Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

2007: Realistic Appraisals of Arab-Israel Peace Prospects

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Update from AIJAC

January 11, 2007
Number 01/07 #04

Today's Update features the views of three prominent Israeli experts on the prospects of progress toward peace on the Israeli-Arab front in coming months. Unfortunately, none are optimistic.

First up is Dr. Barry Rubin, writing in the internet publication BitterLemons, who says he finds it hard to see any progress in the near future,  given the rise on the Arab side of "National Islamism", a synthesis of traditional Arab nationalism with Islamism.  This doctrine claims that Islamism is the ultimate expression of nationalism, hardens rejectionism, and is being put into practice by Hamas, Hezbollah, and their Syrian and Iranian sponsors. The only good news is that this trend poses a threat to traditional Arab regimes, which thereby creates some common interests with Israel in containing it. For Rubin's full argument, CLICK HERE.

Next, conflict resolution specialist Dr. Gerald Steinberg says current peace feelers from the Syrians and Palestinians look unpromising, but, like Rubin, he does see limited common interests in stability between Israel and some Arab states. He urges an Israeli policy of careful calculated risks to explore the extent of these opportunities. For Steinberg's evaluation, CLICK HERE.

Finally, the extremely knowledgeable journalistic commentator Ehud Yaari offers his assessment of Syria's current mixed messages of overtures toward talks combined with threats, and what Israel's response should be. Basically, he says Syria appears to be seeking talks only to prevent UN action against it over complicity in the murder of former Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri last year, and Israel is right to seek some sort of concrete demonstration of seriousness before proceeding. For this important analysis from a very experience observer, CLICK HERE.


National Islamism means no progress

by Barry Rubin

Bitterlemons.org, Jan. 8, 2007

In looking at the likely status of the Arab-Israel conflict or diplomatic process during 2007, a key factor is the dramatic change taking place in Arab politics. On a strategic level, there is the rise of a new alliance, which might be called the HISH powers (Hizballah, Iran, Syria and Hamas). And on the ideological front, this bloc is accompanied by a new worldview, which can be called National Islamism.

Until recently, the key battle within Arab politics was that between Arab nationalism and Islamism, with the former in power and the latter furnishing the main opposition movements. Liberal democratic trends were a distant third. Yet National Islamism is presenting itself as a synthesis between the two main warring sides, in theory able to mobilize the Arab masses.

Briefly, National Islamism simultaneously bids to replace and incorporate nationalism. The idea is that Islam is such a vital part of the Arab nation that the two cannot be separated. The best way to defend the nation, runs the argument, is to accept an Islamist leadership. Most obviously, Hamas seeks to lead the Palestinians and Hizballah to take over Lebanon--the latter demanding that all other political forces accept its rule as the most patriotic (despite its subservience to Iran and Syria).

This new approach very much suits the interests of Syria and Iran. For Syria, National Islamism lets it downplay the fact that the regime is dominated by a non-Muslim Alawite minority while winning support from the country's Sunni Muslim majority. For Iran, this doctrine makes it possible to leap the Sunni/Shi'ite and Arab/Persian divide.

A key element in National Islamism is for all Arabs (and Muslims) to unite in a struggle against Israel, the United States, and the West. National Islamism demands total victory over Israel and rejects a negotiated compromise solution. The summer 2006 Israel-Lebanon (or Israel-Hizballah) war is claimed as proof that the proper leadership and ideology can defeat and destroy Israel.

The combination of HISH and National Islamism is responsible for the much harder line in the Arab world generally toward Israel than appeared to be the case a decade ago. Its rise is still another factor bringing the chances for progress on resolving the conflict in 2007 close to zero.

Beyond this, however, the picture is more hopeful in one very important respect. The HISH/National Islamism combination poses a major threat to most Arab regimes, and especially Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the majority in Lebanon. Because of their own ambitions, the HISH forces have gone out of their way to antagonize Arab governments. To some extent, this is because they are trying to appeal to the Arab masses over the heads of their local rulers. Yet that is all the more disturbing to less radical Arab states.

Objectively, then, most Arab regimes have roughly parallel interests to those of Israel on the regional level. They are especially not thrilled about Iran getting nuclear weapons. This does not mean they will move closer to Israel or accept direct cooperation but it does indicate they are likely to want to avoid confrontation. In a real sense, many in the Arab elites would like to see Israel and the United States cut the HISH forces down to size. But they are unlikely to do much themselves toward that end.

Another interesting factor is how this development plays with the Muslim Brotherhood groups. The Syrian branch is against it, since that group wants to overthrow the Syrian regime and is angry at the Syrian rulers' ability to portray themselves as proper Islamists. The Egyptian Brotherhood is also suspicious since it is hostile to Shi'ite Muslims. The Jordanian Brotherhood, however, is enthusiastic. Among the Saudis and the jihadis--including Osama bin Laden's followers--hostility to Shi'ites also makes them anti-HISH.

Especially complex is the effect of these developments on Palestinian politics. Hamas won the January 2006 Palestinian elections and has a strong base of support. In many ways, the worldviews of Hamas and mainstream Fateh are not all that different except on the specific question of Islamization of society. Yet institutionally the two groups are serious rivals. Ironically, Fateh would be much more likely to accept National Islamism if it were in control. But the prospect of a permanent shift in power to Hamas shocks and angers Fateh people to the point of violence, if largely due to the battle over power and patronage.

This means that the differences between Hamas and Fateh are likely to prove irreconcilable, no matter how many meetings, quickly violated agreements or fast-evaporating truces they have. In short, they will not be able either to unite against Israel or make any agreements with it. And since both groups are trying to prove how militant they are--Mahmoud Abbas has little power even within Fateh--moderation is also not on the agenda.

Clearly, we are in a very different world from that of the 1990s. If National Islamism triumphs or even becomes fairly hegemonic, chances for Palestinian-Israeli peace will be set back by a generation; progress toward Arab-Israel negotiated solutions will go into the deep freeze. The paradox is that the HISH powers need war, while their enemies' need to appease them and keep up their own credentials will inhibit them from making peace.- Published 8/1/2007 © bitterlemons.org

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. His book, The Truth About Syria, will be published by Palgrave- MacMillan in April.

 
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A realistic strategy for peace

GERALD M. STEINBERG

THE JERUSALEM POST, Jan. 7, 2007

A few months ago, Israel was being attacked on two fronts - Lebanon and Gaza - in addition to the ongoing Iranian threats to wipe us off the earth. Now, however, we are being courted by eager peace makers, on both the Palestinian and Syrian fronts, while the Saudi/Arab League grand peace plan has suddenly resurfaced.

Logically, it is easy to reject this surge in activity as empty rhetoric designed to provide the image without the substance of change. Syria's President Bashar Assad appears to be transparently using the language of peace in order to avoid punishment for his involvement in the murder of Lebanese leaders, and for promoting violence in Iraq.

And Palestinian peace feelers would mean more if backed by a serious leader, capable of implementing agreements, preventing terror attacks and returning kidnapped soldiers. Mahmoud Abbas has demonstrated none of these traits, despite numerous opportunities. Both the Syrian and Palestinian talk of peace also appears to be designed to buy time for rebuilding military and terror forces for the next round of attacks against Israel.

But this narrow logic leaves no room for diplomacy or hope for a better future. Some conflicts eventually wind down, after the violence becomes too costly - Northern Ireland appears to be an example in progress, and although there are many differences, there are also similarities. And the rest of the world - particularly Europe, and to some degree, also the US - desperately wants to see progress towards a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni recognizes that in politics, as in baseball, "you can't beat something with nothing." Israeli peace initiatives based on the establishment of an interim Palestinian state, although probably unrealistic, will provide enough motion to prevent another rash of unrealistic European plans and pressure for dangerous Israeli concessions.

THE SUDDEN spike in the peace rhetoric of "moderate" Sunni Arab regimes, including Egypt's military rulers, the Saudi royal family and their counterparts around the Gulf are also based on self-interest. Their survival is linked to restoring a political framework in which radical Islamist groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah are contained. With the implosion in Iraq and the growing threat from Iran as a Shi'ite superpower, these Arab leaders have belatedly realized the need for cooperation with Israel to achieve stability. Pragmatic steps to avoid revolution, rather than a sudden ideological change acknowledging Israel's right to exist, provide the basis for these peace proposals. But they are still too important to dismiss out of hand.

For Israel's part, while skepticism would be advised, particularly after the catastrophic end of the Oslo "peace process," there is also an argument to be made for measures that might reduce the level of conflict for more than a few months. Some Palestinians may well agree with President Mahmoud Abbas that the cost of terrorism is too high, and that Israel is not going to disappear, regardless of these attacks. This is the time for them to be seen and heard, and for Israelis to listen. Competent leaders may yet emerge to take the Palestinian people beyond the ideology of rejectionism, victimization and violence that has gotten them nowhere in 60 years.

In this framework, and in contrast to the emotional enthusiasm that accompanied Oslo, Israel should take limited calculated risks to see how the other players will respond. As the security services lift some of the checkpoints and allow more movement of goods and people, it will be necessary to ensure that this time, these confidence-building measures are not exploited to smuggle weapons or explosives.

A massive release of Palestinian terrorists and their supporters, in exchange for Gilad Shalit, would also be counterproductive, to understate the impact.

The agenda for talks with officials from Bashar Assad's regime should be based on interim and balanced steps to reduce tensions, including ending weapons deliveries to Hizbullah and support for Hamas. Syrian efforts to destabilize Lebanon are entirely incompatible with claims to be interested in peace. (And any academics and journalists who are sent by Damascus to meet informally with their Israeli counterparts will have to shake hands and show that they are serious about ending the conflict.) Talks about the Golan Heights, borders, and access to Lake Kinneret will require a long period of interaction - the terms and conditions under which the previous negotiations took place disappeared long ago.

Finally, if the Saudis and other Arab countries are serious about reviving their long-dormant 2002 peace plan (designed in part to appease US anger after the 9/11 mass terror attacks), they will have to actively sell it. Public visits to Israel to meet with officials are a necessary component, and if the Saudis are not ready for this, they are not ready for peace. Similarly, if they present their framework to Israel as a "take it or leave it" proposal, it will quickly disappear again. Peace, or rather more realistic and pragmatic conflict management measures, needs to be negotiated and implemented step-by-step, with one stage creating the foundation for the next.

The writer heads the Program on Conflict Management at Bar-Ilan University, and is the executive director of NGO Monitor.


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Neighborhood Watch: The Case against Talks

Ehud Ya'ari
 
The Jerusalem Report, January 22, 2007
  
Syrian president Bashar al-Asad is apparently proposing peace talks with Israel. His aides are knocking at Ehud Olmert's door, from a distance. They exhort him to believe that their intentions are genuine, while out of the other side of their mouths, they issue threats that they cannot wait forever, and that "all means" are legitimate when it comes to restoring the Golan Heights to Syria. They also imply that Damascus insists that the Palestinians and the Lebanese will be partners to such talks.
 
They try to bolster their powers of persuasion by promising self-appointed mediators that Syria is capable of "controlling" Hamas (but not Hizballah, they caution). And then they back up their threats by setting up an Iranian-style brigade of anti-tank-missile-carrying motorbikers and by accelerating the production of "Scud" missiles.
 
In Israel, as usual, there are those who cannot wait to grab Asad by the hand. One public opinion poll suggested that 55 percent of Israelis think it is worth giving it a try. Similar voices are making themselves heard from within the Labor party, the media, and on the margins of Olmert's Kadima party as well. How, they ask, can Israel refuse to speak peace with an enemy state that is offering to come to the negotiating table? And Olmert is finding it difficult to defend his position, that this is not the appropriate time.
 
Indeed, this would not be a desirable step at the present stage. On the contrary, a premature resumption of negotiations with Damascus would involve tangible risks. The losses would outweigh the benefits for now.
 
Asad is sending signals to Israel for a simple reason: He is afraid of the international court that is supposed to be set up in the next few months to try the suspects in the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, and those believed responsible for the other political assassinations in Beirut. The Syrians well know that the U.N. investigating committee headed by Serge Brammertz is taking its time, because it already has enough evidence in hand for indictments against senior figures in Syria, including some who are members of the Asad family itself, or at least very close to it. They understand that witnesses who are willing to incriminate their seniors have been guaranteed partial immunity. The assessment of President Asad's advisers is that they have at most a year, till the end of 2007, to remove the sword dangling over their heads.
 
Asad is therefore working eagerly, through his allies and hangers-on in Lebanon, to prevent the government of Fouad Siniora from obtaining the Lebanese parliament's confirmation of its agreement to the terms and conditions according to which the international court will run. The Shi'ite Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri simply refuses to convene the parliament for a vote, and Hizballah is threatening a wholesale resignation of 60 parliamentarians in order to close it down altogether. Moreover, Hizballah has threatened to resume in mid-January the wave of demonstrations and strikes aimed at bringing the Siniora government down.
 
It would be most convenient for Asad, immersed in these motions which amount to a renewal of the Syrian-Iranian hegemony over the Land of the Cedars, if Israel were to deposit with him an effective insurance certificate in the form of direct and open negotiations. Basically, Asad is asking Olmert to cover for him and his crimes, and for Syria and Hizballah to be allowed to behead the Lebanese government with Israel's silent acquiescence.
 
All this without a hint of a guarantee that Asad, as some in Israel's intelligence community claim, is genuinely prepared to cut his alliance with Iran and Hizballah and turn instead to the moderate Arab Sunni camp that sees Israel as a partner against the extremists. Several of those personalities who rushed to Damascus to try to mediate admit that they themselves were not at all convinced that Asad has changed his spots.
 
Rather, a few of them came back with the impression that Syria is afraid to cut its ties with Iran, and wants to regain the Golan even as the Asad family remains entrenched in its 26-year-old alliance with Shi'ite radicalism.
 
So why should Israel fall into Asad's arms? Would it not be better to continue insisting that Syria first shows some proof that it is serious, for example by reining in Hamas and Hizballah, instead of handing Asad an open check? Israel ought to say that it is waiting for the international court before extending a hand to a regime involved in the cruel assassination of leaders of a neighboring country. And what is the logic of asking Olmert to get into a quarrel with Bush and Chirac for the sake of the man who supplied the missiles that were fired on Haifa?
 
People whose opinion I generally respect are recommending that giving the Golan back to Asad will break up the Shi'ite "crescent" that Iran is trying to extend from Tehran, via Baghdad and Damascus, all the way to Beirut. But that is a naive illusion. To contend with this crescent, Israel needs to reach understandings with the pragmatic Arab camp, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. Lebanon's Siniora and the Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas are also counted in its ranks. This is the time to look south, not north, to find the right formula for Sunni-Israeli cooperation, and not to go  for a shortcut, seeking consolation from the Asads.

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