How Israel can resolve its multi-dimensional conflict

If Israel achieved peace with Egypt and Jordan, does that necessarily mean it can achieve peace with the Palestinians? And what should be its first step?

Moshe_Arens_cropped-150x150By Moshe Arens

Israel is involved in a multidimensional conflict. Arrayed against it are the Palestinians, supported by the Arab world, which is backed by the Islamic world. Bringing peace to a conflict of such dimensions, which spans much of the globe and involves one of the world’s great religions, pitting Israel against seemingly far superior powers, is, at first glance, not in the realm of the possible. So it is natural to attempt to deal with parts and pieces of the conflict, possibly resolving them one at a time.

Israel has in the past achieved peace with two Arab states: Egypt and Jordan. An attempt to bring about a normalization of relations with Lebanon was torpedoed by Syria. A number of attempts to reach a peace agreement with Syria failed. Why should the Palestinians not be next in line? Here, too, numerous attempts have been made since the Oslo Accords, but all have so far ended in failure. Why? And what is next?

The Islamic world has an influence on the peace process. Divided into Shia and Sunni muslims, it has given birth to the most extreme terrorist movements: Al-Qaida, Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, all opposed to peace with Israel, all seeking Israel’s destruction. Its member states at the United Nations provide the basis for the automatic majority that all anti-Israel resolutions at the UN enjoy. One of its member states, Iran – although not Arab – currently represents the biggest threat to Israel’s existence. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, and the Islamic Movement in Israel, object to making peace with Israel, or even maintaining a peace that has already been attained.

Many in the Islamic world identify with the chapter in Hamas’ 1988 charter, which states: “The land of Palestine is an Islamic waqf [endowment] for Muslim generations until the day of judgment. It is inadmissible to abandon it, or a part of it, or to concede it all or a part of it.”

There is no reason to assume that these views – which are inconsistent with making peace with Israel – are immutable, but they seem unlikely to change in the near term, while they continue to impact negatively any tendency in the Arab world to make peace with Israel. The most obvious case is the effect that Hamas has on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at this moment in time.

What can be concluded from the fact that, despite this negative environment in the Islamic world, Egypt and Jordan have concluded peace deals with Israel? Does this give hope for the success of continued attempts to widen the circle of peace?

The peace agreement with Egypt was the culmination of concerted Arab efforts to defeat Israel militarily, an effort which ended in the defeat of the Egyptian army during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The peace with Egypt is a “cold peace.” All attempts in the early years of the peace treaty to bring about a normalization of relations between the countries failed, and by now hope of progress in this area has disappeared. The Egyptian people, it seems, do not want it.

Peace with Israel has been maintained because the dictatorial regime, headed first by Anwar Sadat, then Hosni Mubarak, imposed it. The new president, Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, will most likely act similarly. However, establishing a people-to-people relationship seems to go beyond what internal Egyptian politics can bear. The 1979 treaty itself was reached in the wake of Israel’s great victory during the Yom Kippur War, and the threat which that victory posed to the stability of the regime in Cairo.

American economic support for Egypt, conditioned on the maintenance of the peace treaty, has done the rest. That was enough for Egypt’s rulers to overcome the objections from the rest of the Arab world and the Islamic world.

Israel’s peace with Jordan is of the same ilk. King Hussein, who joined Egypt and Syria in 1967’s Six-Day War; who was a party to the three “Nos” of the Khartoum summit after the war [no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel]; and who backed Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War, made an about-turn after that conflict.

Recalculating the balance of forces in the Middle East and recognizing the importance of cooperation with the United States and Israel in shoring up the rule of his family in Jordan, in 1994 King Hussein decided to sign a peace agreement with Israel. Since then, close security cooperation between Jordan and Israel has been of mutual benefit to the two countries. However, the stability of this peace is largely dependent on the stability of Hashemite rule in Jordan.

At the moment, there do not seem to be any other potential candidates in the area who, for reasons similar to those that brought Egypt and Jordan to the negotiating table, will be prepared to make peace with Israel.

An example of the ease with which progress toward peace with Israel can be torpedoed is Lebanon. After the first Lebanon war, President-elect Bachir Gemayel was prepared to move toward an accommodation with Israel. The Damascus-ordered assassination of Gemayel in September 1982, before he could assume the presidency, put an end to that.

Since then, the dominant position of Hezbollah in Lebanese politics makes it highly unlikely that peace between Israel and Lebanon can be achieved in the foreseeable future. In effect, with Hezbollah armed with tens of thousands of rockets aimed toward Israel, Lebanon is now in a virtual state or war with its southern neighbor.

That leaves the Palestinians, those Arabs who lived in the British Mandate area of Palestine and their progeny. They are dispersed between Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jordan and refugee camps in the Middle East. Unlike the Arab states on Israel’s borders – Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and (until the recent civil war) Syria – who constituted coherent political entities with whom in principle it was possible to negotiate a political or military agreement, the Palestinians form a dysfunctional political entity, not represented by any single institution or individual.

President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the Palestinian Authority, does not represent all of the Palestinians, and is not in a position to make concessions or agreements in their name. This means that, even if Israel were to reach an agreement with him, the agreement would not constitute the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or lay to rest Palestinian claims against Israel. Abbas seems to be well aware of this, which explains his reticence to negotiate with Israel and his attempts to reach out to Hamas, which seeks Israel’s destruction.

The only realistic options for improving the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians – now that the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority have collapsed – must take into account the status of the various Palestinian entities. The Palestinians residing in Israel constitute a substantial minority in the country (20 percent), enjoying equal rights with Israel’s Jewish citizens though not sharing equally with them all the obligations of citizenship.

The Palestinians in Jordan, who constitute some 70 percent of the population, are Jordanian citizens. Many of the Palestinians living in the West Bank – an area controlled by the Israel Defense Forces for the past 47 years – had Jordanian citizenship granted to them during the 19 years of Jordanian rule when the West Bank was annexed to the Hashemite kingdom (between 1948-1967). Some of them may have lost that citizenship since.

The Palestinians in the Gaza Strip live in a quasi-autonomous Palestinian territory ruled by Hamas, a terrorist organization. Most of the Palestinians in refugee camps in the region were not granted citizenship by their host countries, maintaining refugee status under UN auspices for years on end.

Under these circumstances, the only constructive moves open to Israel relate to Israel’s Palestinian citizens and the Palestinian population in the West Bank. Furthering the integration of Israel’s Palestinian citizens in Israeli society and in the Israeli economy – a process that has made considerable progress in recent years – is of great importance and should top the agenda of the Israeli government.

A feeling of well-being for Israel’s Palestinian citizens will improve the climate and ease tensions in the overall Israeli-Palestinian relationship. If accompanied by steps to improve the economic situation in the West Bank and allow greater freedom of movement for the Palestinian population there, these limited steps may nevertheless serve as important moves toward a relaxation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is an important part of the overall conflict between Jews and the Arab world, and its supporters in the Islamic world.

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