Time To Change the Tune

As Israelis began trying this week to make sense of their bruising five-week war in Lebanon, discussion has returned again and again to the traumatic Yom Kippur War of 1973. Then as now, Israel’s vaunted military machine was caught with its pants down, locked into a strategic concept — static defense lines then, air dominance now — that had become obsolete. Then as now, the war ended in a victory that felt more like defeat, leaving Israel’s enemies crowing and Israelis fearing for their very future. This time, with Israel’s military deterrent exposed as lacking and jihadist rage mounting among the world’s billion Muslims, the fears feel very real.

But there is another, more hopeful parallel between 1973 and now, for those willing to see it. Back then, the mixed results of the war reshuffled the strategic balance in the Middle East, opening the way for a diplomatic flurry — tirelessly orchestrated by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — that ultimately led to a peace treaty with Egypt, Israel’s most powerful Arab foe. This week, growing numbers of Israeli strategists are speaking of a similar opening arising from the latest war. They see an opportunity for Israel to reach out to moderate Arab and Muslim states, a chance to forge a common front against the extremist threat from Iran and Hezbollah. The price of admission: a regional peace accord, including a resolution of the Palestinian issue and genuine Arab recognition of Israel, that enables the moderates to unite and thus isolates the extremists.

“We need a realignment in the region,” says veteran Labor Party lawmaker Ephraim Sneh, a reserve brigadier general and former deputy defense minister. “We need to create a new balance with the all the moderate countries on one side” — and the extremists on the other.

By “moderate countries,” Sneh is thinking first of all the nearby Arab states that have made peace with Israel or hinted at it clearly in recent decades, beginning with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinians. Not coincidentally, all of them are Sunni Muslim societies that view the Shi’ite Iran-Hezbollah axis with fear and loathing.

As it happens, every one of the target nations has sent urgent signals to Israel in recent weeks, making it clear that they want to do business. Israelis must now ask themselves what price they would have to pay to join the game, and what role they need their American ally to play to make it work.

The Egyptians, as usual, are leading the way. Their security services have been working frantically in the past month to separate the Hamas-led Palestinian government from its Hezbollah allies, to secure the release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and to create a unified Palestinian negotiating partner for peace talks with Israel, under the clear leadership of the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas — at least its local wing in the territories — seems desperate to buy in; it has endorsed the Egyptian initiative and cracked down on rocket fire. This week it approved a unity government with Fatah and announced that it had “no problem negotiating with Israel.”

With Egypt playing enforcer, the Saudis have taken on the role of pitchman. Three weeks ago, midway through the war, they dusted off their 2002 peace plan, known as the King Fahd plan, which offered Israel full peace and normalized relations with all 22 Arab states in return for “solving the Palestinian problem.” It included Palestinian statehood within the 1967 borders (details to be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians) and a “resolution of the refugee problem” (essentially repatriating a symbolic group and compensating the rest, diplomats said). What was new in this month’s announcement was this ominous warning: Given the mounting level of anti-Israel rage in the region, the offer might not be on the table forever. It’s time, Saudi officials said, for a regional settlement that brings Israel into the Middle Eastern family. The alternative is chaos.

Israelis rejected the Saudi plan back in 2002 as demanding too much from them. At this point, given a choice between the Fahd plan and the prospect of Iranian regional dominance, the Fahd plan is looking better and better, officials say privately.

There are a few wild cards in the scenario. One of them is Syria. As long as it remains tied to Iran and Hezbollah, there may be no way to neutralize the terrorist militia, a basic Israeli condition for any deal. Nor can the Fahd plan be completed with

Syria, a key Arab state, holding out. This week’s “victory” speech by the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, set an alarmingly shrill tone, promising continued support for Hezbollah and even threatening military action on the Golan Heights, something Damascus has avoided for 33 years. Tucked within Assad’s speech, though, was a very different message: a call to Israel, repeated several times, to “turn toward peace” and so avoid defeat. Assad may have been reading from the playbook used by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in the early 1970s: Threaten fire and brimstone, claim you’ve redeemed your honor through military victory, then open a quiet channel to talk peace.

And that raises the second wild card: Are Israelis ready to join? The answer isn’t simple. Defense Minister Amir Peretz, the Labor Party leader, opened the debate this week with a speech urging Israel to “renew our dialogue with the Palestinians” and to “create the conditions for dialogue with Syria.” “Every war creates an opportunity for a new political process,” he said.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of the Kadima party said much the same thing the same day. Last week’s unanimous United Nations Security Council resolution, with its clear blaming of Hezbollah and refusal to condemn Israel, creates “a window of opportunity,” she said.

For now, the main roadblock is Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Whether out of mistrust of Arab intentions, emotional attachment to the settlements or fear of political retribution from the right, he is rejecting talk of a Syrian opening or a renewed Fahd plan. Aides say he’s not ready to jump in.

A plan for easing into regional dialogue more gently was offered this week by Yossi Beilin, leader of the left-wing Meretz party and architect of the 1993 Oslo Accords. Beilin is calling for a reconvening of the Madrid Conference, an all-party Middle East roundtable convened in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush. Summoned in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, the conference brought all the main Middle East players around a single table and then broke up into working committees, some of which continue to stumble along, at least on paper. In Beilin’s view, calling a conference like that would let the parties sit together without committing themselves to a predetermined result. They could simply say that Uncle Sam made them come.

And that raises the third wild card: whether the current President Bush is willing and able to do what has to be done. Right now he’s torn between the pragmatists in his administration, who favor dialogue, and the ideologues, who insist on seeing the world in blacks and whites and are willing to keep fighting to the last Israeli. Bush’s own instincts are with the ideologues, though he’s shown himself capable of acting pragmatically when he sees the need.

That is the challenge for Israel’s friends right now. Bush has been convinced by self-appointed spokesmen for Israel and the Jewish community that endless war is in Israel’s interest. He needs to hear in no uncertain terms that Israel is ready for dialogue, that the alternative — endless jihad — is unthinkable. Now is time to change the tune.

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Time To Change the Tune

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