"Death of the Mideast Peace Process"
Op-Ed, Boston Globe
December 1, 2006
Author: Chuck Freilich, Senior Fellow, International Security Program
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
THE SAUDIS and Arab League have recently refloated the idea of the 2002 Beirut Initiative, Syrian President Bashar Assad has renewed his calls for a settlement on the Golan, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is trying, to the best of his limited power, to cajole the Hamas government into agreeing to terms that will enable renewed talks with Israel. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently met with President Bush for talks that included the peace process.
Far more than an opportune time for renewed diplomacy, we may be witnessing the death pangs of the Middle East "peace process," with significant ramifications for US policy in the region and even globally.
Ever since 1973, the peace process has been the basis of US regional diplomacy: The United States established a strong relationship with the "moderate" Arabs — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf and Maghreb states. At the same time, it pursued an active policy of containing the Arab radicals. While juggling these two conflicting trends, the United States also succeeded in keeping a third ball in the air — promoting the US-Israeli "special relationship," turning what had previously been limited ties into a unique alliance.
The peace process was the mechanism that enabled this diplomatic feat, through the Arab belief that only the United States could "deliver Israel." As long as the hope persisted that the United States would be able to attain for them what force could not, they were willing to tolerate its containment policy and support for Israel. When confronting the core issues (recognition, end to conflict, refugees, territory, Jerusalem), reality hit a wall, and the illusion shattered.
Today, there are five primary options, none of which provides for optimism.
One, is to topple the Hamas government, recognizing that diplomatic posturing aside, it is truly committed to Israel's destruction, that its leaders' emphatic refusals to recognize Israel are genuine and, as such, it is not and will not become an acceptable partner. However, neither American nor Israeli experience in intervening in Arab affairs leads to much confidence that either would succeed in toppling Hamas. The concerted international pressure applied to the Hamas government since its election in January has had no effect on its policy or behavior, merely increasing domestic Palestinian hardship. Furthermore, hard to imagine as this is, if the regime is toppled, the outcome could be even worse — complete chaos in the Palestinian territories and even greater violence.
A second option is to circumvent the Hamas government and work directly with Abbas. Indeed, the United States and Israel should do so and seek to gradually strengthen his domestic stature. Reality, however, is that Abbas, ineffectual at the height of his power some 18 months ago, has even less influence today. So while little is to be lost in pursuing this option, it, too, appears unrealistic. A renewed, more forthcoming Saudi initiative might be beneficial — but again, no one on the Palestinian side can deliver, and the Olmert government's ability to respond is not assured either.
The third option, unilateralism, is now politically dead in Israel. It was virtually dead due to the ongoing firing of Kassam rockets into Israel following the Gaza withdrawal, and Hezbollah's recent bombardment of Israel during the summer war on the Israeli-Lebanese border has now put it firmly to rest. Quite simply, if neither negotiated solutions, nor even unilateral withdrawals, can provide Israel with security, its public will opt to retain territory. The tragedy is that the recent elections in Israel were a de facto referendum on unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, which the public supported overwhelmingly.
A fourth option is to jump-start the Syrian track, an idea floated every time the Palestinian track reaches another dead end. Assuming that Assad is interested in a settlement and capable of implementing one, the equation is clear. In exchange for 100 percent of the Golan Heights — actually more than 100 percent, as the Syrians demand territory that was Israel's under the pre-1967 international boundary — Israel stands to gain a 100 percent cold peace, in effect little more than a state of non belligerency, with a radical regime that may not be in power for long. The "cold peace" with Egypt and Jordan will appear hot in comparison. It is questionable whether this type of deal is worthwhile for the United States or Israel, assuming it is achievable.
This leaves the fifth option, actually a default, recognition that the peace process has probably run its course and that all parties involved will have to adjust their policies accordingly. For the United States, this means focusing on crisis management, not resolution, and cajoling Arab countries to finally focus on the real issues they face — backwardness, poverty, oppression, fundamentalism, not the easy excuse of Israel. For Israel, it means many more years of hostilities, an inability to finally disengage from the West Bank and refocus its energies at home. For the Palestinians, more squalor and a further prolongation of their hopes to achieve their national aspirations.
Not a pretty picture — just the Middle East.
Chuck Freilich, former Israeli deputy national security adviser, is a senior fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
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