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The Road from Mecca

For the US, too, the Arab Initiative has become an instrument capable of serving higher purposes, of which achievement of a comprehensive Arab- Israeli settlement is neither the most significant nor the most pressing. Indeed, insofar as the Bush administration remains intent on isolating Syria, reaching a comprehensive peace—which necessarily would include an Israeli-Syrian agreement—is precisely what it does not aim to achieve. For Washington, the more worthy objectives are to revive its battered reputation in the region and, above all, work out a strategic coalition between itself, Israel, and so-called moderate Arab governments, such as Saudi Arabia, aimed at containing Iran and its presumed regional allies—Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

Unlike Olmert, the US administration believes that progress between Israel and the Palestinians is an indispensable ingredient, the glue that can hold the strategic coalition together and reverse Tehran’s ideological gains. Unlike the Arab League, it is convinced that the initiative must contain more than a pledge of a future normal relationship in order to induce Olmert to take political risks. In essence, Washington hopes to see a down payment from Arab countries in the form of their making initial contacts with Israel; and it hopes to see Olmert, emboldened by these contacts, agree to full-fledged negotiations with Abbas on a final status agreement. The wait could be long.

The very different motives for ostensible support of the Arab initiative have created a debilitating state of confusion. Arab countries view normalization of relations with Israel as a reward, the US considers it an inducement, and Israel believes it is a requisite. Whenever Washington or Jerusalem brings up the question of Arab contacts with Israel, they magnify the value of such contacts, lessening the likelihood that they will occur. Likewise, most Arab countries have no intention of negotiating with Israel, leaving that to the Palestinians, Syria, and Lebanon. The vagueness of the Mecca initiative and the room it leaves for compromise say as much.

A clearer Arab initiative at this stage will no longer be a consensual Arab initiative but that of some Arabs only, and not necessarily of those that can ensure its success. The more Israel seeks clarifications and modifications from the Arabs, the more the Arabs will demand prior Israeli acceptance of their initiative, and the less either side will like the responses it will get. If asked, Arabs will insist they mean a full withdrawal to the 1967 lines and recognition of the Palestinians’ right of return; if asked, Israel will assert it rejects the Arab initiative. In both cases, these are questions that should never be posed. The Arab Initiative is turning into what it should not have been: the object of futile bartering between Israelis and Arabs.

There are further misunderstandings. The US, Israel, and key Arab governments such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia distrust Hamas and have an aversion to the Syrian regime. But dislikes come in different shades. Saudi leaders worry about the rise of Islamists, yet deep down they realize there can be no agreement without them. They know that Abbas is the Palestinians’ president but not their only leader, and that a stable Israeli-Palestinian peace cannot be built on the ruins of an inter-Palestinian war. Similarly, however sour the relationship may be between Riyadh and Damascus, Saudi Arabia is not about to make peace with Israel while Israel still occupies parts of Syria. Without a comprehensive and inclusive Arab-Israeli settlement, one that includes the issue of the Golan Heights, there is unlikely to be anything more than a symbolic Arab-Israeli reconciliation.

5.

The impasse of bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians and the impediments to multilateral negotiations under the umbrella of the Arab initiative could lead to a revival of Israeli unilateralism. Assuming he survives the investigation into the conduct of the Lebanon war, lacking better options, and eager for some diplomatic movement, Olmert—or his successor—may revert back to the platform on which the prime minister originally was elected: a unilateral withdrawal from large portions of the West Bank.

The idea has logic. For most Israelis, the occupation of the West Bank has become a burden more than a benefit. It represents a demographic threat to Israel’s Jewish majority, a security threat to its tranquillity, and a strategic threat to its international standing. If Israel wants to get rid of parts of that territory and if it cannot do so through bilateral dealings with a dysfunctional Palestinian entity, why then not do it alone?

Hamas’s electoral victory, in a sense, makes this option all the more attractive. Neither Israel’s leaders nor the Islamists today believe in the possibility of a final status agreement. Neither wishes to deal with the other. Both potentially could live with a long-term arrangement centered on new Israeli territorial withdrawals from the West Bank and a mutual cease-fire. Palestinians would obtain territory without making commitments they could not honor; they would realize less than their full dream without relinquishing any part of it, and benefit from an active Israeli strategy without having to come up with one of their own. For its part, Israel would promote its interests without having to depend on undependable Palestinians.

But recent events have taken a political toll. Unilateralism, so fashionable when Sharon applied it to the withdrawal from Gaza, lost much of its luster when rocket launches against Israeli territory nonetheless continued from that area. Unilateral action became anathema after Israel came under attack from Lebanon, another place from which it had recently unilaterally withdrawn. Today, Israelis ask who will guarantee their security if they withdraw from the West Bank and why they should feel any safer if that land falls into Hamas’s unreliable hands. The mood eventually could change, fostered principally by the belief that nothing good can come of negotiations, and that something dangerous may emerge from the status quo. At that point, parallel unilateral steps—an Israeli withdrawal; Palestinian progress on the social, political, and security fronts—could be seen as having advantages. But answers will first have to be found to these unsettling questions.

6.

On the face of it, this is an odd time for the US to reactivate its peacemaking efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian front. The Israeli prime minister is weaker than ever before—indeed, weaker than any before him. As Hamas’s strength has grown, the Palestinian margin of diplomatic maneuver has shrunk. Pro-Western Arab regimes, whether in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Jordan, exposed as impotent by wars in Iraq and Lebanon, challenged at home by radical Islamists, and fearful of an ascendant Iran, have also been undermined. No better off, President Bush must confront a rebellious Congress, a disillusioned public, and a failed Iraqi policy.

Can opportunity spring from such collective frailty? It is not out of the question. Abbas needs a political accomplishment to dampen Hamas’s appeal and fulfill his lifetime project of reaching a two-state solution through diplomatic means. Olmert, his public credibility thoroughly dissipated, may at some point search for a diplomatic achievement to regain it. Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, having spent the better part of the 1990s largely watching the Israeli-Palestinian peace process from the sidelines, now may feel they have to step in and help broker a peace agreement in order to reverse a hostile regional tide. For a wounded US administration, an Arab-Israeli breakthrough may mean rescue and redemption. Launching his final peace bid in 1999 with strong leaders in Israel, Palestine, and Syria, President Clinton spoke of an alignment of bright stars. President Bush may be thinking of the current initiative as a realignment of the fallen ones.

Events are not headed that way. Wherever one looks, one sees only deadlock. Bilateral negotiations are generally the most promising, for they directly involve the parties to the conflict who will have to make the commitments and live with the outcomes. But in its current volatile condition, the Palestinian political system is not in a position to withstand such talks on its own: should they fail, Abbas and Fatah will be significantly wounded and, should they succeed, Hamas will be determined to derail them. In both cases the fragile internal political balance will be challenged, which will lead to further confrontation and fragmentation. Nor does Israel display the ability, today, to face up to the historic compromises it too will be required to make.

Multilateral negotiations based on the Arab Initiative are another possibility, one potentially capable of surmounting Palestinian domestic impediments and of motivating Israel. But each side has its own conception of how the initiative is to be used, and with each tugging in a different direction little is likely to come of it. Israel’s apparent decision not to negotiate seriously with the Palestinians, the US’s unmistakable decision not to include Syria, and the joint decision of the US and Israel to exclude Hamas rob the initiative of much of its value.

Unilateralism too has merit; it means Israel can withdraw from territory without regard to Palestinian performance and that Palestinians can put their house in order without concern for Israeli behavior. But in the wake of Gaza and then Lebanon, prospects for its revival are uncertain.

Not that all is destined to stay still; for the status quo has its own costs. If nothing happens on the diplomatic front, Abbas and Fatah will be further weakened in relation to Hamas; Olmert will face increasingly pointed questions about his leadership; and US credibility in the region will be further damaged. As Palestinian frustration grows, one hears periodic mention among Hamas leaders of a third uprising—a comment meant as a warning, yet at times uttered as a wish. Alarmed at the Islamists’ reported arms buildup in Gaza and in Lebanon, Israeli generals raise the possibility of a major land incursion, in one place or the other.

If Syria’s pleas for a resumption of the peace process continue to go unanswered, risks of a Syrian confrontation with Israel also may rise. Tactical military moves by Damascus aimed at attracting Israel’s attention could unintentionally provoke an Israeli response. Alternatively, Syria may feel it can wage the kind of war that Hezbollah, with inferior resources, prefigured in Lebanon: firing rockets into Israel, absorbing punitive responses, and battling incoming troops with lethal anti-tank devices.

One can imagine a different approach, extracting the best of multilateralism, of bilateralism, and of unilateralism. One can imagine a new international effort, inspired by but not based on the Arab Initiative, that would stipulate a resumption of negotiations on all tracks and promise full Arab recognition and normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for a comprehensive peace. One can imagine Israeli-Syrian negotiations beginning in earnest. One can imagine unilateral Israel withdrawals from the West Bank—coordinated with President Abbas and with active supervision by a third party acceptable to both sides—developing into full-fledged Israeli-Palestinian negotiations once Palestinians have sorted out their domestic situation and improved their security capacities. One can imagine and hope for such an approach, but one ought not to expect it. For it would demand the kind of political creativity, boldness, and skill that have been disastrously in short supply. The time may yet come. Meanwhile, the wait, and the waste, go on.

April 12, 2007

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