July 6, 2014
No one argues that it will be difficult to forge an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. This is because the conflict has deep roots, and the issues requiring compromise are even more complicated. Further, and no less troubling, is that since the Oslo Accords in 1993, the two sides are left almost completely without trust in one another.
A river of blood has flowed on both sides, an Israeli prime minister was assassinated and the extremists’ voices are getting louder and louder. Leadership is weak on both sides. The United States’ influence as a mediator is waning. Europe is busy with its own affairs in Ukraine. Settlements are being built faster than ever.
We also cannot ignore the many troubling processes underway in a changing Middle East. Iran continues working on its nuclear program; Syria is knee-deep in blood and flooding with jihadist combatants. The conflict there is affecting Lebanon’s stability as Syrian refugees pour in. Iraq is also falling apart; the Saudi kingdom is making overtures toward Iran.
The current Egyptian leadership is embroiled in conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, and dealing with countless other economic issues. Jordan is trying to survive the waves of Syrian – and possibly soon also Iraqi – refugees, amid an unstable economy and internal instability of its own. Libya is descending into tribalism. Worst of all, from the pessimists’ perspective, is that Hamas and Fatah are in a process of reconciliation once again, which may collapse yet again following the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers, allegedly by Hamas.
One mustn’t, however, underestimate the positive aspects of the situation for Israel. After the Islamist movements seemingly came out on top, the “Arab Spring” is beginning to change direction. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has weakened. The Ennahda Movement in Tunisia has learned from the Brotherhood’s mistakes in Egypt and reached a compromise with the Tunis government.
In fact, all of the Muslim Brotherhood organizations throughout the region seem to be lying low. The Hashemite kingdom continues to survive despite the complex problems facing the region. The Saudis and Egyptians seem to be getting closer to each other. Hezbollah has been dragged deep into the Syrian quagmire, damaging its image in Lebanon and the area in general. Turkey is slowly improving its relations with Israel.
Thanks to negotiations with the P5+1, Iran is slowing the pace of its nuclear program, and, according to reports, has disposed 80 percent of the enriched uranium in its possession (it seems we will have to get accustomed to it as a nuclear threshold state that does not pose an existential threat).
The threat of conventional war against an Arab alliance has all but disappeared. Hamas’ relations with Egypt have soured, forcing it to temporarily abandon some of its aspirations as it reconciles with Fatah – a process that forces it to undergo drastic ideological changes. Even the recent abduction of Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrah and Naftali Fraenkel exemplifies the inner conflict and lack of governability of the organization.
So which of these pictures is more than just an illusion? Politicians like to dress the reality according to their needs, and intelligence officials have a natural tendency to see things in black and white (mostly black, actually). Both tend to talk about threats, not opportunities. But the reality is much more complex than the pictures I tried to paint above.
Examining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict against the backdrop of the aforementioned situations shows that there are significant dangers, but also that new, important opportunities have arisen in the Middle East.
The primary problem is that time is running out on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, bringing us ever closer to a point of no return, after which it will be impossible to part with the Palestinians through some kind of agreement.
The regional arrangement approach
It has become impossible to talk about solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the bilateral level alone – it has been proven that such thinking leads to failure. We must quickly forge a foundation for a regional arrangement that would take advantage of these positive developments (without underestimating the more problematic developments), which would involve Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
Believe it or not, upheaval in Egypt (and Hamas’ subsequent weakness), the regional economic situation, energy and water difficulties, as well as the Quartet’s desire to reshape the Middle East, all create new opportunities and seemingly common interests for the four key players.
The four must be active participants in any kind of regional agreement due to the fact that the Palestinians, and, primarily, the viability of a future Palestinian state, is dependent on the three other states, just as a long-term agreement with the Palestinians would require cooperation from all these nations.
The regional pact must be orchestrated so it is in each of the four nations’ strategic interest, as well as leading to sustained, long-term economic prosperity for all parties involved.
A regional agreement must deal with the energy problems in the region. It must provide for building water desalination plants and new transportation infrastructure, including ports, trains and airports. It must improve agriculture, as well as security-intelligence cooperation among the four states. The agreement must also include economic incentives set by the European Union and the United States, as well as regionally oriented industrial planning aimed at job creation.
During the first stages, in order to create the basic conditions for a regional arrangement, the four states would have to agree upon and commit to some basic principles, with two preconditions:
1.Were the unity government to indeed become a fact, the Palestinian state must commit to provide a written and oral declaration, signed by all of the government’s components (primarily Fatah and Hamas) that would satisfy Israel and the Quartet (the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia) – i.e., it must agree in full to the Quartet’s basic principles – recognizing Israel, renouncing terror and honoring all prior agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinians.
2.Pending the Palestinian declaration, Israel would be immediately required to freeze all construction in the West Bank outside of the large settlement blocs, until the end of negotiations.
The basic principles of the regional arrangement would be:
1. The regional pact will include four states: Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the future Palestinian state.
2. The negotiations and arrangement will be monitored by the Quartet, as well as supported by other nations in the region: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and perhaps Turkey.
3. The arrangement will be based on a packaged economic and infrastructure deal, which should be included in the initial stages of negotiations to act as an incentive for the four states.
4. The arrangement will be the end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, supported by each of the states, and will include security cooperation agreements between all four.
5. Progress in implementing the agreement will systematically and periodically include further incentives according to the economic package strucured by the Quartet, over a period of five to seven years, meant to create a gradual and accruing process of small successes.
6. Throughout the entire process, all sides will take steps aimed at changing the attitudes and atmosphere on both sides, including meetings between leaders, summits and conferences.
Advantages and problems
The advantages to the agreement I’ve proposed are clear. Each state involved is meant to benefit from it; it will create interdependence among the nations based on water, energy and transportation infrastructure (and more), and it will be in the interest of each one to preserve the agreement in order to enjoy its benefits.
It will lead to economic improvement as well as increased stability within each of the core states, and as each state’s interest in preserving the agreement to reap its benefits becomes more and more strategic, it will become a motivation for preserving the stability of the agreement between Israel and the Palestinians over the long term.
In addition, a regional pact would create an environment that would support the requisite decisions from the Palestinians and the Israelis. I believe that, even if it does not solve all of the issues, there will still be great incentives to preserve it.
It’s impossible to ignore some of the significant obstacles in the way of forging such an agreement: The amount of sides involved creates more complexity (even if agreements exist between Israel and Jordan, and Israel and Egypt). It would be difficult to secure commitment from Egypt, a key nation in the Arab world but currently mired in tense relations with the United States and the EU over the harsh methods it is employing against the Muslim Brotherhood. Also, tensions currently exist between Russia and the EU and United States over the Ukraine crisis. These are not the only obstacles, just a select few.
The regional approach could be a much more viable framework for negotiation, and it would solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while creating a stable foundation for preserving that solution for years to come. We’ve nothing left but to hope that the leaders, who are a key component in bringing about such a process, can gather up the necessary courage to get things underway.
Yuval Diskin was the 12th director of the Shin Bet security service.