An opportunity that would not be seized

Op-eds / Israel and the Middle East

The post-Arab Spring period, which witnessed the collapse of dictatorial regimes, the eruption of civil wars and the possible disappearance of several sovereign Arab states, created opportunities that might be seized for progress in different directions. One possible direction involves Israel and its relations with the Palestinians and the moderate Arab countries.

Israel has never been in a more opportune position to advance its aims in the region. In the recent election campaign, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expediently emphasized the threats looming from Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic State (IS), al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations. A more realistic analysis would, however, reveal that Iran is a remote threat in any case; Hamas – squeezed between Israel and Egypt – is preoccupied with its own domestic problems in Gaza; Hezbollah is heavily committed to the Syrian front; and IS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other splinter groups do not consider Israel their immediate enemy. Moreover, Israel’s longstanding threat from what was once called the Arab Steadfastness and Rejection Front – the main Arab coalition rejecting peace with Israel – is no longer viable: Iraq, Syria and Libya are bogged down in civil strife and their very survival is in jeopardy; many of the PLO groups are no longer relevant (such as George Habbash’s PFLP and Ahmed Jibril’s PDFLP), and Fatah has largely transformed itself into the Palestinian Authority after the Oslo Accords. In short, Israel does not face an existential threat from any of its immediate or remote Arab neighbors.

It is time for Israel to seize the opportunities that have presented themselves in the post-Arab Spring period. Recognizing that an opportunity exists is, of course, not enough: the parties to the conflict must seize it by extending an attractive offer to the other side. The new Israeli government would be well advised to move forward in two possible directions: one, advance Israeli-Palestinian bilateral negotiations for the establishment of a Palestinian state along 1967 borders, with mutually agreed territorial swaps; two, advancing multilateral Israeli-Arab negotiations, under the umbrella of the Arab Peace Initiative (API), with the same aim. Though the “Arab World” as we have known it no longer exists, the “dormant” and “dysfunctional” Arab League has, for example, recently sent forces to the Yemen civil war. Thus, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States – the so-called moderate Arab countries – not only share with Israel mutual interests, but can also play an active role, as evident in the Yemeni case, in resolving the Palestinian problem.

Unfortunately, Israel’s new government has no intention of seizing this opportunity. The main aim of Netanyahu and his previous and current right-wing coalitions has been to “perpetuate the status-quo,” which is a euphemism for consolidating Israel’s hold on Judea and Samaria – the occupied territories.

This goal is pursued despite realistic assessments that indicate that such a course of action will slowly but surely cause Israel’s political, economic and even cultural ostracization by the international community, becoming a pariah state. A third Palestinian intifada may currently seem an unlikely possibility, but it cannot be ruled out, in view of the despair and frustration emanating from “no hope on the horizon.”

It is possible that under US, EU and other international pressure, Netanyahu will re-confirm his support, or even commitment, to the two-state solution, as proclaimed in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech. But declarations of this kind would be mere fig leafs for a policy that is effectively strengthening Israel’s control over the occupied territories. Such a declaration would be no different from the so-called peace plan that prime minister Yitzhak Shamir devised in 1989 in response to the first Palestinian intifada and the PLO’s recognition of UN Resolution 242 – a media public spin designed to placate the international community.

Future historians will surely lament the fact that the previous and current Netanyahu governments have completely ignored regional developments and the consequent opportunity to resolve the Palestinian issue, surely Israel’s thorniest foreign policy issue.

Israeli prime ministers have always bragged that they have “left no stone unturned” in their pursuit of peace. Regardless of the accuracy of these assessments, it does not seem likely that anyone is going to turn over the current stone in the near future.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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