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What Is Israel’s Next Move In The New Middle East?

A Moment Symposium

In recent months, the Middle East has been set aflame by democratic uprisings, popular protests, brutal crackdowns, political upheaval and international military intervention, shattering conventional wisdom about the region. Israel—surrounded by a newly unstable Arab world and confronting a Palestinian march toward statehood—faces uncertainty on every front. Moment speaks with an array of leading Middle East experts and thinkers to examine how Israel should weather the storms unleashed by the “Arab Spring.”

 

AARON DAVID MILLER

The “Arab Spring” (Tunisia and Egypt) and the “Arab Winter” (Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Syria) have challenged a deeply divided center-right Israeli government and nation to come up with a strategic response toward peacemaking, politics and security that is well beyond their capacity. The Israelis had no coherent strategy before the onset of these momentous changes in the Arab world; it would be unrealistic, given the uncertainties that now abound, to expect them to have one now. After all, look at the U.S.—the world’s most consequential power. It’s playing a kind of game of whack-a-mole, responding to challenges as they arise—just look at Libya.

Israel will continue to approach the Arab Spring/Winter as a glass half empty, not half full. As public opinion in the Arab world plays an increasingly important role in shaping and constraining governments’ policies, the space available to the Israelis—and to the U.S. for that matter—is likely to contract. The good old days of the pharaohs and kings—in Egypt and Jordan—are winding down; and while the Egyptian military will adhere to the treaty, anti-Israeli sentiment will likely grow. Israelis are even worrying about Assad as Syrian turmoil grows. And of course, they continue to worry about old problems—Iran as a potential nuclear power.

If the Israeli-Palestinian peace process were in better shape and you had bold Palestinian and Israeli leaders willing and able to find common ground, it would help to relieve some of the impending pressure. But you don’t. Weak leaders, big gaps on the core issues and a Palestinian Noah’s Ark, in which the Palestinian national movement has two of everything (prime ministers, constitutions, security services), will pose huge challenges to a breakthrough agreement. America, now fighting three wars, burdened with other priorities and election politics, won’t be able to redeem an agreement neither side is willing or able to pay for.

Bottom line for Israel: The Jews will keep their state, but the region in which they live will never let them completely enjoy it.

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator, is now a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

 

NATAN SHARANKSY

There are attempts to say that now is the time for Israel to urgently make peace, but there’s no leadership on the Palestinian side for it. Will we sign agreements with dictators whose days are numbered? The simple answer, “let’s make peace and that’s it,” doesn’t cut it. To sign an agreement you must have a partner who is dependent on the well-being of his people, which is what democracy means.

If the democratic forces in the Arab world have a serious chance, is it good for Israel? Of course it is good for Israel! Israel should be saying more strongly that we believe in the democratic process on the Palestinian side, that it will make it easier for us to make concessions and that we are ready to embrace any leader who accepts necessary reforms, political freedom and education—real education, not hatred. But only the Palestinians can democratize themselves; the most we can do is offer support, express our sympathy and give economic assistance. Israeli leaders don’t believe that any democratic changes are possible, but whatever Israel says will have very little meaning if the free world doesn’t support democratic reforms.

I believe that the free world—including Israel—will be responsive to the Arab street. Democratic reforms will produce great partners for peace negotiations and conditions for an agreement very quickly—in just a few years. In 1993, in 1996, in 2000, people said, “a few years is too much time,” and all we ended up with was terror. I say the peace process has no chance without democracy, with dictatorships whose people hate Israel.

Natan Sharansky, a former Knesset minister and Soviet dissident, is chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

 

DANIEL C. KURTZER

Israel’s first strategic priority has always been and remains security—its physical, material and social well-being. In the current set of crises in the Middle East, Israel will need to look at three things: One, it must find the right tone and content for its relationship with its two peace partners, Egypt and Jordan. Two, the immediate challenges with both Lebanon and Syria are quite severe. Lebanon has the most immediate destabilizing potential. Israel can neither find partners in Lebanon, nor an opening for diplomacy. In the minuet that Israel and Hezbollah dance all the time, Israel has to define what its red lines really are and what it should do if they’re crossed. The issue is very much deterrence.

With Syria, questions of diplomacy always lurk. The defense establishment continues to believe the Syrian track should be given priority, but the political echelon disagrees because of Syria’s relationship with Iran. Natan Sharansky argues that you can’t make peace with dictators, but despite what happened in Egypt, whether or not the other government is democratic can’t be the basis for negotiations. In the real world, there are things you can’t control, so you consider if your opponent is stable, if you can trust him, if an agreement is likely to last for a long time. Israel has gotten 30 years of peace with Egypt, so I’m not sure it’s such a bad thing if it can get that with Syria.

Three, there might be an opportunity on the Palestinian side. We have a West Bank that is not only quiet but has a government doing what Israel has wanted it to do for years. The Palestine Papers leak showed there was and is a partner, so the prospect of negotiations with the Palestinians is not far-fetched; it’s a very serious and realistic option. If Israel shows it is serious about peace, it will be very helpful for its image in the region.

Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, is a scholar at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

 

MEIR JAVEDANFAR

Israel could use the new developments in the region to its advantage against Iran, first and foremost by restarting peace negotiations with the Palestinians and stopping settlement activity. This would seriously boost Israel’s position with the new government of Egypt, whom Iran is trying to court, and complicate Iran’s efforts to boost its position in other countries such as Lebanon by presenting itself as the leader of what it calls the “resistance movement.” Most important, it would make it difficult for the Iranian government to use the Palestinian-Israeli card to distract attention from internal troubles. The current regime’s loss of legitimacy would be magnified, which would also decrease Iran’s influence abroad. Even if there were peace with the Palestinians, Iran would not recognize Israel, but it would have to face a very bleak reality in which it was weakened.

Peace would also mean that Israel would find it easier to become part of an anti-Iran nuclear camp in the region. As we saw from WikiLeaks, countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and even Bahrain are as much, if not more, against Iran’s nuclear aspirations as Israel is. But they are not willing to join Israel’s camp because they don’t agree with Israel’s current strategy toward the Palestinians. For Iran’s leadership, peace between Israel and the Palestinians is a nightmare that Israel can deliver on a silver plate, through FedEx, flying through Turkey. It won’t be easy, but we’ve survived 62 years of war; I’m sure we have the strength for three to four years of peace negotiations.

Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli,is the founder of the political and economic analysis company MEEPAS.

 

WILLIAM QUANDT

It’s important for Israel to have some regional partners in the predominantly Muslim Middle East to legitimize the notion that peace with Israel is okay. It’s a mistake for Israel to treat Turkey as a newly Islamist country. With eight to nine percent economic growth and expanding ties with its neighbors, Turkey has increasingly become a regional power, offering a significant alternative and probably a long-term strategic rival to Iran. The Mavi Marmara [flotilla] incident was a bigger deal than it needed to be; Israel went out of its way to insult the Turkish ambassador in Jerusalem, and it needs to find a way to undo some damage, even if it means apologizing for the flotilla affair and offering compensation to the families. Turks are angry, particularly at the Netanyahu administration, but they don’t call Israel’s existence into question. Israel must take Turkey seriously—it’ll be around for the long term. You never know when it’s going to come in handy. One day Israel might want to pass a message to Iran or Hezbollah or Hamas through a trusted friend. Right now, Israel doesn’t have that, even through the United States. One thing Israel can do to bring Turkey back into a constructive role, to reduce Iran’s sway in the region and to curb Hezbollah’s clout would be to make a concerted effort to get an Israeli-Syrian peace deal going, assuming circumstances in Syria make that possible. Syria wants Turkey to mediate. The deal is 90 percent done—they just have to go back to the 2000 negotiations and reopen that chapter. Most of it is in writing. But Israel will need to swallow hard and give up the Golan Heights.

William Quandt served on the National Security Council under Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter and is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia.

 

RASHID KHALIDI

The fact that there are democratic movements in Tunisia and Egypt and a dozen other countries should be a great relief to Israelis. I think that if Israel is going to normalize its relations in the region, it’s going to have to do so with governments that are representative of their people. The dictators were toadies in that they were much more responsive to U.S. desires. Israel is going to have to recognize that its policies are reprehensible to most Arabs—not its existence, but its policies. Normalizing with an occupying, ruling power is not acceptable to Arab people. Peace is going to have to be just, which means that Israel must lift the siege of Gaza, dismantle the occupation, which has gotten more comprehensive every year, and unwind the settlements. Otherwise, they can’t even begin talking to the Arabs.

Israel should not just do these things because of changes in the Middle East, but because it is a pariah otherwise. It’s a matter of justice and international law. Preventing weapons from getting into Gaza is one thing, but controlling everything is unacceptable. Israel has gotten away with this simply because of the weakness of the Arab world. I don’t know if this will change, but public opinion will definitely play a greater role.

Rashid Khalidi is Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University.

SHOSHANA BRYEN

Israel’s first priority is the safety and security of the people who live inside its borders, including the borders that aren’t fixed. In the short term, it needs to be prepared to make Gaza pay for attacks, and it’s doing that effectively. The deal at the end of Operation Cast Lead was “quiet for quiet,” and Hamas lived with that. The revolution in Egypt made Hamas consider whether it could be bolder, so it fired rockets. Israel retaliated, and that’s good. It convinced Hamas that there’s no free shot at Israel.

In the long term, Israel has to hold out the possibility that there is something better than “quiet for quiet,” which is not a long-term solution. At no point, unfortunately, has Israel been close to a serious deal with the Palestinians. People who think they were close in 2000 and want to revive that deal were wrong then and are sleepwalking now. The Palestinians can’t take a deal. Their leaders can’t turn to a million-plus refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt and say, “You’ve been living in refugee camps for 62 years, expecting that one day you could go back to your homes. Well, guess what? You can’t. I gave away your home and decided that Israel is a legitimate country.” They can’t do it and the United States shouldn’t expect them to.

Palestinians also can’t be ahead of their patrons in negotiations. They need other countries for financial and political support, so they can’t say, “We have decided, despite Saudi Arabia’s position, that we will compromise on Jerusalem and recognize Israel.” Finally, with whom does Israel make the deal? How can Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas], who rules two-thirds of his territory and half of his people, make a deal that includes Gaza? Does Israel cut a deal with him and hope he’ll sell it to Hamas? I’m not opposed to a Palestinian state in principle, but it has to be one that doesn’t threaten Israel, and you’re not going to get it from current Palestinian leaders.

Shoshana Bryen is senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.


DAVID MAKOVSKY

We cannot be in a situation in which Israel says, “When it’s quiet, there’s no need to compromise, and when there’s violence, there’s no room to compromise.” Israel needs to cross a historic threshold and tell the Palestinians that it wants them to live in a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel, with mutual recognition. The Palestinians need to explicitly recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people with equal rights for all citizens, and make Palestine a Palestinian state with equal rights for all of its citizens. Otherwise, you slide toward September’s U.N. General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood. Then we risk the situation moving from the diplomatic realm to the streets, and we will pine for the days when diplomats controlled the process.

For me, it’s about trying to get the public in Israel and on the Palestinian side to believe again—they’ve become very jaded since the second Intifada. With the public mobilized, Netanyahu could have a unity government and have the wiggle room he needs to negotiate peace.

If Israel and the Palestinians get into the nitty-gritty of territorial arrangements, there will need to be long-term transitional security arrangements, with Israel playing a key role along the Palestinian borders with Egypt and Jordan, whose futures are in question. Egypt has lots of economic interests in peace, but even assuming it won’t turn 180-degrees and disavow the treaty, there could be major policy shifts—even 90-degree shifts—that could be very significant. In particular, its policy toward Gaza will change. Further, elections in Egypt could lead to a populist bidding process from candidates who want to renegotiate the amount of Egyptian forces in the Sinai agreements. Israel has to be ready and work with the United States to prevent these two developments or come up with a counter-strategy.

David Makovsky is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.


ELLEN LAIPSON

Israeli-Palestinian peace is dead in the water, but Israel still needs to work on its cultural, political and economic relationship with the Palestinians. The burden on Israel is to create conditions that are conducive to Israeli/Palestinian coexistence and eventually formal peace. Palestine has the potential to be part of the new Middle East rather than the old one, and Israel needs to come to terms with that.

I don’t think Jordan’s reliability as part of the old system should be taken for granted. There are societal fissures, the king isn’t as unifying as his father was and Jordan has the same problems as its Arab neighbors: youth, unemployment, lack of representation. I assume Israel is feeling okay about Jordan for now because it is not in full-scale revolt, but it could happen and possibly threaten the stability of Hashemite rule. Then Palestinians would become more prominent there. There’s always been a debate about whether Jordan becoming the Palestinian state is a good solution for Israel or a really scary one, because of the feeling that the Hashemite kingdom is a reliable ally. In the past, it was not the worst-case scenario for Jordan to become a true democratic system; it was thought that Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza could see Jordan as a Palestinian polity. But too much time has passed, and the West Bank and Gaza have developed their own place in the Palestinian psyche. We should dust off the ideas about an eventual confederation of Palestine and Jordan.

Ellen Laipson is president and chief executive officer of the Stimson Center.



MOHAMMAD DARAWSHE


The public mood of the region calls for eliminating authoritarian regimes and the oppression of people’s civil rights. Israel needs to match its regional policies to these notions, specifically in two arenas. First, Israel needs to revise its relationships with its Arab citizens. Many of them are marginalized and affected by the distribution of wealth. To avoid a similar outburst within its Arab community, Israel should take action in advance. In addition to affirming that it is a state for the Jewish people, Israel must affirm that it is a state of its citizens. Tell Arab citizens: “You’re part of the state and part of the national priority.” Issue an immediate invitation to Arab parties to join the government coalition and be a legitimate part of the government for the first time in its history. Equality means economic, social, cultural and political equality.

Second is the Palestinian statehood issue. There will be less tolerance in the Arab world for the continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and a stronger demand to end it. Israel should initiate policies that lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state and be part of the solution. Go beyond the declarative stage and define the borders. The solutions are there—every fifth-grader knows the lines between the two states. We just need a courageous politician to declare them.

Mohammad Darawshe is co-executive director for Israel at The Abraham Fund Initiatives.

 

M.J. ROSENBERG

With Mubarak gone, Jordan shaky, Israel’s friendship with Turkey pretty much over, the stability of the Syrian regime in doubt and Hezbollah running Lebanon, Israel has never been in such a bad strategic position. Achieving a deal with the Palestinians—both Fatah and Hamas—should be Israel’s first priority. It will remove the conflict from the list of Arab grievances against Israel and eliminate Iran’s pretext for threatening it. Despite Oslo, the Rabin-Arafat handshake and supposed sacrifices it made for peace, Israel still retains full control of the West Bank and Gaza. This is an unsustainable situation.

Israel should say it wants to negotiate on the basis of the Arab League [Saudi] Initiative. It is the only one that offers peace and normalization with the entire Arab world, not just Palestinians. Twenty-two countries would normalize relations with Israel in exchange for withdrawal from the 1967 territories. It’s been offered twice, the Arab League ratified it twice and Israel ignored it. Time is not Israel’s friend—it should cut a deal while it can. Until recently, it appeared that time was on Israel’s side, that it could wait the Palestinians out. That is no longer true. The status quo works to the Palestinians’ advantage, not Israel’s.

M.J. Rosenberg is senior foreign policy fellow at Media Matters Action Network.


DANIEL PIPES


The current Middle Eastern upheavals are mercifully not about Israel. Anti-Zionism has been a minor, even negligible, part. I find it remarkable, in fact, how small a part Israel has played. And, in general, Israel benefits by having attention elsewhere. The Israeli government should stay out of the way, as it correctly has.

The current upheaval may prompt Palestinians to conclude that violence doesn’t take them where they want to go, and they might emulate others in the region by shifting away from warfare and terrorism in favor of non-violent political action. That could include massive non-violent demonstrations such as marching on Israeli towns, borders and checkpoints.

Ironically, this shift could be to Israel’s detriment. In some ways, it has benefited from Palestinian violence. That’s in part because violence is ugly and in part because Israelis have proven themselves more capable in the military realm than in the political one. A shift to the political realm could transform the conflict to Israel’s disadvantage. I don’t think the shift creates an opportunity for Israel because the goal remains unchanged: elimination of the Jewish state.

I hope Israelis are preparing to contend with this phenomenon, from gathering intelligence to training troops to deal with demonstrators to responding with smart political arguments. The last point is especially important. In the past, Arab leaders ranted and made preposterous arguments, but now they’re getting better, more rational, more appealing. Their political campaign of delegitimization will likely reach new heights with a General Assembly resolution in September.

Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.


DANIEL LEVY


Israel’s current government thinks it can build the future of Israel on the front line of a Judaeo-Christian struggle against Islam. Right-wing Republicans and Islamophobes from the European right visit, but these are not the people who can secure Israel’s acceptance in the new Middle East. If you want to fight for an independent state in Alaska or Europe, they might be good allies.

The changes in the Arab world have had a lot to do with the deficit of dignity: Socio-economic issues and lack of representative government were central. Palestine is not the issue people wake up and think about from morning to night, but it’s something they’re very aware of. Israel should begin to pursue policies that make as concrete as possible its desire to have a genuinely sovereign and viable Palestinian state alongside it, in which Palestinians really take over the ship. The territorial piece has to be viable, and Israel must get out of the business of controlling the Palestinians or their future state. Although it would entail elements of risk, it’s less risky than maintaining a system of control there.

In addition to tackling the withdrawal from Palestinian territories, Israel has to tackle its own democratic Achilles heel. It has fallen short of offering full participatory opportunities and rights to the non-Jewish minority. This is a huge mistake and will continue to cause Israel problems—ones that are likely to further escalate.

Daniel Levy is senior research fellow and co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation.

RACHEL BRONSON

Right now, the region is boiling, so there will not be a peace plan anytime in the near future. It’s a medium- to long-term prospect. But any final agreement with the Palestinians will incorporate the Saudi peace plan; this is important because it has Arab backing and it’s still on the table. In the negotiations, the Saudis have always said that they won’t stop a peace agreement, though they haven’t been helpful. Instead of goading the Palestinians ahead, they’ve been a weight the Palestinians pull along.

I think the Israelis are nervous about instability in Saudi Arabia because it could lead to increased radicalism, but I don’t think that’s likely to transpire. Right now, the Saudis are primarily focused on what’s going on in Yemen and Bahrain, so their influence on Israeli politics doesn’t come up a lot. But the Israelis are probably watching the slow transition of power. The Saudi succession after King Abdullah goes to the Crown Prince Sultan and then Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, around whom they’ve been consolidating power. They just put out a $96 billion aid package through the Interior Ministry that Nayef oversees, and he’s been in charge of the negotiations in Yemen and the action in Bahrain. That will mean a stable transition, which has two consequences for Israel. Nayef is unsympathetic toward al-Qaida, so that’s good—for Israel, counter-terrorism is the key issue. But he’s comfortable with a much more conservative interpretation of the Koran, which some people think leads to radicalism, so people should be watching the direction in which he takes the kingdom.

Rachel Bronson is vice president of programs at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

 

YORAM PERI

The most important thing is to prevent the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from becoming the common issue for all the countries in the region. To a large degree, that will depend on Israel’s pro-active strategy. It should do two things: One, take a bold, brave step and renew a diplomatic initiative. Call President Abbas and tell him, “Let’s meet, both of us, without declarations, without journalists and cameras, and discuss how we pursue negotiations.” If there is a willingness to cooperate, take the next steps with other participants from there. A peace plan five years from now will never be as good as one today.

The second strategy is to give an answer that has not been given yet to the Arab League Initiative, though it will be harder because of the upheavals. Take some steps to talk to the Arab people—now we have to talk to the people because the Arab street is a player—and show them we want to resolve the conflict.

That said, I don’t think the Palestinians are rushing to show their willingness to make peace, either. If they are successful in getting the U.N. to recognize their state in September, they’ll have world recognition, but nothing on the ground will change. People will be frustrated and start a new Intifada against Israel or a revolt against the Palestinian leadership. So it is in their interests to get an agreement, even if they don’t like Netanyahu and his coalition.

Yoram Peri is director of the Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park.

 

HALEH ESFANDIARI

It is striking that the wave of protests and upheavals experienced by Arab states has focused on internal issues. The mass of protesters has been young and educated, but unemployed. For once, Israel or the Palestinian cause have not been the excuse for public discontent.

In this moment of uncertainty and rapidly moving events, it seems to me that Israel should focus on three objectives. First, it should do nothing to play into the hands of those—including Hamas, Hezbollah and their supporters—who wish to provoke Israel into action in Gaza, which would divert attention away from the problems faced by Arab leaders. Second, Israel should urgently repair its relations with Turkey and reestablish them on a solid footing, as Turkey will certainly emerge as a rare center of stability and order in the region. And third, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ought to accelerate the search for an agreement with the Palestinian Authority rather than postpone it.

Haleh Esfandiari is director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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