GERALD M. STEINBERG
THE JERUSALEM POST Jan. 7, 2007
A few months ago, Israel was being attacked on two fronts - Lebanon
and Gaza - in addition to the ongoing Iranian threats to wipe us off
the earth. Now, however, we are being courted by eager peace makers,
on both the Palestinian and Syrian fronts, while the Saudi/Arab
League grand peace plan has suddenly resurfaced.
Logically, it is easy to reject this surge in activity as empty
rhetoric designed to provide the image without the substance of
change. Syria's President Bashar Assad appears to be transparently
using the language of peace in order to avoid punishment for his
involvement in the murder of Lebanese leaders, and for promoting
violence in Iraq.
And Palestinian peace feelers would mean more if backed by a serious
leader, capable of implementing agreements, preventing terror attacks
and returning kidnapped soldiers. Mahmoud Abbas has demonstrated none
of these traits, despite numerous opportunities. Both the Syrian and
Palestinian talk of peace also appears to be designed to buy time for
rebuilding military and terror forces for the next round of attacks
But this narrow logic leaves no room for diplomacy or hope for a
better future. Some conflicts eventually wind down, after the
violence becomes too costly - Northern Ireland appears to be an
example in progress, and although there are many differences, there
are also similarities. And the rest of the world - particularly
Europe, and to some degree, also the US - desperately wants to see
progress towards a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni recognizes that in politics, as in
baseball, "you can't beat something with nothing." Israeli peace
initiatives based on the establishment of an interim Palestinian
state, although probably unrealistic, will provide enough motion to
prevent another rash of unrealistic European plans and pressure for
dangerous Israeli concessions.
THE SUDDEN spike in the peace rhetoric of "moderate" Sunni Arab
regimes, including Egypt's military rulers, the Saudi royal family
and their counterparts around the Gulf are also based on
self-interest. Their survival is linked to restoring a political
framework in which radical Islamist groups such as Hamas and
Hizbullah are contained. With the implosion in Iraq and the growing
threat from Iran as a Shi'ite superpower, these Arab leaders have
belatedly realized the need for cooperation with Israel to achieve
stability. Pragmatic steps to avoid revolution, rather than a sudden
ideological change acknowledging Israel's right to exist, provide the
basis for these peace proposals. But they are still too important to
dismiss out of hand.
For Israel's part, while skepticism would be advised, particularly
after the catastrophic end of the Oslo "peace process," there is also
an argument to be made for measures that might reduce the level of
conflict for more than a few months. Some Palestinians may well agree
with President Mahmoud Abbas that the cost of terrorism is too high,
and that Israel is not going to disappear, regardless of these
attacks. This is the time for them to be seen and heard, and for
Israelis to listen. Competent leaders may yet emerge to take the
Palestinian people beyond the ideology of rejectionism, victimization
and violence that has gotten them nowhere in 60 years.
In this framework, and in contrast to the emotional enthusiasm that
accompanied Oslo, Israel should take limited calculated risks to see
how the other players will respond. As the security services lift
some of the checkpoints and allow more movement of goods and people,
it will be necessary to ensure that this time, these
confidence-building measures are not exploited to smuggle weapons or
A massive release of Palestinian terrorists and their supporters, in
exchange for Gilad Shalit, would also be counterproductive, to
understate the impact.
The agenda for talks with officials from Bashar Assad's regime should
be based on interim and balanced steps to reduce tensions, including
ending weapons deliveries to Hizbullah and support for Hamas. Syrian
efforts to destabilize Lebanon are entirely incompatible with claims
to be interested in peace. (And any academics and journalists who are
sent by Damascus to meet informally with their Israeli counterparts
will have to shake hands and show that they are serious about ending
the conflict.) Talks about the Golan Heights, borders, and access to
Lake Kinneret will require a long period of interaction - the terms
and conditions under which the previous negotiations took place
disappeared long ago.
Finally, if the Saudis and other Arab countries are serious about
reviving their long-dormant 2002 peace plan (designed in part to
appease US anger after the 9/11 mass terror attacks), they will have
to actively sell it. Public visits to Israel to meet with officials
are a necessary component, and if the Saudis are not ready for this,
they are not ready for peace. Similarly, if they present their
framework to Israel as a "take it or leave it" proposal, it will
quickly disappear again. Peace, or rather more realistic and
pragmatic conflict management measures, needs to be negotiated and
implemented step-by-step, with one stage creating the foundation for the next.
The writer heads the Program on Conflict Management at Bar-Ilan
University, and is the executive director of NGO Monitor.
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