Look to Damascus and Turtle Bay

The Strategic Interest

Change Afoot: Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (left) submits his government’s resignation to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
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Change Afoot: Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (left) submits his government’s resignation to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

By Yossi Alpher

Published February 16, 2011, issue of February 25, 2011.
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With revolutionary unrest sweeping the Arab Middle East, the focus is on democracy, not peace. Israel’s neighbors in Amman and Damascus are currently more worried about anti-regime unrest than they are about the failed peace process. The revelations about Israeli-Palestinian negotiating stances, revealed in detail by the Al Jazeera leaks a few weeks ago, have seemingly moved to the back burner.

Is this the time to be thinking about peace negotiations?

The answer’s yes. But rather than simply trying to revive moribund Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, we should be shifting our attention to two neglected fronts: Syria and the United Nations.

After all, once the smoke clears from the Tahrir Squares of the region, the world’s attention will once again return to the issue of how to advance Israeli-Arab peace, very possibly with less patience among the Arab states for Israel’s concerns. Meanwhile, the absence of a peace process renders it all the more difficult for Israel to be accepted by new Arab regimes, to ensure its vital strategic interests with apprehensive old ones and to maintain quiet along all its borders. And both the PLO leadership in Ramallah and President Bashar al-Assad in Syria could benefit from a peace process that would help them stabilize their regimes against the threat of unrest from their respective streets.

Israel could, with American support, now leverage these Arab anxieties to everyone’s advantage.

This is the time to renew Israel-Syria negotiations. With its southern border with Egypt jeopardized by the revolution in Cairo, Israel needs to stabilize its northern borders with Syria and Lebanon (meaning Hezbollah). Assad had been asking to renew peace talks for years. The entire Israeli security establishment recommends taking Assad up on his offer. Assad, for his part, knows that his Iran-Hezbollah connections will be on the table.

If the Obama administration wants to shore up its stock among Arab leaders while helping Israel navigate the current regional storm, now is the time to lean on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government to sit down with Damascus. The Americans should offer to chair Israel-Syria peace talks as they did throughout the 1990s with a series of Israeli prime ministers.

Turning to the Palestinians, the events in Cairo have merely doubled their resolve to take their case to the United Nations this September and ask for recognition of a state. The recently announced Palestinian national elections are designed not only to head off the wave of popular dissatisfaction emanating from Cairo; they are also timed to enable the PLO to present a legally enfranchised government to the U.N., even if it represents only the West Bank. Meanwhile, more and more countries are recognizing the Palestinians’ “state.”

It’s time for both Washington and Jerusalem to ask whether recognizing a Palestinian state is really such a bad idea. Both the U.S. and Israel accept the idea of Palestinian statehood and have energetically helped build state institutions in the West Bank. They both realize that the 1967 lines, with territorial swaps, represent the basis for the ultimate and inevitable border. And both know that bilateral negotiations are going nowhere.

What they don’t seem to have noticed is that the Arabs are asking for U.N. recognition of a territorial state without insisting on explicit reference to the real deal-breakers in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations: the refugee issue and the question of “ownership” of the Temple Mount. Recognition of a Palestinian state would render the conflict much more manageable at the state-to-state level, with Mahmoud Abbas (or whoever is elected president by September) negotiating as president of Palestine, not as chairman of the PLO. There is a huge difference: Whereas the PLO is beholden to the vast Palestinian diaspora, state-to-state negotiations could be confined to issues that concern the needs of Palestinians who reside in the future state of Palestine.

If the Obama administration demands to sit down and discuss this issue with Israel now (the Netanyahu government, sadly, will never take the initiative), the two parties can begin working out all the nuances and provisions of a U.N. recognition resolution that satisfies Israel’s vital strategic needs: allowing for negotiated territorial swaps and agreed arrangements for settlements, providing for Israeli security needs, preventing Israel from being labeled an occupying power for an agreed period of time, etc.

In short, this is not a time for Israel to be sitting on its hands when it comes to peace initiatives. Hopefully, the Obama administration realizes this, even if the current Israeli government does not.

Yossi Alpher co-edits the bitterlemons family of Internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

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