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by Guy Bechor

In September 1980, in the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein ripped to shred the agreement he had personally signed five years earlier with the Shah of Persian regulating the respective water rights of the two countries in the Shatt al-Arab. When he was later asked how he could tear up an agreement that bore his signature, he explained in astonishment that he had signed the agreement when the Iranians were strong and tore it up when they became weak.

That happened at the beginning of my career as Arab Affairs Correspondent, and that remarkable episode stuck in my mind as a riddle to be solved. In the course of time I came to understand that the Western concept of the "sanctity of contractual agreements" does not exist in this part of the world, and that here an agreement is always relative and not total, and it changes according to considerations of security, religion, history, and military power. Even if all of Saddam's actions were caricature-like, what we had here was an attitude that has been characteristic of the Middle East for some centuries. Unlike in the West, a signed contract here doesn't settle matters, but is no more than a basis for alterations.

Consequently, the signing of an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians in a European capital is not a symmetrical act, regardless of the substance of the agreement. The one signs with the obvious intention of implementing the agreement, while the other side signs with the intention of regarding the document as a kind of relative guideline open to change.

The Israelis have always rushed to get the Arabs to sign agreements detailed down to the last soldier and the last centimeter, seeing such agreements from the Western perspective as something sacred to be implemented. The Arabs, on the other hand - and this applies to the Egyptians too - have always sought to deliberately formulate the foggiest pacts, so as to leave the maximal margin for maneuvring without breaching the agreement. Israeli stubbornness has led to dead letters: magnificent trade and cooperation agreements with Egypt that were never implemented; the May 17, 1983 agreement with Lebanon that immediately expired; the exquisitely formulated Oslo Agreements that came to nothing; and now the illusional Geneva agreements that show that its authors have not learned a thing. There's the paradox: the more detailed the pacts are, the less implementable they are; and vice versa. By demanding so much detail, Israel itself causes the agreements to fail.

Arafat is aware of this culture gap and exploits it. As he sees it, Israel undertakes commitments for the future that she will fulfill, while he, in his approach, commits himself to nothing and will always bear no responsibility. Arafat doesn't seem especially worried about the possibility that he had lost all credibility among most Israeli Jews, who therefore see no prospect of any agreement whatever between the two sides.

Unfortunately, the authors of the contracts between us and the Arabs were and still are Israeli jurists who have no grasp of the cultural reality in our region, experts brought from chilly offices in Washington to which they have returned, leaving us to bear the heat. If we once thought that with time we'd get the point, we were wrong. The recurrent error has arrived in almost every mailbox in Israel.

Guy Bechor is an expert in Mideast affairs at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. The article was an Op Ed piece in the December 4, 2003 issue of the afternoon Hebrew daily "Yediot Aharanot." It was translated into English by Moshe Kohn. It is archived at IMRA (

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