Israeli Leaders Push for Diplomacy With Sunni Arabs

By Orly Halpern

Published January 26, 2007, issue of January 26, 2007.
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Herzliya, Israel - Israel’s most prestigious annual gathering of national security strategists, meeting here under the shadow of Iranian threats and Palestinian violence, heard a succession of Israel’s highest-ranking officials call for renewed diplomacy as the best way to keep Israel safe.

Defying a rash of international speculation that either Israel or America is planning military strikes on Iran’s nuclear structures, most of the senior Israeli leaders who spoke at this year’s Herzliya Conference — including Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Vice Premier Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and a parade of defense professionals — argued that Iran could be contained through a combination of deterrence and coalition building with moderate Arab states.

Many participants, including American and European as well as Israeli leaders, argued that peace deals with Syria or the Palestinians would be an essential first step. The views presented contrasted sharply with the positions usually offered by Israel’s advocates in the West, that resolving broader Middle East crises has no relationship to Israel’s disputes with its neighbors.

A minority of speakers took a starkly more pessimistic view, predicting continued hostility and confrontation on all fronts. Most speakers, however, insisted that Israel could best guarantee its security through diplomacy and negotiations — with Syria, the Palestinians, Sunni Arab states or all three — that would isolate and temper Iran.

“Economic and political sanctions will bring Iran down to its real proportions,” said Peres, the former prime minister and senior statesman, in a lunchtime speech to the conference. He added that Iran’s saber-rattling president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had done “a wonderful job” of alienating most other nations, making Israel’s task simpler.

“Let’s not be so narrow minded and prophesy doom,” Peres said in an undisguised dig at the doomsday prophecies of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. “I recommend not taking this lightly, but we still aren’t in the year 1938 and Hitler is not coming. There is a Jewish state, and we won’t stand by as someone who doesn’t care.”

Livni sounded a slightly more cautionary note in an address that evening. While noting that the “security of the State of Israel is based on military might,” requiring good intelligence and strong deterrent power, she said that the “best Israeli interest” right now dictates opening negotiations with the moderate wing of the Palestinian leadership.

In a speech directed mainly to the Israeli public, Livni struck an almost presidential tone, touching on Israel’s endless internal scandals but rallying Israelis to overcome their national gloom and positioning herself as the natural successor to the wounded prime minister, Ehud Olmert. Her stature only strengthened her bottom-line message: that Israel’s “national interest” as a Jewish state “requires us to accept the principle of two states for two peoples” — and to work with “moderate Palestinians, the moderate Arab states and the entire free world” to contain religious extremism in the region.

The idea of forming alliances with moderate Arab states was a theme sounded repeatedly throughout the three-day conference by Israeli leaders, academics and military figures as well as by visiting leaders and academics from America and Europe.

Speakers contended that fear of Iran’s nuclear program is raising shivers not only in Jerusalem but also in Riyadh, Cairo, Amman and other Sunni Arab capitals. That shared fear has created a new openness among Sunni Arab states toward an alliance with their Jewish neighbor. That, in turn, would isolate Iran and restrict its freedom of action as it faces world pressure to end its nuclear ambitions.

“This is the first time I have perceived such fear among the Arabs,” said the tough-talking director of the Defense Ministry’s political-military bureau, Amos Gilad, former military governor of the West Bank. “We need to strengthen every possible contact with Egypt, the Saudis and of course the Jordanians.” Gilad noted that the peace process with the Palestinians is still in a state of flux, given the rise of what he called “Hamastan” in Gaza. But he said that Israel must do “everything it can” to strengthen the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, in order to weaken Hamas.

He also advocated reaching out to Syria and convincing it to end its alliance with Iran and “change sides,” while noting that he spoke only for himself and not for the government.

Gilad’s boss, Peretz, went even further, issuing his own three-phase plan for peace with the Palestinians. His plan, which had been leaked to the press in advance, incorporates parts of the 2002 Saudi initiative, which offers full peace and recognition with all Arab League member-states in compensation for an Israeli return to the 1967 borders.

Peretz was placed on a stage with a panel featuring four of the conference’s most hawkish participants. All of them suggested in various ways that Israel and the West are in a clash of civilizations with Islam in which there is no easy compromise. The four — former Israeli chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon, former CIA chief James Woolsey, Princeton historian Bernard Lewis and former Israeli diplomat Dore Gold, now head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs — all disputed the conventional wisdom that solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would bring peace to the Middle East.

“Our conflict with the Palestinians is part of a much wider conflict between the West and global jihadist forces,” Gold said. Woolsey seconded that vision, adding that a Sunni Arab-Israeli alliance was unrealistic.

Ya’alon, the former soldier, was the one panelist who conceded that such an Israeli-Arab coalition might be possible in the current atmosphere. He argued, however, that it would happen without first solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “In my opinion there is no solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” Ya’alon said. “And it is not the main issue that will recruit the Sunni states.”

That view — a Sunni-Israeli alliance without progress on the Palestinian front — was endorsed during a separate session by American scholar Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I don’t buy that Israel needs to make peace with the Palestinians to make diplomacy with Arab Sunni states,” Satloff said. He called instead for “creative diplomacy” to conclude strategic pacts.

Several former and current American diplomats also took a tough but nonconfrontational stance. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former Middle East adviser in the first Bush White House, bluntly called on his country to “talk to Iran.” Thomas Pickering, a former undersecretary of state, advocated bilateral and multilateral talks between the nuclear states and Iran and North Korea, as well as amending the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. The current undersecretary of state, Nicholas Burns, sent a subtle threat Iran’s way. “My country is not seeking a confrontation with Iran,” he began. “We leave all the options on the table, but we are seeking a diplomatic resolution. But our country and other countries will defend our interests in the region as we see them.”

Talk of a deal in the works, either with Syria or the Palestinians, has moved to center-stage in the Israeli chattering classes in recent days, after months of diplomatic deep-freeze. On the Palestinian front, the renewed movement is due in large part to American pressure, which has led to informal contacts between Olmert and Abbas. Olmert has downplayed the likelihood of a serious breakthrough, likely because he knows he and his corruption-wracked government is too weak now to sell a final status agreement to the public.

On the Syrian front, talk has swung wildly from intelligence predictions of a war by next summer to reports that surfaced last week of unofficial, secret talks between the two countries. According to a report in Ha’aretz, talks were conducted last year, brokered by the Swiss government, between teams headed by a former Israeli Foreign Ministry official and a Syrian businessman with ties to the regime. They reportedly produced a draft plan that would clear up remaining disputes between the two countries, including control of the disputed north shore of Lake Kinneret. The talks are said to have ended last summer, after the Israeli government refused to send official representatives to meet with Syrian officials. Both Israel and Syria have denied knowing of the talks, although those involved insisted that both governments were kept updated.

Peres, however, flatly rejected the notion that Syria threatens Israel. “Syria does not want to make war,” Peres said. Rather, Damascus “wants peace — with good reason: in order to correct the mistakes of Assad the father.”

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