Tony Blair Thinks NOW Is Best Time Ever for Mideast Peace Process. He May Be Right
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.