One of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s favorite metaphors was that of the “chute, the narrow fenced structure through which ranchers push cattle to the slaughterhouse. The rancher-turned-prime minister frequently used it to refer to what he saw as attempts by the international community to force upon Israel a solution to its conflict with the Palestinians. This specter of a “forced solution prompted many in America’s Jewish community to oppose the recently-released Iraq Study Group report. The report put the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in a regional context by pointing out that resolving it would be instrumental to obtaining other US policy goals in the region.
It even went a step further by stating that “all key issues in the Middle East–the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Iran, the need for political and economic reforms, and extremism and terrorism – are inextricably linked, adding that unless it dealt directly with the Arab-Israel conflict “the United States will not be able to achieve its goals in the Middle East. Further, the report suggested a regional approach to resolving the conflict. It asserted that “there must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts, including holding negotiations under international auspices between Israel and the Palestinians and between Israel and its neighbors Syria and Lebanon. Critics of the ISG report misrepresented these assertions as an alleged suggestion by the committee that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was responsible for all the ills of the Middle East and that resolving it, therefore, would serve as a panacea for the Middle East’s many troubles.
What the report suggested, rather, was that progress toward Arab-Israel peace would bolster America’s efforts to stabilize Iraq, counter the rise of Islamic extremism and fight terrorism. Isn’t that a matter of common sense? Beyond being an elementary notion, it could also serve as an opportunity. Instead of being viewed as a threat to the governments of Israel and the US it could be utilized by both, in concert, to serve their fundamental interests in the region. For Washington, as the ISG report clearly pointed out, a credible Arab-Israel peace initiative could be used as a paradigm-shift that could significantly serve efforts to pull the Arab world away from radicalism toward pragmatism. Real progress could do much to strengthen the credibility of pro-American Arab regimes and counteract the increasing appeal of anti-American and anti-Israeli regimes, militias and terrorist organizations.
Positive movement would make it much easier to garner Arab cooperation on key US goals such as stabilizing Iraq and confronting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This concept is not unique to the ISG. It is the prevailing view in America’s Foreign Service, as recently confirmed by several senior administration officials.
“For the Arab moderates and for the Europeans, some sense of progress and momentum on the Arab-Israeli dispute is just a sine qua non for their ability to cooperate actively with the United States on a lot of other things that we care about, said then-State Department Special Counselor Philip Zelikow to a large group of Middle East experts last September. For Israel, a multilateral approach could be a way to overcome the diplomatic stagnation of the past years and finally break its isolation in the region. After having tried bilateralism and unilateralism in striving to change its relationships with its Arab neighbors, Israel is finding that it cannot escape the involvement of regional and international players.
Peacekeeping arrangements achieved at the end of last summer’s war in Lebanon were an example of the constructive role that America, Europe and Arab countries can play in stabilizing a volatile situation. Just as there is recognition in Washington that this is time for a bold move, senior politicians and strategists in Israel have been saying for some time that the country needs a diplomatic breakthrough. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni talked recently about a “kind of opportunity which “should not be missed to harness the moderate Arab states to a peace initiative that would hasten the implementation of a two-state solution.
“Time is not on the side of the moderates on both sides. Time is working against a solution of two nation-states, Livni recently told Haaretz. Defense Minister Amir Peretz was even more outspoken. Even Prime Minister Ehud Olmert signaled that he agreed. The US and Israel would not have to start from zero. The tools for launching a peace initiative with support from Arab stakeholders are there for US President George W. Bush and Olmert to seize. There is the “full-peace-for-full-withdrawal initiative that the Arab League approved in 2002. There is a European peace plan.
There is the ISG idea of a regional conference, similar to the one convened in Madrid in 1991. Jordan and Egypt, the two Arab states that signed peace treaties with Israel, are eager to help. So are Saudi Arabia and, reportedly, other Gulf states. Even Syria says that bilateral negotiations would dovetail into a comprehensive deal. Obviously, Bush and Olmert are concerned that a grand “regional initiative may fail. And it may. Skeptics point out that both leaders are weak and therefore risk-averse. They are. But both could reduce the risks through working together, closely cooperating with Arab and European allies and setting up a structure that would entice the Palestinians and the Syrians to negotiate in good faith and commit to a real peace in exchange for real Israeli territorial concessions.
Both could regain power as leaders through such a joint diplomatic campaign, be recognized for making the most significant step possible toward tilting the region away from militancy, and leave their mark in history as statesmen who did more than lead their countries to failed wars. Done correctly, multilateralism is not a recipe for national devastation but rather a path for avoiding a regional disaster. Debra DeLee is the president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now and the former executive director and chair of the Democratic National Committee. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter that deals with Middle Eastern and Islamic issues.