Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Israel would gain from the Arab Peace Initiative

US president Barack Obama has shown an inclination for addressing unresolved conflicts. He re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba after decades of hostility and has just concluded a nuclear accord with Iran despite years of enmity. But Mr Obama has not embarked on what he described as a priority during his first election campaign: a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In a speech in 2008 to AIPAC, the main pro-Israel lobby in America, Mr Obama vowed: “As president, I will work to help Israel achieve the goal of two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security. And I won’t wait until the waning days of my presidency. I will take an active role, and make a personal commitment to do all I can to advance the cause of peace from the start of my administration.”

Mr Obama didn’t fulfil his promise, even if, initially, he did seek a freeze in Israeli settlement activity. However, his efforts led nowhere, and soon, the US president appeared to lose interest in mediating between Palestinians and Israelis. That is why we are as far today from an agreement as we have ever been.

With so much ink being spilled on the Iranian nuclear deal, both by supporters and opponents, the Palestinian issue has fallen by the wayside. While for a long time it was afforded exaggerated importance as being at the heart of most regional considerations, simply ignoring the Palestinians may be a recipe for disaster.

The deadlock in Palestinian-Israeli relations helped trigger an intifada in 2000-2005 and rounds of violence in Gaza in recent years. Meanwhile, the Israelis’ main Palestinian interlocutor, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, has seen his credibility wane as talks with Israel have lost any meaning and he has been viewed by his people as incapable of ameliorating their dire situation.

This has suited Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu just fine, as he has no real intention of engaging in serious negotiations with the Palestinians, let alone surrendering land. Facilitating Mr Netanyahu’s obstructionism has been the regional situation. With wars raging throughout the Arab world, especially in neighbouring Syria, the Israeli prime minister has felt no pressure whatsoever to halt settlement-building.

There is even a view in Israel that the recent nuclear deal with Iran has helped the country politically, by bringing about a de facto rapprochement with Arab states equally displeased with what was negotiated with Tehran.

Perhaps, but if Israelis truly believe that this is more than a transitory reflection of parallel interests, then they are living an illusion. The Arab states, particularly those in the Gulf, appear highly unlikely to take relations with Israel to a higher level, partly because their standing is tied in to their support for the Palestinian cause; partly because of what occurred in 2002.

Thirteen years ago, the Arab states, meeting at a summit in Beirut, offered what would become known as the Arab Peace Initiative. In the Saudi-led initiative they urged Israel to accept a comprehensive peace settlement based on international legality in exchange for Arab recognition of Israel within its 1967 borders. The government of prime minister Ariel Sharon ignored this unprecedented proposal.

As far as the Arab states are concerned, Israel is useful only as a counterweight to Iran and even then, the probability of its playing such a role is remote. With the nuclear deal signed, Israel’s capacity to attack Iran or block progress in Washington has diminished, and so too has Arab interest in Israel.

For Israel to seriously expect improved ties with the Arab states, particularly in the Gulf, it will take much more than shared antagonism toward Iran; it will require that the Israelis finally approve the Arab Peace Initiative. But with Mr Netanyahu as intransigent as was Mr Sharon, the prospects for better Arab-Israeli relations remain virtually nil.

What the Arab states appear to realise much better than the Israelis is that as the likelihood of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement dims further, a future Palestinian leadership may become far less flexible than the one today. The Arab states fear that as polarisation increases, it could facilitate the emergence of more extreme groups aiming to take over the reins in Palestine.

The Israeli focus on Hamas is misplaced. The movement has lost much momentum in recent years, not least because of Egyptian opposition. Partly to compensate for this, Khaled Meshaal and other top Hamas leaders met Saudi Arabia’s King Salman last week. It is not inconceivable that a group such as ISIL, which has declared war on both the Egyptian state and Hamas, could eventually seek to exploit Palestinian discontent.

That is not to say that Palestinians would go along with this, but the Israeli gift for closing any and all doors to a resolution has only increased the volatility of the Palestinian condition, whose emotional power has not diminished. Mr Obama will soon be gone, but the absence of a horizon for peace in Palestine will remain with us, as will its inevitably dangerous repercussions.

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