Peace between the Arabs and Israelis, and the Muslims and Jews is impossible to attain since the hatred between the two sides is deep-rooted and ideological. If the Arab states and Israel were to reconcile tomorrow that would not guarantee that Hamas will stop launching Qassam rockets on Israel. It is about time to accept these realities and work toward a legal settlement, not peace.
The American administration should ask themselves about the fundamental strategic difference between a Palestinian-Israeli settlement and an Arab-Israeli settlement. If I were an Israeli Prime Minister, I would not see any strategic value in a settlement with the Palestinians alone. Israel has managed to deal with the Palestinians in terms of conflict management for the past 50 years and is ready to mange that conflict for 50 more.
During the Clinton administration one could have argued that solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would have contributed to the stability of the region. However, the strategic landscape has changed after 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, the Shia-Sunni tension that erupted as a result, and the collapse of the situation in Lebanon.
Another factor that fundamentally changed the strategic equation is the potential of a nuclear Iran. A nuclear Iran poses an existential threat to the survival of Israel it is not simply a border issue. Also, in the past there was no sharp division between Gaza and the West Bank and there was no Arab Peace Initiative signed by some 22 states in the 2002 Beirut Summit.
Therefore, the conditions that were once conducive to peace during the Clinton administration have now changed, and a Palestinian-Israeli peace would not satisfy Israel’s strategic security needs. A Palestinian state that does not contribute to regional stability is of no interest to the Israelis, the Americans and even to some Arabs.
So, where do we go from here?
First we have to recognize that the strategic prize for the US, Israel, and even some of Arab states, is to stabilize Iraq and contain Iran and prevent the latter from becoming a nuclear state. In this regard, Israel and the US need the 22 Arab nations that agreed to the Arab Peace Initiative as allies in any upcoming eventuality against Tehran. This can only happen if we move away from the narrow focus of a Palestinian-Israeli truce to an Arab-Israeli settlement.
Many argue that the one obstacle facing such an effort is Syria’s intransigent position. However, anyone who listened to President Assad’s interview with BBC last month would surmise that Assad is ready to close shop and cut Hamas and Hezbollah loose from any Syrian patronage. He can do this if the price is right (i.e. if he gets the Golan Heights). Assad can be helpful in Iraq and with the Arab-Israeli front if we can peel him away from Iran.
Secretary Rice has two choices to solve this problem. The first option is for the US Secretary of State to take all the relevant [UN] Security Council resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative that was approved by Arab states in the 2002 Beirut Summit to the best legal minds in the US State Department. They, in turn, would boil them down into one resolution that she may then take to the Security Council, which would then propose a modern and decisive resolution to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict and invite the five permanent-member states in the settlement conference to be a shared voice in this decision.
The second option is for Ms. Rice to take Israel’s traditional fears from the United Nations and the Security Council into account so that rather than submitting the aforementioned document to UN Security Council, she would unofficially consult over the matter with the five permanent-member states with the intention of gaining their support. Such a conference needs this international backing. The Dayton model that settled the conflict in the Balkans is instructive here.
It is also important for the Palestinians to know that they have a choice between a state and the right of return; they cannot get both even from the most dovish Israelis. Also, it is important that the Israelis understand that having a legal settlement with the Palestinians does not mean an end to the Qassam rockets. However, it could contribute significantly after a settlement when Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States condemn Hamas for launching rockets at Israel. Arabs would do well to give up on the idea of a ‘just and comprehensive peace’. No settlement in the history of international conflicts was just.
It is very important for Secretary Rice, who is an excellent student of international politics, to understand that winning 22 Arab allies against Iran and against all the radical forces in the region is the real strategic prize for both Israel and the US.
Thus, it is pertinent that upcoming conference focuses on a framework that can stabilize the region as whole. Focusing on the Palestinian track alone is not conducive to peace.