Could Israel Make Common Cause With Sunni Arabs?

The Strategic Interest

By Yossi Alpher

Published February 09, 2007, issue of February 09, 2007.
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It is now generally understood among Middle East experts that last summer’s war in Lebanon created a kind of paradigm shift in Israel’s interaction with the region. The threat posed to Israel by Iran, its proxy Hezbollah and its ally Syria was also recognized as a threat by the Sunni Arab heartland.

The Sunni-Shi’ite struggles in Lebanon and Iraq were understood in both their historic Persian-Arab contexts and their internal Islamic ones. Israel and the major Sunni Arab states — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf emirates — now appeared to share an enemy.

But could they actually make common cause? The Arabs made their condition clear: Israel had to make peace with its neighbors, beginning with the Palestinians, in order to confront Iran side by side with the Sunnis. And for that to happen, everybody suddenly remembered, the Arab League had established a strategic framework back in March 2002, the Saudi plan for comprehensive Arab-Israel peace.

Back then, the Arab League motive had been recognition that Israel and its neighbors alone couldn’t solve their conflict; in effect, the Arabs had collectively internationalized or regionalized the solution. Last summer, after four years of relative oblivion, the Saudi-Arab League plan came of age under the shadow of Iran.

Since then, more and more Arabs, Israelis, Americans and Europeans have recognized that plan as perhaps the only format for moving toward peace between Arabs and Israelis and galvanizing the peace momentum into the necessary strategic collaboration against Iran. It offers Israel comprehensive peace and even security cooperation with the entire Arab world, against a return to the 1967 borders and a formula for resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue that doesn’t mention the right of return.

With the roadmap defunct, the Palestinian Authority in a state of virtual civil war, Israeli unilateral withdrawal discredited and a peace process with Syria problematic in view of Israeli and American suspicions, the Saudi-Arab League plan has lately received cautious and partial endorsement from Israel’s leadership.

But that does not mean it can be readily implemented. The Saudis and the Arab League have not been helpful here, because they have avoided talking directly to Israel about the plan. Indeed, its closing paragraph suggests that it be presented to everyone in the world except Israel, in order “to pursue the necessary contacts to gain support for this initiative at all levels” — thereby implying that it should somehow be imposed upon Jerusalem by an obliging United Nations or United States.

When queried, Saudis and other Arabs have tended to treat their plan as an “all or nothing” package: You Israelis should make peace with your neighbors, after which we Arabs will accept you and work with you against Iran. When pushed a bit more in recent months, they acknowledge that they did a poor public relations job with Israel on the plan, and that a formula has to be found for Arabs and Israelis to talk about its implementation on a level playing field where Israel can submit its legitimate reservations concerning borders, Jerusalem and refugees.

Here is my formula for implementing the Saudi plan. It breaks down the plan into workable stages and provides a regional and international context. It acknowledges that Israel has to make the first move, but insists on Arab initiatives, too. It provides incentives to both sides to progress toward both Arab-Israel peace and regional security cooperation.

Phase one involves two Israeli steps. The government of Israel should engage Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in discussions designed to clarify the territorial and other parameters of a successful two-state solution. This corresponds with recent proposals made by American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni for jumpstarting the peace process.

In parallel, Jerusalem should enter into preliminary back-channel negotiations with Damascus concerning the possibility of bilateral peace talks that would satisfy Israel and America’s — and the Arabs’ — needs regarding cessation of Syrian support for terrorism and strategic collaboration with Iran, if and as an Israeli-Syrian territories-for-peace deal is reached. This reflects the inclination of many within the Israeli security establishment to test Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s invitation to Israel to renew negotiations.

Assuming that one or both of these moves begin to generate momentum and lay the foundations for full-fledged negotiations, phase two would bring together Israel and the two “quartets” — the Saudi, Egyptian, Jordanian and Gulf leaderships, along with the U.N., United States, European Union and Russia — to begin discussing normalization of Israeli-Arab relations, including security cooperation.

At this point, the Israeli leadership could argue convincingly that, just as the Arab public wants to see progress toward Israeli-Arab peace, the Israeli public needs to witness serious Arab gestures in the context of normalization and security cooperation against common enemies, and to be reassured that successful peace processes will be rewarded by the Arab world.

Phase three witnesses Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian peace processes, either in parallel or in sequence, supported by international and Arab incentives and ultimately culminating in phase four: bilateral peace agreements and multilateral normalization and security coordination. Whereas the first two phases could take six months to a year, phases III and IV would, in the best case, stretch out over a period of years.

This timeline can only be considered a best-case scenario, because the Israeli and Arab governments in question are weak, unstable and problematic. Even to begin this process requires Israeli and Arab resolve and stable government along with a resolute and courageous commitment by the international community, beginning with Washington, Brussels, Riyadh and Cairo. Yet the interactive nature of today’s Middle East crises, and their gravity, demands nothing less.

Yossi Alpher, former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.

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