The chance of a deal is now the object of futile bartering
The chance of a deal is now the object of futile bartering
The Middle East Could Still Explode
The Middle East Could Still Explode
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 4 minutes

The chance of a deal is now the object of futile bartering

The Arab initiative could offer a way out of Israeli and Palestinian political paralysis. But boldness is in disastrously short supply

The idea that bilateral negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians can produce a final agreement is dead. Its fate was sealed in part because neither side has the ability to close the gaps between the positions they have taken. The two parties also lack trust. But most of all, neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli political systems possess the requisite degree of coherence and cohesion.

On the Palestinian side, the national movement no longer has workable political institutions. It lacks effective leadership and has lost any clear political program. Rival sources of authority have multiplied. The presidency is in the hands of Fatah, the government in those of Hamas. Gaza is cut off from the West Bank. Competing security branches and militias are proliferating. The Mecca agreement between Fatah and Hamas and the formation of a national unity government is a step toward clarification. But it may yet fail. In the Gaza Strip, where competition is most intense, fighting between the two groups continues.

Whatever happens, the Palestinian movement will remain fluid and difficult to pin down. The US and Israel will be tempted to persist in attempts to isolate Hamas. But such fantasies will come crashing down. One US and Israeli goal may be to bolster Abbas, yet nothing has weakened the Palestinian president more than international attempts to strengthen him. To negotiate with the Palestinian Authority while excluding Hamas would be tantamount to negotiating with only one part of the political system.

Can Israel's political system deliver what its Palestinian counterpart cannot? If peace moves need strong leadership, there is little reason for hope. The performance of the Israeli military in last summer's Lebanon war was a national shock. The political system is in quasi-perpetual crisis. The present Israeli paralysis aggravates longstanding obstacles to peacemaking. One is institutional: Israeli governments are often shortlived, subject to the vagaries of an anachronistic political arrangement. The gap between public support for an agreement with the Palestinians and the leadership's inability to accomplish it is explained in part by this feature.

The other is the vast imbalance of power that separates Israel from its adversaries. Israel's power provides it with self-confidence but also lures it away from the necessity of compromise. Without the threat, there is scant incentive to take risks for the sake of an uncertain peace.

Five years ago, the Arab League's 22 countries put forward a peace initiative offering normalisation of relations with Israel in exchange for full withdrawal from Arab territories occupied in 1967 and a negotiated resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem. Ariel Sharon, then Israel's prime minister, dismissed it. Now the Arab initiative has begun to attract widespread approval. The US was among the first to change its position. Discredited by war in Iraq and support for Israel's war in Lebanon, threatened by Iran and stung by Hamas's electoral triumph, the Bush administration began to cautiously praise the initiative. In Israel, too, the tone of commentary has been different.

But the surface harmony conceals divergent views. As Arab countries conceive it, the initiative ought to be valued not so much for its vague content as for its promise. It was a way of inviting Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese to sort out their disputes, implicitly saying that whatever they can agree will be regionally protected. The offer was not to negotiate with Israel. It was intended to describe life after a comprehensive agreement: peace and normalisation with the whole Arab world.

In this light, the proposal presented several advantages. Given their situation, Palestinians cannot make historic decisions on their own, but they could do so, perhaps, with the backing and political cover of the Arab world. Facing an Arab, Muslim and domestic consensus in favour of a peace agreement, Hamas would find it difficult to oppose.

Israel would benefit in similar ways. A peace agreement with the Palestinians, but without Syria and Lebanon, will not necessarily prompt peaceful relations between Israel and the Arab world. But a comprehensive agreement with Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese would amplify the payoff - in peace treaties, diplomatic recognition, and normal relations with neighbours. If Israel and Syria can settle their conflict, Hizbullah will have to accelerate its transformation into a purely political party. The Iranian leadership will have to adapt to a radically different Arab-Israeli relationship. By boosting the rewards to Israelis, a comprehensive deal can make up for the absence of sustained pressure on Israel to reach it.

The hitch is that neither Israel nor the US has embraced the Arab initiative in the way its authors intended. Its call for withdrawal to 1967 lines, division of Jerusalem, and a resolution of the refugee issue in accordance with UN resolutions prompts Israeli hostility. Israel views the initiative as a means of sidestepping direct negotiations with Palestinians and Syrians, and engaging with Arab countries to achieve the normalisation it craves. Prime Minister Olmert speaks of a joint Arab-Israeli interest in countering Iran and asks whether the initiative can be altered to meet Israeli needs.

For the US, too, the Arab initiative has become an instrument capable of serving higher purposes, of which achievement of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement is not the most pressing. In so far as it remains intent on isolating Syria, reaching a comprehensive peace is precisely what it does not aim to achieve. For Washington, the objectives are to revive its reputation in the region and work out a coalition between itself, Israel and "moderate" Arab governments, aimed at containing Iran. The different motives for ostensible support of the initiative have created confusion. Arab countries view normalisation of relations with Israel as a reward, the US considers it an inducement, and Israel believes it a requisite. The initiative is turning into the object of futile bartering.

The status quo has its own costs. As Palestinian frustration grows, one hears mention among Hamas leaders of a third uprising. Israeli generals raise the possibility of a major land incursion in Gaza or Lebanon. Risks of a Syrian confrontation with Israel also may rise. One can imagine a different approach, but ought not to expect it. For it would demand the political creativity, boldness and skill that have been in disastrously short supply.


Former President & CEO
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Hussein Agha
Senior Associate Member of St Antony's College, Oxford

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