In 1996, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan convened an international forum at the Hashimiyya Palace in Amman with guests from the entire Middle East as well as noted statesmen from outside the region. As a newly appointed foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, I found myself invited to one of these events. Among the guests, with whom I spoke a great deal, was former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who possessed a rare combination of enormous diplomatic experience and the capacity to derive lessons from what he did in practice that can be applied in other cases.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process was clearly on the verge of collapse at that time, after Palestinian suicide bombers attacked Israeli cities four times in February-March 1996 and ninety Israelis had been killed. Recognizing that it was necessary to take a different approach, Kissinger told me “what you need is a ‘code of conduct’ for the Middle East.” To be honest, I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. But I decided that when I got home to Jerusalem, I would check the four volumes of his memoirs that I had on my bookshelves and then speak to him again when he arrived a few days later.
Looking under the letter “C” in the index of his books, I expected to find the term “Code of Conduct.” It wasn’t there. Yet from our subsequent discussion, it became clear what he was getting at. Back in 1972, Kissinger found himself involved in negotiations with the Soviet Union over limits on the growth of the strategic missile arsenals of the two superpowers. These negotiations eventually led to the signing of the SALT I Treaty.
But there were serious reasons to doubt whether the negotiating process between the superpowers was leading anywhere, since Moscow was looking to increase its military activism in the Third World, from Vietnam to Angola. Kissinger did not want to sit at the negotiating table while the Soviets resumed their war against the West through their proxy forces.
What he developed was a document called “Basic Principles of U.S.-Soviet Relations.” If Moscow adhered to this code of conduct, then Washington could judge the level of progress that had been made in creating new relations between the superpowers based on detente. But if Moscow violated the code of conduct, then Washington could turn these principles into a blunt diplomatic instrument for hammering the Russians before the NATO allies and the American public more generally. The code of conduct would allow the U.S. to smoke out the Soviets to reveal their true intent.
Could Kissinger’s idea of a code of conduct been helpful in the Middle East? Was it possible to devise a set of rules for future negotiations that would either promote a real peace process or provide a clear measure for indicating that the Palestinian leadership had violated its commitments? There were unique issues in the Middle East that could have been addressed: incitement to violence, providing sanctuary to terrorist organizations, or halting hostile initiatives in international bodies like the U.N.
These were not formal issues for the negotiating agenda, like borders, refugees, or settlements, but they served as important indicators of whether the peace process was serious or not. In 1996, Israel found itself in a position in which it was negotiating with Arafat at the peace table, while he was giving a green light to Hamas to escalate suicide attacks on Israel and thereby gain diplomatic leverage. This was completely untenable. To make the code of conduct in the Israeli-Palestinian case, the U.S. would have had to support it and, in effect, serve as its judge.
Presently, the idea of a code of conduct is relevant for another dimension of Middle Eastern diplomacy. In the aftermath of what is still called the Arab Spring, new regimes are sprouting across North Africa and the Middle East, which often contain leaders who identify with the Muslim Brotherhood. In Syria, in the post-Assad era, it is likely that even more extreme Salafi currents, and in some cases actual branches of al-Qaida, will have considerable sway.
There is a huge debate underway in the West about what to do with the Muslim Brotherhood. On the one hand, there is an awareness that the leadership of al-Qaida acquired its political education under the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood, like Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor, who started his career in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of 9/11, who grew up in its Kuwait branch. On the other hand, there are policymakers in Europe and even in Washington who view the Muslim Brotherhood as a more moderate alternative to the Salafists.
By establishing objective criteria for acceptable state behavior, a code of conduct, if carefully designed, can be used as a tool for distinguishing those rulers that adhere to its principles from those who renounce them. It can be used for establishing who should be “inside the tent” with the West and allowed to benefit from international trade, technology transfer, and even arms sales; as opposed to those who should be left “outside the tent,” along with the rogue states.
Eventually, Kissinger’s idea of a code of conduct was incorporated into the founding document of a European security conference in 1975, known as the Helsinki Declaration. Those who adhered to its principles came to what was called the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE).
Israel agreed to the establishment of a Middle Eastern CSCE in its peace treaty with Jordan from 1994. If such a conference were convened for the Middle East and states had to decide whether they supported its principles, it would help to create the foundation for a stable regional order in the future. But the West embracing new leaders in the Middle East who refuse to meet some minimal international standards is the fastest way to create the pre-conditions for international chaos that will increase the risks of armed conflict in the region in the future.
This column originally ran in Israel Hayom.