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The Road from Mecca

With Hamas’s rise, Iran’s ascent, and Hezbollah’s war, the politics of the region also have become far more baffling; Israelis exhibit uncommon indecision. They ponder whether it is time for bold military moves or grand diplomatic bargains, whether to respond to Syria’s peace overtures or to spurn them, whether to deal with Abbas or to forget him. The government, troubled by its failure to defeat Hezbollah or release its captive soldiers, is still searching for a response to the Islamists’ intensive rearming. Criticized from all sides and divided from within, it lives day to day, as if on borrowed time. A nation accustomed to certainty has become hostage to doubt.

The present Israeli sense of paralysis only aggravates two more longstanding obstacles to peacemaking. One is institutional: Israeli governments are often short-lived, subject to the vagaries of an anachronistic political arrangement, itself the product of an electoral system which often requires coalition governments and allows smaller parties to dictate their parochial wishes to larger ones or, alternatively, to oust them from office. A peace initiative threatens to upset the delicate political equilibrium and reduce the prime minister’s term in office. The stubborn gap between the public’s support for an agreement with the Palestinians and the leadership’s inability to accomplish it is explained in part by this feature.

The other impediment is strategic. It relates to the vast imbalance of power that separates Israel from its adversaries, whether alone or in combination, and which has proved both a gift and an impediment. Israel’s power provides it with self-confidence but also lures it away from the necessity of compromise. Without the threat, there is little pressure, and without the pressure, there is scant incentive to take political or military risks for the sake of an uncertain and ill-defined peace. Why give up concrete and physical assets in return for promises from parties that may well lack the ability to deliver them?

Israel’s sense of security has its limitations, and these have been tested in recent times. Its foes may employ a tactic for which Israel has no adequate response; Palestinian suicide bombings are one example. Or Israel may embark on a military operation to which its adversaries have an unexpectedly effective answer; last summer’s assault against Hezbollah in Lebanon, which failed to meet any of its self-proclaimed objectives, is an illustration. In both cases, Israel must confront the limits of the power it holds in such disproportion.

What follows has become a familiar pattern: there is shock in the face of unexpected setback; anger at those who have caused it; exploration of new forms of retaliation; and lethal and often indiscriminate punishment. For a moment, there also is consideration of alternative options, peace initiatives of one kind or another. But once the immediacy of the pressure recedes, Israel tends to retreat into the apparent safety of the status quo. The case for boldness, briefly opened, is swiftly shut. The incentive to move when there is a breakdown disappears when the old imbalance of power is restored.

3.

Five years ago this month, in April 2002, the Arab League’s twenty-two countries put forward a peace initiative offering full normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for full withdrawal from Arab territories occupied in 1967 and a negotiated resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem. Coming at the height of the second Palestinian uprising, they made the proposal with what seemed like a deep sense of awkwardness. Then, they walked away. Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s prime minister, immediately dismissed the initiative. A near-simultaneous Palestinian attack in the northern Israeli city of Nahariya and heavy Israeli retaliation did the rest. From the Arab world as from Israel, one could almost hear a collective sigh of relief.

The multilateral Arab initiative has come alive just at the time when the prospect for successful bilateral talks has faded. Having been dormant for years—with the exception of a passing reference in the 2003 Israeli-Palestinian Roadmap for Peace—it suddenly has begun to attract interest and widespread statements of approval. The US was among the first to change its position. Discredited by both its war in Iraq and its support for Israel’s war in Lebanon, threatened by a rising Iran, stung by Hamas’s electoral triumph, and desperate for some achievement in the Middle East, spokesmen for the Bush administration began to cautiously praise the initiative. In Israel too, the tone of commentary has been markedly different of late. And the Arab League, so skittish at the initiative’s inception, revived it unanimously and with some fanfare at its March 2007 summit in Riyadh.

It’s an eclectic chorus but, also, a deceptive one. The initiative’s resuscitation is seen, by today’s depressed standards, as something of a breakthrough but the surface harmony conceals the divergent views of the major parties on the nature and potential of the proposals.

As Arab countries and Saudi Arabia in particular conceive it, the initiative ought to be valued not so much for its content—its vague language on territory and vaguer language on refugees hardly qualify as a peace proposal, let alone a plan—as for its promise. Rather than provide the substance of an agreement, it was a roundabout way of inviting Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese to sit down and sort out their disputes and it was implicitly a way of saying that whatever they can agree on will be regionally rewarded and protected.

The proposal lacked clarity: about whether there could be territorial swaps to deviate from the 1967 lines; about how the solution to the refugee problem would protect Israel’s demographic interests in maintaining a Jewish majority; about the fate of Jewish-populated areas of East Jerusalem. But this vagueness was in the very nature of the initiative. The Arab League’s offer was not to negotiate with Israel. It was intended to describe, instead, the shape of life after a comprehensive agreement: peace, reconciliation, and normalization of relations with the whole of the Arab world.

Seen in this light, and though it has little to say on issues of substance, the proposal presented several advantages. Given their current domestic situation, Palestinians cannot make historic decisions on their own; but they could do so, perhaps, with the backing and political cover of the entire Arab world. Internal Palestinian problems, which loom so large in direct, bilateral negotiations with Israel, will dwindle in the wider frame of an Arab-Israeli deal. Facing an Arab, Muslim, and domestic consensus in favor of a peace agreement, Hamas would have to adjust its position. While it is unlikely to be satisfied with an agreement that recognized Israel and marked the end of the conflict, Hamas would find it difficult to actively oppose it. Hamas may sponsor suicide missions but it is not a suicidal movement. The normal divisions of Palestinian politics would be neutralized, in part, by the weight of a broader Arab unanimity—just as divisions between Fatah and Hamas over the Arab Initiative itself became less prominent at the Arab summit in Riyadh in March. Arab involvement could compensate for the current weakness of the Palestinian political system.

Israel would benefit in similar ways. On its own, a peace agreement with the Palestinians, but without agreements with Syria and Lebanon, will not necessarily prompt peaceful relations between Israel and the rest of the Arab world and will do nothing to discourage either Damascus’s allies in Palestine from undermining the deal or Hezbollah from maintaining its military pressure in the north. For Israel, the strategic advantages of a separate Palestinian deal are partial and the political costs are high. By contrast, a comprehensive agreement with Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese would amplify the payoff. It will result in peace treaties, diplomatic recognition, and normal relations with Arab neighbors, far and near. If Israel and Syria can settle their conflict, a pragmatic Hezbollah will have to put much less emphasis on its military component and accelerate its transformation into a purely political party. The Iranian leadership will also have to adapt, not so much by cutting its ties to Syria as by fitting into a radically different Arab-Israeli relationship. By boosting the rewards to Israelis from making territorial concessions, a comprehensive deal can make up for the absence of sustained effective pressure on Israel to reach it. In short, peace negotiations under the Arab Initiative’s umbrella could help minimize Palestinian obstacles to a deal while simultaneously maximizing the returns Israel can expect from it.

One of the Arab Initiative’s fundamental assumptions is that there must be concurrent movement toward a deal on Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese tracks. That might seem like a recipe for failure, for it is hard to contemplate Israel digesting so many difficult compromises at one time. Yet today it is just as difficult to imagine diplomacy on any one track moving very far on its own. Palestinians will need full Arab backing and cooperation—including Syria’s—to legitimize their compromises, notably on issues that are not exclusively Palestinian, such as Jerusalem’s status or the fate of refugees. The fragmentation of the Palestinian political scene has made it more porous, giving additional breathing room to factions with ties to outside players. If Syria is excluded from negotiations it will continue to support its allies in Palestine—whether Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or elements in Fatah—who will continue to undermine the chance of a peace accord. Conversely, Syria, intent on preserving its status as the vanguard of Arab nationalism, will be reluctant to fully conclude a deal with Israel if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still festers.

On grounds of self-preservation alone, Lebanon will not make peace with Israel before Syrians and Palestinians do. Besides, for Lebanon to conclude an agreement with Israel requires addressing the fate of the Palestinian refugees residing on its soil—a virtual impossibility without the creation of a Palestinian state.

4.

The hitch is that neither Israel nor the US has embraced the Arab Initiative in quite the way its authors intended. Five years after the proposal was first put forward and then summarily dismissed, the Israeli government is suggesting it may have some merit. This is not based so much on its content. The initiative’s call for full withdrawal to the 1967 lines, division of Jerusalem, and a resolution of the refugee issue in accordance with UN resolutions prompts more Israeli hostility than hope. Moreover, few Israelis today believe in the possibility of a comprehensive peace. Rather, the Israeli government views the initiative as a possible means of sidestepping, for the time being, direct negotiations with Palestinians and Syrians, and instead engaging directly with Arab countries and thus achieving the normalization Israel so craves. Convinced that little can come of talks with a two-headed Palestinian Authority, having lost faith in Abbas, and having little desire to deal with Syria, Prime Minister Olmert speaks enthusiastically of a joint Arab-Israeli interest in countering Iran. He invites Arab leaders to visit Jerusalem and discuss their initiative. He mentions his desire for face-to-face talks with the Saudi monarch, and he asks whether the initiative can be altered to meet Israeli needs. The one thing he does not contemplate is doing what the Arab Initiative assumes he must: negotiate with Palestinians and Syrians.

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