Lecture by Mr. Uri Savir, Director-General of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at Seminar in Memory of General Aharon Yariv

Tel Aviv University Dayan Center
May 24, 1995

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. The other day I was invited to speak in New York, and the invitation said the following: that diplomats, experts and thinkers were invited to participate in the discussion, clearly distinguishing between the three and creating the greatest gap between the first and the latter category. I think that this occasion here, in memory of General Yariv, ought not only to memorialize Aharon Yariv and his great contribution to the thinking process in this country, but as a man who was an example of the integration of expertise and fresh thinking.

In recent years we have witnessed many events around the world, and very few of them were predicted by diplomats, experts, or thinkers, for example the fall of the Communist empire. I don’t think there is a single major event in our region that was predicted by virtually anybody if it is in the intelligence community, in the academic community, the diplomatic community or in the media.

Few predicted that Yasser Arafat would move to Gaza in a "Gaza first" solution; few predicted the PLO-Israeli mutual recognition; no one predicted that King Hussein would normalize relations with Israel before Syria; no one predicted that King Hussein would sign a formal agreement with Israel before Assad would.

And you ask yourself: Why have so many people, with so much knowledge and expertise been wrong about predicting events in the Middle East?

I think Yariv and the type of thinking that he stood and stands for is really the example of how you both can be an expert, know the facts, but not be hypnotized by past or present and try to think ahead of a different future, which is influenced by new elements that determine policy decision-making processes, elements that really produce a different reality than the one predicted.

Speaking about the changes which have taken place since the DOP, let us look at some of the events of the past week: Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres meeting in Gaza to discuss combat of terrorism; King Hussein of Jordan receiving Israeli pilots in Amman; Israel has an official delegation in Morocco; businessmen from Israel and Qatar meet on the development of energy relations; messages go back and forth between Damascus, Washington, Jerusalem, even this very day. If you would have seen these pictures three years ago, none of them would have been perceived as realistic or possible, and, if at all, they would have signified in everybody’s mind a fundamental revolution in the Middle East. And yet, when you ask people today what the basic sense and feeling is, nothing much has changed.

There is an enormous gap, in my view, between what I would call the hypnosis of the present, or hypnosis towards the past, and a real understanding of the fundamental changes occurring today, in our lifetimes, which ultimately will find expression in the books written in academia or in history books, much more than in the day to day press.

I think we all suffer from political or psychological jet-lag, where we don’t harmonize what we see, the new images and pictures and rhetoric and actions over the last 40 years, with what exists and doesn’t exist in the Middle East. Therefore we are almost unimpressed by the changes and we cling to things, saying maybe it hasn’t changed after all, and maybe they have never changed and will never change; nothing will ever change. Well it does, and it will. But it is a process that is evolutionary and doesn’t happen overnight, because it’s thanks to the very fundamental changes of what makes leaders and countries in this region and to some degree internationally change their views and change their opinions in relation to the past. And the right way in my view to analyze the process is by focusing on an evolutionary process and not a revolutionary one, that changes the fundamental events and elements in the Middle East.

I’d like to point out, very succinctly, six main elements of evolution in the Middle Eastern peace process. The first has to do with the mutual recognition between the Arabs and us mutual recognition in the fundamental sense mutual recognition mainly between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The deepest significance of the Oslo accords is not necessarily the agreement over Gaza and Jericho, which to a large degree is a relative, not a dramatic change in its concept, and many of its details relate to the Camp David Accord. The fundamental change came out of the mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO.

It was exactly two years ago, when I was at the first meeting between a PLO official and an Israeli official in Oslo, and after a first long night of debate, where we discussed political issues and strategic issues and security issues, and the Palestinian problem and Camp David and Gaza-Jericho and so on that we did come to the conclusion that what’s mostly lacking is a recognition, not of the fact of each other’s existence here we were, two people representing the two sides talking to each other but the legitimacy of the existence. Then, after the DOP, in Paris, we negotiated mutual recognition, where the PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, and with that recognized the legitimacy of a Jewish state on this land, Israel recognized the PLO, and by doing so recognized the Palestinian National Movement.

Many people on both sides are skeptical about the mutual recognition, and I think there is a deep misunderstanding of what really happened here. The recognition is not just a rhetorical change, it is a profound change of attitude towards each other’s legitimate interests. It stems from a perception of a self-interest of why is it good for each side. You cannot and could not run away from reality any more. Neither side can. In the two years of negotiations with the Palestinians, I think most of us around the negotiating table discovered one main thing, and that is: however much you read and however much you learn, and whatever expertise you develop about the Palestinians many of these perceptions crumble when you meet the people. The same is true for the Palestinians themselves. In these encounters, which by now have developed throughout the political spectrum of the government and the defense forces, you see a deepening of the mutual recognition and the recognition of a mutual interest.

Very often people come over to me and ask the following irrelevant question: Listen, all of this is fine, but do you really trust them? I never answer this question, because trust is in your family, at most at work, but definitely not something that you are looking for after 100 years of conflict. Impossible. We utterly distrust each other. They distrust us and we distrust them. But we develop mechanisms of working together, and I think there is not a day without 3-5 committees between the Palestinians the PLO and Israel meeting on various issues if it’s economic, if it’s security, if it’s political, if it’s negotiations. And there is a clear sense among those who rejected Israel, who wanted to see Israel off the map, that there is an Israel here to stay, and that this is actually a self interest. That is the answer to the trust the self interest to recognize Israel and to work with Israel, even if the interests sometimes, or quite often even, are not exactly identical.

We, too, have discovered through a difficult process that our interests are not identical, that things in Gaza and Jericho did not go exactly according to some people’s expectations, which were exaggerated to think that the PLO would come to Tunis and turn Gaza overnight to some type of Monte Carlo with a Swiss banking system, a British police and a democracy was somewhat of an exaggerated expectation. They did much worse than that and even worse than expected.

But gradually what we find, through what we see and what we do, is that we cannot go away, we cannot detach ourselves from working together in implementing, in improving the Gaza-Jericho agreement, and the implementation of the next stage. And therefore, when people speak sometimes about freezing the process or going back, you ask yourself: Going back where? Freezing what? Or perhaps running faster toward permanent status? We always come back to the basic Oslo accords, because their basis is mutual recognition.

The same mutual recognition of legitimacy gradually is happening between the rest of the Arab world and Israel not a love story and not identical interests, but mutual recognition that some interests can be implemented through cooperation and not through war and antagonism. The Palestinian process, at the heart of the matter, will go on through difficult implementations, through very difficult problems. But ultimately, with a sound basis of mutual recognition, it will achieve one agreement after the other.

The second element of evolution has to do with economy gradually replacing some of the main elements that dictate policy considerations. And it is the result, in my view, of the following phenomenon. In the past, non-democratic regimes in the region really had no opposition. What you could have is a parade every year, a beautiful army, a strong police force and secret service, a war every five years, win or lose, and leaders would stay in power. Today there is a basic challenge, coming from two opposite directions.

One is the past fundamentalism: people who are hungry, people who are bitter, people who are unemployed, who have some nostalgia towards a different past, towards an unrealistic future, towards a dogma of turning a society into a fundamentalist, religious society. Here you have the Iranian example. Among people in various countries around the region, including in the West Bank and Gaza, there is a potential opposition. It doesn’t have the same characteristics of democratic oppositions, but it does threaten regimes.

The second type of opposition is modernity. What will modern communication do to the young generation. If one example is Iran, the other example is Eastern Europe, and what CNN does to the youth in some of these countries, if they are not satisfied. The American Ambassador in Syria at the time told us one day that one of the main factors that had an impact on Assad was when he saw live on CNN the execution of Ceaucescu. Suddenly he saw 100 students take Ceaucescu to the wall and kill him. Something was terribly wrong in the world of dictators.

And what it actually means is that you have to feed the people. You cannot feed them anymore simply with illusions and nationalism. You have to physically feed them, and economic development in most of the countries in the region has become important in terms of trying to link this region, no long to the non-existent Soviet bloc that would supply arms for free, that would supply food for free, but to the West, and especially to the US and gradually to the private sector. The bridge to economic development is peace, and peace means peace with Israel. Here you have a fundamental, new interest, through the economic interest and the internal interest of survival, that gradually links some of our neighbors to peace with Israel as a self interest.

The third element in this evolution is our agreements and their implementation: based on mutual recognition the fact that Sadat understood that there is an Israel here to stay. Even if he came to the Knesset and spoke about Arab Jerusalem, and we have differences of opinion, he recognized Israel and we recognized the interests of Egypt through the agreement; and based on economic change, which in my view brought King Hussein to the agreement, though this was not the only element; it was also the move on the Palestinian track that brought Hussein to a faster process while in the past he moved very slowly and discreetly.

Based on these two elements we are signing agreements, and will continue to sign agreements. And while I agree that the peace process is almost an institution in the US and probably a permanent one, and that people will make a living out the peace process in the Middle East for many generations to come, I think we are moving towards the direction of agreements with Syria as well.

The implementation of these agreements is much more difficult than people perceive. People see a signing ceremony, they see a handshake, and they somehow expect a magic wand. We are different societies, different religions, we have deep prejudices, we know very little about each other, we have different interests, we have problems to overcome. But the mere signature of agreements to be gradually implemented is of extreme importance, and it is extremely important to adhere to these agreements, and to rectify some of the implementations when they go wrong. With Jordan we have a long series of agreements on economic development. The whole long border between Jordan and Israel, which is Israel’s longest border, has a whole array of economic projects. We must now make sure that this does not remain on paper and that we are dealing with cross-border economic projects that will give the people the sense of benefit, yes, that things are indeed changing.

The fourth element has to do with evolution, with gradually translating some of these implementations into positive change in the life of the people. Right now what we have in the region are two main results: we have agreements between leaders and implementation mechanisms, which reduce the danger of war. We do not have yet the positive element that will convince public opinion that peace is worthwhile.

Here we must work much more in an area in which we have little expertise. We never had cross-border projects, we only had cross-border wars. We are developing with the Palestinians industrial zones in eight places. We are developing with Jordan tourism projects around the Dead Sea. For the first time we have to deal with issues, for instance, of how to harmonize between Jordanian investment law, Israeli investment law and Palestinian investment law, not to speak about all three together, and how in a combined way to attract the private sector and say: come and invest here. To some degree, we all lived an illusion once that we would start behaving like human beings in this region. Abba Eban once said that the Middle East will start doing the right thing after committing all possible mistakes, and we probably are at that point. We thought that at that point the private sector would stand in line and say: Bravo, now that you behave like this, as human beings, we are all here to invest the millions of dollars that are available for this region. It isn’t so simple.

We will have to learn to develop, to behave like those regions in the world that do develop if it is Asia with its economic development, or the European Union. We will not turn into an economic union overnight, or not in a decade, and it will not be Japan in one or two decades in this region. But there is real potential, once resources are invested in economic development, once we find existing and new financial resources and this is why we are working on a regional economic bank.

The other day I was in Washington, and the American Treasury was against a regional economic bank in the Middle East. What we did for the first time is, we came in one delegation. That delegation could not have a country’s name, because it was a common delegation of Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians and Israelis. All four of us decided as one delegation to meet with the American Treasury and State Department, and I think they were so confused by this odd delegation that they simply capitulated and said: Yes. We are moving toward a regional bank that will give us resources and regional economic planning that is so lacking, with such a heterogenous area.

The fifth point of this evolution is the fight against the opposition opposition to the process. And I mean mainly fundamentalism. Because the fact that we are moving in this direction is a danger to the very existence and spread of fundamentalism, as the spread of fundamentalism is a danger to the very existence of the process. If you look at Gaza Gaza is a microcosm of what is happening in this region, a movement that has moved from dogmatism, extremism, terrorism, towards greater pragmatism and openness, struggling against extremism, fanaticism, under dire economic circumstances. And it’s not easy not for us, not for them.

But if fundamentalism will overcome the PLO or the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, the whole peace process will be in danger. Terrorism is not just out to kill Israelis, it’s out to kill the peace process and kill the forces of pragmatism. Working against terrorism and working against fundamentalism is not just a matter of how many rifles you have and how big your armies are. You need a combination of effective and stringent security measures, but also political and economic thinking.

Because in societies that develop a middle class, higher education, higher women employment, less infant mortality, and have more political freedom fundamentalism ultimately will be defeated. We have to work together with Egypt, with Jordan, with the Palestinians, even without announcing it, and mainly without announcing it, in a combined strategy against this opposition. There are those who see the opposition and say: It will never work. But these are the same people who say that nothing ever works, who thrive on skepticism, pessimism and political paralysis.

The last point in this evolution, and the last in time, and the most difficult, is the attitude actually of people. We all have misconceptions about each other, we all misunderstand each other. After a century of conflict, after so much war and pain and bloodshed, where each side today has to overcome tremendous pain, sometimes feeling of vengeance, prejudice, the most difficult part is here to change attitudes.

For most Israelis, the stereotypes of Palestinians are either terrorists or second class workers. I would say that 95% of Israelis have never met a Palestinian on a one-to-one basis for a cup of coffee.

For most Palestinians, the stereotype of Israelis is brutal occupiers, or in their view settlers who take up their land. Again, the great majority of them have never really met Israelis on a one-to-one and equal basis. The same is true between the people of Jordan and Israel, the people of Egypt and the people of Israel. We have to move, and here, again, the University, the Center, can play a critical role in what generally politicians and diplomats under-estimate, and those are the attitudinal changes on both sides. We are obviously completely convinced of our own perfection, and always look at the necessity of the other side to change.

There is a lot of change necessary on the other side. There is still anti-semitism in the Arab world, there is anti-Zionism in the Arab world, things are not easy, this is not an easy world. This depends on Arab leadership; it depends also on us to meet more, to try and expose more on the media, with all the difficulties.

But we must understand that we must change ourselves as well. That we chose mutual recognition with the Palestinians in order to create, whatever the political ramifications, a relation of equality, not of entrenched and deep wrongs. Because, first of all, not everything is wrong; some things are wrong and some things are right.

The real conclusion out of this process, for diplomats, experts and thinkers, is how do we affect the ongoing process: not by being pessimistic, which paralyzes you if everything is so wrong, how can you do anything; and not by being overly optimistic, because if everything will turn out well you don’t have to do anything. But by being pro-active, by thinking about our real self interest, by thinking of building bridges to self interest of others, by learning about each other, by understanding what are the fundamental changes and what led to these changes and how do we use Israel’s strength to translate it into a safe, secure and better future for the State of Israel and the region. In this respect it is this University, this Center, and you ladies and gentlemen, that can contribute and help us to create a new reality in the region.

Thank you very much.