In a recent speech at an event hosted by Prospect magazine in London, former Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair asserted the following of conditions regarding Israel in recent months:
… a better opportunity to resolve this issue [of peace between the Arabs and Israelis] than anything else since the creation of the State of Israel.
Contrary to the appearance of things at first glance, Blair happens to be right — but as he himself notes, internal politics on both sides tend to get in the way, and one also has to be grimly realistic about what “peace” means.
In this case, the basis for optimism is the recent call by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for a resumption of peace talks based upon “modification” of the Saudi Peace Initiative first tabled in 2002. The initiative, as originally formulated, promised normalization of relations between Israel and 22 Arab states in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from all territories conquered in 1967 and acceptance of the Palestinian “right of return” to their pre-independence homes.
Both of these provisions made this initiative a non-starter for the Israelis at the time. Several factors combine to make things different in 2016.
First and foremost is what al-Sisi himself calls the mutual trust that has grown up between Israel and her neighbors Egypt and Jordan in their cooperation against jihadist terror organizations and the Muslim Brotherhood. This new spirit of cooperation has been greatly strengthened by Jordanian King Abdullah II’s recent appointment of Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki, who has a long record of seeking closer and warmer relations between the two states.
Another factor is the fear of both the jihadist “Islamic State” and the Shi’ite Iranian regime on the part of the Saudis and the Gulf states. This is coupled with the unpalatable but undeniable fact of the greater distancing and withdrawal of American military power in the region, the product of President Obama’s “lead from behind” foreign policy.
The result has been that the largely Sunni Arab kingdoms have been left flailing about looking for allies. Their fears can’t have been much assuaged by current stories of American cooperation with the Iranians in Iraq.
The Egyptian proposal has been warmly hailed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not least as a welcome effort to forestall the French initiative recently proposed by President Hollande to force a solution on Israel. Given the current state of public opinion in most of Europe, as embodied by the implacable boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, a France-led initiative would not be favorable to Israeli interests.
Rumors are now rife about an imminent restart of the talks, to begin with negotiation of the modifications to the Saudi proposal.
In those modifications we’ll be able to ascertain to what extent reality has set in. What does each side need in order to arrive at a rational peace deal with a chance of success?
First, the Israelis: After the Six Day War, then-Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban famously described the 1949 armistice lines which had served as Israel’s de facto frontiers as “Auschwitz borders.” This fact was brought home even more starkly, if possible, by the near-debacle of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. That strategic assessment has been further eroded by the enemies’ acquisition of much more sophisticated missile technology — virtually no part of Israel is far enough away from a border to be safe from bombardment by explosives and, potentially, chemical/biological attack.
A second traumatic event for Israelis was the forced evacuation of a few thousand Jewish settlers from northern Gaza in 2005. This episode caused a near-mutiny in some army units at the time. The feeling among many Israeli soldiers against ever participating in such an operation again is, if anything, even stronger now.
So what is to be done with the estimated 250,000 Jewish Israelis who have settled in towns and villages in the territories of Yehuda and Shomron? Or, for that matter, with the thousands of people who have come to live in the greatly expanded precincts of Jerusalem since 1967? Though redividing Jerusalem remains popular on Israel’s political Left, the small size of the Leftist parties in the current Knesset and all opinion polls show that the idea is anathema to most Israelis.
From the point of view of the Palestinian Arabs, a viable Arab state requires a contiguous territory over which they can exercise sovereignty, something made difficult, to put it mildly, by the pattern of Israeli settlement in those areas. Further, the Arabs require some resolution of the intractable problem of the Palestinian refugees — more precisely, the millions of putative descendants of Arab refugees — from Israel’s War of Independence as well as the Six Day War.
“Putative,” because it is widely believed — there are no accurate statistics — that the creation of the UNRWA to deal with the Arab refugee crisis was a great inducement for many destitute locals in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan to become “Palestinians” for the free food, housing, and education afforded in the camps. Once they became Palestinians, they remained Palestinians.
Whatever the truth, their number is in the millions, and Israel can’t possibly absorb them all without Israelis becoming a minority in their own state.
This is entirely aside from the fact that the Palestinian Authority has done nothing whatsoever to prepare its citizens for the agonizing decisions which peace with Israel would require. On the contrary, the incitement to extreme irredentist claims and militant hostility in the Arabic-language media is constant. Streets and squares continue to be named for “martyrs” who die in all-too-often-successful attempts to kill Jews.
The constant assault with everything from automatic weapons and bombs to cars, kitchen knives, and screwdrivers has further hardened the attitude of the Israeli public as well.
A realistic peace, therefore, is going to be one in which the PA and all of its sponsoring organizations make a clean break with the forces of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the so-called Islamic State, and lay down their weapons to talk. The territory under discussion will not be the areas originally assigned to the Arab state in the original 1947 Partition Plan, nor will they be the totality of the areas occupied in 1967. Too much water has flowed under the dam for that to be remotely possible. In order to create a contiguous territory for the Arab state, the discussion will have to be confined to parts of Yehuda and Shomron. Gaza, so long as it remains “Hamastan,” is off the table.
Further, the Arabs will have to accept that — just as Israel provides all the protections of citizenship to hundreds of thousands of resident Arabs — they will have to give up their current demand that “Palestine” be Judenrein. Mass evacuation of such large towns as Qiryat Arba, Efrat, Qiryat Sefer, Beitar, et al. aren’t going to happen.
Parts of Syria remaining under Assad’s control are now wholly owned subsidiaries of the Iranians; they will have to be cut out of the deal. This, at least, the Saudis and Gulf Arabs should not find hard to swallow.
Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, effected by Menachem Begin’s government but never recognized by anyone else, would have to be recognized. Similarly, Iraq — at least that part being governed from Baghdad, now effectively an Iranian satrapy — would also be excluded from the deal.
Finally, we come to the problem of the Palestinian refugees. Here, the Arab states will have to come to grips with the reality that a number of Jews approximately equivalent to the number of Arab refugees were forced to flee from ancestral homes, occupied for centuries and in some case millennia, in the surrounding Arab countries.
Most of those Jewish refugees were absorbed in Israel. The Arab refugees have to be absorbed by the Arab world.
Perhaps some monetary assistance to aid in their resettlement in those Arab states which establish relations with Israel could be provided — but that should be offset by recognition of the wealth seized from Jews who fled those countries in the 1940s and 1950s.
If all of the above prove possible, some equitable arrangement concerning the Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem can surely also be worked out without formally re-dividing the city. The resulting peace would make cooperation against the jihadi extremists and expansionist Iranians most fruitful and possible.
It’s a tall order, to be sure, but it is also worth remembering that the two peace treaties currently in place with Egypt and Jordan were both negotiated by Likud-led governments. Only a government led by a party to the right of center (however slightly) can have credibility to carry this out. It’s worth a try.