Untying the Middle East Gordian Knot

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Gary Weaver is a co-author

Movement toward peace in the Middle East is at a critical juncture.

The seeming intent of the Obama Administration to reinvigorate negotiations with new focus, energy, and players may well be undercut by continued Hamas-inspired missile attacks on Israel from Gaza, by Jewish settler extremism that magnifies the usual vagaries of Israeli election politics, and by uncertainty about the ability of Mahmoud Abbas to represent Palestinians in a comprehensive solution.

Obama’s new national security adviser, Gen. Jim Jones, a special envoy on Middle East security since November 2007, believes “it’s very important not to lose momentum.” He promoted the training of Palestinian Authority paramilitary forces, which has led to greater security and relative calm in Palestinian areas and increased trust and confidence from current Israeli leaders that Palestinians can create a secure state within their borders. Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton has also emphasized the new administration's interest in promoting Middle East peace.

The recipe for a lasting settlement has been known for years: Two viable and mutually recognized states – Israel and Palestine -- within well-defined boundaries, functioning in a climate of security, détente and cooperation. This was the formula of Oslo, of Camp David, and of Taba.

Yet despite clear definition of the elements of agreement, both sides have fallen victim to either the vigorous undermining of progress by internal and external elements bitterly opposed to any realistic resolution, or the failure of will on the part of their leaders – or both. To say nothing of neglect by a pre-occupied Bush Administration.

Nonetheless, there is renewed interest in peace proposals. Israeli President Shimon Peres in November UN General Assembly remarks directly addressed Saudi King Abdullah who was in the audience, praising Saudi peace proposals as “inspirational and promising.” Also at the UN, Foreign Secretary Tzipi Livni underscored Peres’s comments by saying "The Saudi initiative … sent a very good message.”

Israel’s normally fractious politics may be even more contentious in the run up to the February 10th elections. The Likud party has chosen a slate of candidates more hardline and hawkish than Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. With both Kadima and Labor continuing to emphasize Palestinian territorial settlement as part of a grand bargain for peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors, Likud may force a very different kind of debate than Netanyahu wants, even though he is no supporter of land for peace. Lame-duck Kadima Prime Minister Ehud Olmert immediately attacked the Likud slate as demonstrating that it “had become an extreme right-wing party that would lead…Israel to a corner of isolation.” Foreign Minister Livni, prime minister if Kadima wins enough seats to form a government, will probably tar Netanyahu with the more extreme views of other Likud leaders, such as banning Iraeli Arabs from serving in parliament, encouraging non-Jews to leave Israel, and leaving the UN.

Israel’s non-negotiable objective is to survive and ensure the security and wellbeing of its citizens within frontiers recognized by all its Arab neighbors and guaranteed by the major powers. In a recent dramatic interview with Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, Prime Minister Olmert emphasized that the “…goal should be…to designate a final and exact borderline between (Israel) and the Palestinians so that the entire world, the United States, the UN, and Europe can say: ‘These are the borders of the State of Israel, we recognize them, and we will anchor them with formal resolutions in the major international bodies. These are the recognized borders of Israel and these are the recognized borders of the State of Palestine.’” He went on to emphasize that Israel must withdraw from the occupied territories, including the Golan Heights, accommodate a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, and make special arrangements for the various holy sites.

This broader view opens the way for a UN Security Council-authorized buffer force – ideally composed mostly of Americans and Europeans -- that would reduce the opportunity for extremist Palestinians to lob rockets across the frontier. Needless to say, internationally fostered economic development for the new Palestinian state would go far to eventually deny suicide-bomb recruiters their explosive human fodder.

Creation and international recognition of a viable state in the West Bank and the Gaza strip is the sine qua non for the Palestinians. This requires full Israeli cooperation for unobstructed transportation and communication between Gaza and the West Bank, but also a coherent and unified area forming the West Bank Palestinian territory itself.

A UN-sanctioned buffer force would also protect the Palestinians -- by its mere presence -- against Israeli defense force retaliatory strikes. But, the supreme confidence-building measure would be the rapid economic development of the Palestinian territories, and here the European Union and the Saudis should play a major role. .

Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Gulf states have every interest to invest heavily in creating economic progress in their geographic and religious neighborhood. Old habits, such as supporting radical thought and its potential for terrorist action through Madrassas and mosques abroad, must be ended.

Just as with the Palestinians, the formula for normalizing relations with Syria and Lebanon must be “territory for peace.” As with return of occupied Sinai to Egypt more than 25 years ago, Israel can return an internationally monitored and demilitarized Golan Heights to Syria and the small Shebaa Farms area to Lebanon. As Olmert told his interviewers: “Who seriously thinks that if we sit on another hilltop, on another hundred meters, this will make a difference for Israel's basic security?” In return, Syria must stop meddling in Lebanese affairs.

Resolving the territorial issues will lay the groundwork for broader regional economic cooperation and development. The objective should be to recapture the prior creativity and dynamism of Lebanon, bring Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Israel and Egypt into closer economic collaboration and interdependence, and encourage Saudi and other support for meaningful development projects across the region to create the kind of environment that helped establish peaceful prosperity in Europe after World War II. As demonstrable economic stability and progress extend through the region, extremism will be less attractive and joint Arab-Israeli interests in a more prosperous and stable peace will be strengthened.

But it will take more than a few dancers to tango in the Middle East. Iran must be diplomatically engaged by the US. In return, it will have to permit full transparency and monitoring of its nuclear energy programs, and abandon its role of providing funds, shelter and training to terrorist cells and organizations. In this, the US may be able to allow Russia to take the lead (and the credit), as EU, US, and Russian interests on Iran are more aligned than they sometimes seem. Détente with Iran will help immensely in the de-radicalization of Hezbollah and Hamas and facilitate nudging them into the over-all land-for-peace settlement framework.

As the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai demonstrate, the broader context must also include Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state with a history of supporting extremists through its intelligence services, as well as an inability or unwillingness to control the spread of nuclear weapons technologies to other parties – regardless of how irresponsible they may be. Pakistan is teetering on the brink of disaster, and poses perhaps the gravest immediate challenge to efforts at regional stability. Recent rumors of the new administration considering naming a special envoy for South Asia to create a coherent approach to South Asia and link it to Mid East efforts are encouraging.

There are, however, drastically differing schools of thought regarding the sequencing of the Mid East peace process. Some in the region and elsewhere believe that creation of the Palestinian state should be the last piece put into place in the Mid East puzzle. Others consider the two-state settlement the first and most vital prerequisite for the process to continue and take root. We stand with others who believe that parallel and simultaneous efforts creating progress in some areas will have positive spill over-effects in others. A coordinated, comprehensive approach is called for.

Theodore Couloumbis is vice president of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy and professor emeritus at the University of Athens, Greece; Bill Ahlstrom is an executive at a US multinational; Gary Weaver is professor at American University’s School of International Service; these views are their own.
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