The Arab-Israeli Conflict: To Reach a Lasting Peace
The Arab-Israeli Conflict: To Reach a Lasting Peace
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  1. Executive Summary
Report / Middle East & North Africa 6 minutes

The Arab-Israeli Conflict: To Reach a Lasting Peace

If there is a silver lining in the recent succession of catastrophic developments in the Middle East, it is that they may impart renewed momentum to the search for a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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Executive Summary

If there is a silver lining in the recent succession of catastrophic developments in the Middle East, it is that they may impart renewed momentum to the search for a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is, admittedly, a slender hope. Since the collapse of the peace process in late 2000, none of the region’s parties has displayed the requisite capacity or willingness to reach an acceptable compromise, while the international community has shown more fecklessness than resolve. But the Lebanon war must serve as a wake-up call: so long as the political roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict are not addressed, it will remain a bottomless source and pretext for repression, radicalisation and bloodletting, both in the region and beyond. Now is the time for an international push to launch a new peace initiative.

Reasons for scepticism abound. Six years after the last genuine peace effort, whatever modicum of trust existed between the parties has collapsed. The Palestinian polity, battered from without and within and increasingly fragmented, verges on outright disintegration. It is hard to imagine which political forces could negotiate effectively with Israel, with what mandate, and with what capacity to translate any eventual agreement into new realities on the ground. Israel, fresh from its Lebanese trauma, still struggling in Gaza and shaken by a perceived growing trend in the Muslim world that rejects its very existence, hardly seems in the mood for political concessions. Instead, its political class appears torn between a desire to revive Israel’s power of deterrence, which it believes has been seriously eroded, and the inevitable finger-pointing following the war, which threatens to bring the government down. Neither is conducive to grand peace moves.

Israeli-Syrian negotiations came to a grinding halt in 2000, with anticipated ripple effects in Lebanon, Palestine, and elsewhere in the region. Today, Syria is isolated, ostracised by key international players and intent on waiting out the Bush and Chirac presidencies. Arab regimes allied to Washington, many of whom had banked on a quick Israeli victory over Hizbollah and hoped to mobilise their citizens against a so-called Shiite crescent led by Tehran, were doubly wrong: Hizbollah held on, and their Sunni publics rallied around the Shiite Islamist movement, not against it. Today, these regimes’ legitimacy deficit stands as plain as ever. Arab advocates of a diplomatic option increasingly are on the defensive, promoters of armed resistance on the ascent. The U.S. administration, preoccupied by Iraq and Iran, is giving scant sign of reconsidering its approach: no dealings with Hamas until it meets the Quartet conditions; no serious engagement with Syria; and a general lack of interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Indeed, with its regional legitimacy and credibility in tatters, some question whether the U.S. would be in a position to lead a renewed effort even if it wanted to.

And yet this desultory state of affairs is an important reason why an urgent, ambitious international effort is required. Years of culpable neglect have crippled forces of pragmatism throughout the region and made the achievement of peace immeasurably more difficult. Another several years of waiting would only make it harder still. Some promising ingredients exist: the possibility of a Palestinian national unity government, Syria’s repeated call for a resumption of negotiations, increased eagerness on the part of Arab regimes for a renewed peace process and even Israel’s search for an alternative way forward after the collapse of its unilateralist experiment.

Moreover, the absence of initiative is itself a policy choice that inevitably will have a significant negative effect. Perpetuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict, with all the anger it generates, fuels extremist, jihadi movements in the Muslim world; intensifies animosity toward the West and the U.S. in particular; radicalises Muslim populations in Western Europe; discredits pro-Western governments; deepens the damaging divide between the Islamic and Western worlds; and, as both Syrian and Israeli officials have warned, sows the seeds of the next Arab-Israeli war. Resolving the conflict clearly would not be  a sufficient condition to tackle such deep-seated problems; but it is, on all available evidence, a necessary one.

American and Israeli reluctance to move, coupled with the extreme fragility of the situation, means that others – the UN, EU and Arab world – must now step forward with fresh ideas and initiatives, optimally to persuade Washington to act, at a minimum not to be held fully hostage to its passivity. The challenge is to devise an initiative or series of initiatives bold enough to alter regional perceptions and realities, yet not so audacious as to provoke U.S. or Israeli obstruction. Many have advanced the notion of an international peace conference; the Arab League has called on the UN Security Council to take the lead in shepherding a comprehensive settlement. Both ideas have merit; at this point, however, neither is likely to materialise due to opposition from Washington and Israel. A conference coinciding with the fifteenth anniversary of the Madrid peace conference and attended by all relevant current players could well be the most visible launching pad for renewed negotiations. The idea is worth pursuing but it could take months to organise and reach agreement on invitees and terms of reference; substantive progress, not a procedural battle, is what the region desperately needs.

In devising a new mechanism, principal lessons of the past must be kept in mind: the need to define early on the endgame, i.e., the shape of a settlement; the importance of an active third party to oversee negotiations and compliance with whatever interim agreements are reached; and the necessity to avoid a discrepancy between lofty talks at the negotiating table and destructive developments on the ground. More concretely, a new mechanism should:

  • be comprehensive and inclusive, enabling all parties with a recognised stake in the outcome to participate. As the Lebanese crisis once more illustrated, the problems are closely interconnected. Hizbollah was motivated, at least in part, by intensified conflict in Gaza; Syria’s and Iran’s marginalisation did not give either a reason to restrain the Islamist movement; Hamas and Hizbollah have strong ties to Damascus and Tehran; both the U.S. and Israel saw the Lebanon war as a proxy war with Iran; Lebanon has made clear it would not sign a peace treaty with Israel before Syria does; and, more broadly, Arab normalisation with Israel (a key prize of any peace deal) will require settlement of all outstanding Arab-Israeli disputes. Dealing with Lebanon is an urgent priority but, alone, will not suffice; the Lebanese conflagration is intimately related to broader regional issues which, if not addressed, risk pushing the Middle East over the brink. Likewise, it will be hard to achieve stability in the Middle East without a peaceful resolution of the Iranian nuclear question and a broader U.S./Iranian dialogue;
     
  • provide from the outset a clear political horizon as well as a credible means of getting there. The goal must be unambiguously stated as security and full recognition of the state of Israel within internationally recognised borders, an end to the occupation for the Palestinian people and an independent, sovereign state based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, a just resolution of the refugee issue, recovery of lost land by Syria and a fully sovereign and secure Lebanese state;
     
  • be realistic and reflect conditions on the ground, in other words begin with what is achievable: a mutual ceasefire between Israelis and Palestinians, coupled with steps to allow the Palestinian government to govern and the Palestinian economy to revive;
     
  • build on existing, accepted instruments, such as the Quartet, but give them a more inclusive character, greater oversight and facilitating role and ensure that European and Arab actors seize the initiative rather than await an increasingly unlikely U.S. reawakening; and
     
  • involve far greater engagement of Arab states, which have both an incentive to reach a settlement (to boost their legitimacy and prove that diplomacy, not armed action, works) and a means to do so (the ill-utilised 2002 Arab League Initiative in Beirut, which calls for full normalisation with Israel in exchange for its full withdrawal).

The Middle East is immersed in its worst crisis in years with no stable resolution in sight. Observers and analysts are quick to point out that circumstances are far from ideal for an Arab-Israeli initiative. They are right. But time for a negotiated settlement is quickly running out.

Jerusalem/Amman/Brussels, 5 October 2006

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