The war in Gaza is moving into its “international” phase, with a host of countries and institutions offering schemes for a cease-fire. Most of these involve the likely deployment at border crossing points into Gaza of third-party monitors, including the active participation in peacekeeping arrangements of two of Israel’s neighbors, Egypt and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.
Despite some obvious concerns regarding its freedom of action, Israel welcomes these initiatives.
For most of the past 61 years, however, Israeli security thinkers and policy planners have feared that an Arab or multinational coalition could gang up on Jerusalem and attempt to impose a one-sided political solution. This was termed, with trepidation, “internationalizing” or “regionalizing” the Arab-Israel conflict.
Over the years, the United Nations, the Arab League and even the European Union have been suspect in Israeli eyes. Israelis worried that they would seek to impose peace arrangements prejudicial to Israel’s interests. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s strategy in the second intifada, which Israel successfully thwarted, was understood to involve “internationalization” of the conflict, with neighboring Arab states dragged in and various peacekeeping forces and peacemaking coalitions becoming involved on behalf of the Palestinian cause.
Yet in recent years, Israel’s fears have been slowly but radically mollified. Now Israel’s wars reach a point where Israel actually solicits “internationalization.”
Israel’s attitude toward regional and multilateral cooperation in peace-related issues began to change with the 1991 Gulf War. Israel and the Gulf states discovered that they could be the target of aggression by a shared enemy, in this case Iraq. The next breakthrough came in 2000, when Israel withdrew unilaterally from Southern Lebanon. For the first time in decades, an Israeli government collaborated closely with the United Nations in determining an Israeli-Arab border and the modalities of an Israeli withdrawal.
The unique unilateral withdrawal of 2000 also reflected Israel’s growing problem with non-functioning states and militant Islamist movements on its borders: Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. The enemy’s guerilla and terror tactics drag Israel into nasty combat situations that threaten the lives of multitudes of civilians and inevitably produce humanitarian crises. Neither traditional military nor traditional diplomatic solutions work in these circumstances, and Israelis dread the thought of occupying more hostile Arab territory. Hence Israel feels impelled, however reluctantly, to actively solicit new alliances with international third parties or neighboring states that at least partly share Israel’s perception of the problem at hand.
This was evident on the occasion of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in the summer of 2005. In an unprecedented step, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recruited Egyptian cooperation to compensate for the removal of Israel’s security presence at the Philadelphi border strip between Gaza and Sinai. And he asked the European Union to monitor the Rafah crossing at that border. A Palestinian Authority presence at the Egyptian and Israeli border crossings with Gaza was also agreed upon. Today, despite the failure of the entire 2005 Gaza initiative that is expressed in the Gaza war, Israel and Egypt are discussing a renewed attempt to implement those 2005 arrangements, with one welcome added feature: a more concerted attempt to stop Hamas arms smuggling at the Gaza-Sinai border.
This déjà vu aspect of the international phase of the current war is even more reminiscent of the summer 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. Then, as now, the moderate Sunni Arab states recognized a paradigm shift in the regional balance of forces, with Iran and its allies increasingly challenging not only Israel but Sunni Arab states’ hegemony as well.
Two new modes of international and regional cooperation emerged from the summer 2006 war. For the first time in the history of Israeli-Arab wars, the introduction of an international force, UNIFIL II, to the war zone became an official Israeli war objective. (Thus far in the Gaza war, this arrangement has proved its efficacy and contributed to Hezbollah’s reluctance to join the fray.)
Then, too, the combination of Iranian and Syrian machinations and Islamist militants in Southern Lebanon generated a reflex of unprecedented support for Israel among the moderate Sunni Arab regimes. This, in turn, formed the backdrop to the Arab League summit of 2007 that reaffirmed the 2002 Arab peace initiative. The peace initiative thus emerged with far greater regional and international strategic significance than it initially enjoyed. It was perceived by both Israelis and Arabs as proposing a potential platform around which an Israeli-Palestinian peace effort could be launched, as well as a framework for institutionalizing some concept of regional cooperation against Iranian-led Islamist militancy.
Where might these developments lead us? Israel and Arab moderates appear to have come about as far as they can on their own toward establishing a cooperative relationship. Without solid input from the United States, neither a stable Gaza cease-fire arrangement, nor renewal of the Israeli-Arab peace process nor promotion of the Arab peace initiative can move much further. Moreover, there are legitimate concerns in Israel that the increasingly dysfunctional Arab state system represented by the Arab League will ultimately prove incapable of delivering in any significant way. Even Egypt, with all its good intentions (from Israel’s standpoint) regarding Gaza, is now practically admitting it needs help to secure its own border against Hamas arms smuggling.
Israel, Egypt, Turkey, the European Union and the very lame-duck Bush administration will now, hopefully, cobble together a way out of the current Gaza crisis. But beyond that, the task of developing Israeli-Arab regional interaction into a vehicle for advancing Middle East peace and security cooperation must be seen as both a challenge and an opportunity for the Obama administration.
Yossi Alpher is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. He currently co-edits the bitterlemons.org family of Internet publications.