The Middle East in the past years has witnessed the collapse of four states – Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria.
Terrorist groups and organizations have emerged and morphed into increasingly dangerous manifestations, waging their war around the world and not only in our neighborhood. The Islamic State organization has threatened the regimes of many of the countries that surround us and the Iranians pose a constant threat not only to us but to their Arab neighbors as well. Hamas, committed to Israel’s destruction, is rebuilding its forces in the south and in the north, while Hezbollah, another organization committed to our destruction, has battlefield experience and some 100,000 rockets and missiles pointed at us. This is a dangerous period for Israel, but in this time of crises and threats there are also opportunities.
The most obvious is the Arab Peace Initiative (API) of March 2002. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has finally opened the possibility of engaging the Arab world on the basis of the API, but has still not said so explicitly.
From my discussions with leaders from the Arab League and with some of the authors of the API, I know that the Arab League never intended the API to be a “take it or leave it” deal. It was always intended to be a proposal to incentivize Israel to resolve the core of the Israeli-Arab conflict – the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
As changes have occurred in the region since its issuance, the main Sunni Arabs states have indicated to Israel, indirectly and directly, that the contours of future peace have also changed. This was first indicated several years ago when Arab leaders said that they, like the Palestinians, accept the idea of equal territorial swaps, recognizing that Israel would not withdraw exactly to the Green Line. Furthermore, no (existing and functional) state in the Arab League today would apply any pressure on Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syria.
Even if, after understanding this, Israel is still reluctant to state that it accepts the API as the basis for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, there are still steps that Israel could take that would advance the chances of peace and enhance Israel’s security and the region’s stability.
It is clear that Netanyahu does not believe in a bilateral deal with the Palestinians, even though he insists on bilateral negotiations with them, without other international involvement as proposed in the French initiative. Israel has peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan that have remained in place and fully implemented, even through some very difficult times. President Abdel Fattah Sisi of Egypt has already indicated Egypt’s willingness to assist Israel and the Palestinians to make peace. Israel’s security cooperation today with Egypt and Jordan is a key element of this part of the region’s security and stability.
The development of a negotiating and peacemaking framework which would encompass Israel, the PA, Egypt and Jordan could serve as the best possible platform for de-risking peace and creating regional frameworks for security, stability and economic development. The creation of the regional quartet, as I began proposing during the Summer 2014 war, would serve the interests and national security needs of all four. Israel could take the initiative for the creation of this regional quartet. If desired, Israel could request that the US serve as a convener, but the parties should agree that this quartet will be directed and run by the four parties directly, without outside intervention.
The agenda would be the creation of regional mechanisms to strengthen security, stability, economic development and peace. It would also entail resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Furthermore, a renewed peace process must become people-focused. Engaging citizens of Israel, Palestine and the region in aspects of peacemaking is the best guarantor of the success of the process. Peace must pay and the people on all sides of the conflict must have a stake in its success. Our experience from the onset of the peace process after the Madrid Conference in October 1991 was that too few non-officials were engaged in cross-boundary opportunities. Too much of the profits of peace making were distributed to too few people, the source of the infamous “peace industry.” The sarcasm of that name and cynicism for which it stood indicate the negative attitudes that were transmitted to the broader publics regarding the whole process itself. To de-risk peace will require putting a lot more effort and thought into designing means for common citizens on both sides of the conflict to engage each other positively. The people-to-people aspects of peacemaking cannot be an afterthought, as it was in Oslo, but must be a central pillar of what making peace means.
In this series of five articles I have tried to provide some insights into some of the lessons that we must learn from the failures and successes of the past. When Israelis and Palestinians talk about possibilities for a renewed peace process, there is a sense that we are doomed to fail, because that is what we have done until now. I propose that we can actually learn from those failures; we do not have to make the same mistakes again. We will make new mistakes and we will have to learn a lot more quickly than in the past how to repair the damage resulting those mistakes.
I am confident that we will eventually get there, because not doing so is an act of national suicide, which I believe neither side wishes for. Peace makers are by definition optimistic people. I am optimistic because I believe in the future of Israel and Palestine.
The author is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.