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Khoury Talk Considers Israeli-PLO Agreement

By Jeremy Hylton
Editor in Chief

Yasir Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands yesterday in a noticeably tense moment on the White House lawn. The dynamics of the moment -- Arafat smiled broadly and extended his hand to a stiff-lipped Rabin -- conveyed a sense of the Middle East peace process as a whole, a process discussed by Professor Philip S. Khoury at a news conference on Friday afternoon.

"Arafat was in desperate straits. He saw his control of the PLO eroding quickly," said Khoury, dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, at an Industry Summit news conference at Harvard University. "He needed to do something bold and courageous."

Khoury, a political and social historian of the Middle East, has written five books on the region, including The Modern Middle East and Tribes and State Formation in the Middle East.

Khoury described his reaction to the Middle East peace accord, which was signed yesterday. He said Arafat has gambled that the agreement will ultimately lead to a much larger Palestinian state and that it will help preserve his position as chairman of the PLO, at a time when his future appears uncertain.

Israel, on the other hand, negotiated from a position of strength and stands to gain economically and politically from the deal. "I think this is a smart deal and the Israelis are getting a lot from this," Khoury said.

Khoury also discussed the characters involved in the process and the personal tensions they feel. Arafat has lead the PLO for over 20 years, and has supported hijackings and terrorist bombings. Rabin lead Israeli forces in the 1967 conquests of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"I think it's a very exciting moment fraught with all kinds of problems," he said. Despite the problems he mentioned, including the need for foreign investment in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and control of Jerusalem, Khoury saw the agreement as an important step -- "more monumental than the Egypt-Israel peace that was brokered in the late 1970s," he said.

First, Khoury said, the process of granting self-government to the Palestinians must be seen as irreversible. "There has to be some understanding worked out fairly soon that the Palestinians will get more control, over time, over more territory," he said. "In time it is going to become a state."

Jordan and Syria must also be actively involved in the peace process, Khoury said. "You're not going to get real settlement and real peace unless you get Syria to sign on the dotted line," he said.

Another important factor for the stability of the Palestinian territories is investment in the region and its human infrastructure, Khoury said. "It is a poor area and someone has to put some money in it."

The United States is the only superpower with the ability to gather support for a Palestinian state, Khoury continued. It "will go around with a tin cup if necessary," he said.

Investment in the region will also come from other Arab states, even though many states have reacted coolly to the agreement signed yesterday, Khoury said. "I think in time we're going to see wealthy Palestinians," he said. Many Arabs vacationed in the West Bank before the Israeli occupation, and they may return, bringing investments with them, he said.

The growth of a Palestinian state and foreign investment in it should also help Israelis, Khoury said. For Israel, "an expanded Palestinian state will lead to greater integration into the Middle East," he said.

The new Palestinian state would be closely linked to Jordan and would also trade with Israel, Khoury suggested. "They may form a little larger scale economy including Jordan and Israel, but it is still too early to tell," he said.

Israel is looking for new markets and closer links to the rest of the Middle East, and a Palestinian state would provide new markets. "One vision is Israel becoming the Singapore of the Middle East," Khoury said.

Many problems remain

Though Khoury was obviously hopeful for the development of a Palestinian state and investment in it, he also discussed several of the problems that must be dealt with.

"Jerusalem will be the trickiest," Khoury said. "I would love to see some sort of internationalization of Jerusalem, but I don't think Israel is ready to cede anything. It's going to remain a thorny issue," he said.

The relationship between Palestinians and Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip must also be determined, Khoury said. The peace agreement allows Israel to protect Israeli settlers but is vague on specifics.

Water rights on the West Bank are also a contentious issue, Khoury said. "The water table is a good one in the West Bank and more than half of it is siphoned off into Israel," he said.

The Palestinians and their leaders must settle factional disputes, Khoury explained. "The PLO will have to figure out how to govern the ungovernable," he said.

The future of the PLO leadership is also in question. "We don't know what kind of blood-letting is going to occur between these Palestinian factions," Khoury said. Though the peace process Arafat helped to start may succeed, the PLO chairman may be forced out of his commanding role. "There will be pressure sooner than later to get [Arafat] into some sort of honorary position," Khoury said.