Palestinian terrorism, incitement and violence — and against Arafat personally. In 2003, however, Sharon surprised the Israeli establishment by embracing what he called “disengagement” from Gaza and part of the northern West Bank. Like Rabin, Sharon did not become a hawk-turned-dove. Rather, he came to understand some significant changes in the regional and local environment and proved agile enough to exploit an opportunity to advance the prospect of better relations with the Palestinians.
Specifically, Sharon heard visitor after visitor warn against the impending demographic crisis, at which time the Jewish and Arab populations between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River would become almost equal, thereby putting in jeopardy either the Jewish or democratic character of the state. Sharon also watched as the Palestinians undercut the Road Map for peace, and he was unsure what would follow. He was disturbed by the possibility that the Geneva Initiative — an ersatz peace agreement reached by non-official Israelis and Palestinians — would gain traction and support. Sharon was also disturbed by what was happening in Gaza: The settlements he had built to act as a security asset for Israel had in fact become a security liability, and for all practical purposes, the Israel Defense Forces deployed in Gaza were there to protect settlers as much as the State of Israel. In proposing disengagement from Gaza and the removal of all settlements and settlers, Sharon had changed and had transformed the political landscape.
And so did Ehud Olmert, from a Likud “prince” — the scion of a pioneer of the Herut movement and revisionist Zionism — to a prime minister who offered the most far-reaching concessions in history to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) in 2008. Olmert’s transformation was gradual and steady over the years. As the mayor of Jerusalem, he presided over an ostensibly unified city but one that he knew was almost as divided as it had been before 1967. As I heard in many conversations with him in the early 2000s, when he served as Sharon’s deputy prime minister, he was acutely aware of and sensitive to the demographic problem facing Israel.
In most respects, in fact, he was the intellectual godfather of the idea of separation, bringing it into Sharon’s political orbit far in advance of Sharon’s decision to adopt it as a policy.
What made Olmert’s transformation so remarkable was the speed, depth and extent of what he was prepared to do to reach a settlement with the Palestinians. He also attempted a less publicized effort to reach an accommodation with Syria, through the good offices of Turkey. In making his unprecedented offer to Abu Mazen in 2008, Olmert knew he was operating solo — U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice supported him, but she did not have the full backing of the White House or the neo-cons in the administration. And he found a reticent partner in Abbas, who reportedly never responded to Olmert’s quite dramatic concessions on all the core issues under dispute. Olmert’s transformational leadership then ran out of time, when legal troubles engulfed his premiership and drove him from power.
Will Today’s Leaders Change into Transformative Leaders?
None of the leaders whose transformations have been sketched here showed consistent signs of change even late into their careers. Changes in the environment, changes in strategic outlook, new realities on the ground and in regional and international politics, and opportunities that presented themselves — these were among the factors that prompted these diverse, hard-headed leaders to take important steps toward peace.
Even a casual assessment of current leaders does not evoke much hope for positive change. Too much deference is given to internal politics and political maneuvering. Both societies are divided and polarized. Indecision and/or an unwillingness or failure to take decisions has become a safer option than a bold, affirmative decision. And thus the thought of advancing the prospects for peace has become encumbered by preconditions, political caution and mutual recriminations.
As the other essays in this volume note, the substantive and practical problems of peace are formidable, and there are no shortcuts or easy ways to resolve the pressing issues of security, borders, Jerusalem, refugees and the like. The hard reality is that change is not self-generating. Yet, as this essay has shown, transformative change is possible. And it starts with transformative leaders.
Conventional wisdom about today’s Palestinians and Israeli leaders leads to skepticism about their ability to think beyond the positions they have staked out. Both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu have spent far more time setting preconditions for negotiations than actually negotiating, and each has walked away from moments that have been pregnant with possibility. Abbas did not respond to Olmert’s offer in 2008; Netanyahu reportedly demurred in 2015 over a possible deal involving regional players, something he had demanded.
However, past performance is not necessarily a guide to the future actions of Israeli or Palestinian leaders, as this essay has made clear. Abbas remains a partner for peace, has opposed violence throughout his long career, and continues to support the two-state solution. He has little to lose at this point by initiating or embracing a farsighted proposal, and thus could be a candidate for transformational change. To be sure, Abbas will not yield easily from his well-known positions on territory, Jerusalem or security. But the 2008 and 2014 negotiations yielded a substantial narrowing of gaps, offering hope that Abbas can take the risks to consummate an agreement with Israel.
Netanyahu remains an ardent advocate of “giving” only after “receiving” and thus will be equally wary about conceding on any issue. Netanyahu leads the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, and it is hard to imagine his risking that coalition for the uncertainty of an alliance with the Zionist Union by making the kind of concessions that would be required to achieve a settlement — offering the Palestinians a capital in Jerusalem, addressing the territorial issue in a manner that results in a border based on the 1967 lines with swaps of equal size and quality, and unlocking the refugee issue. For Netanyahu, the only real prospect of transformational change would be a credible Palestinian offer that seizes the imagination of the Israeli public, or a showdown with the Trump administration, a prospect that Netanyahu and his allies probably believe is remote.
The question then is whether Trump — the unknown factor, mercurial, unpredictable and a neophyte in the world of foreign policy and international affairs — can muster the creativity, persistence, patience and determination to achieve what he has called “the ultimate deal.” Trump’s rhetoric during the election campaign on settlements and Jerusalem do not breed confidence in his ability to shepherd these two parties toward an agreement. His comments during the February press conference with Netanyahu also raised doubts about his commitment to a two-state solution.
Is there thus no hope for transformational leadership? Paradoxically, Trump’s unpredictability could be an asset, especially as his domestic and foreign agendas face increasing difficulties in Congress and the courts. If this dealmaker can marshal the resolve to be serious about peacemaking and bring the full weight of the United States to the effort, even he could stimulate transformational change between two far-from-willing peace partners in Israel and Palestine.