The energies that went into restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations will be dwarfed by those needed to bring the talks to fruition. Israel is entering this new round of negotiations at a time when the Middle East is especially turbulent and dangerous. Which core strategic considerations should guide the Israeli negotiators in light of this reality?
In such a chaotic environment, the instinctive default option is to do nothing. The claim is that this is no time for risk taking, and that it is better to “wait until the dust settles.” Unfortunately, the regional dust is unlikely to settle anytime soon, so the Israeli leadership will have to make difficult decisions despite the inherent uncertainty.
The better we understand that time is not on Israel’s side, the more urgent these decisions become. If the talks fail, Israel will miss what may be the last opportunity to reach a two-state solution. It will also forfeit the negotiating advantage it enjoys now, which will only weaken with time.
Israel’s immediate security challenges dominate its leadership’s attention and thus obscure the deep trends that reflect the reality that time is working against the Jewish state. Along with the long-recognized and complex characteristics of the geopolitical arena, new trends have emerged which draw their momentum from the various iterations of the so-called Arab Spring: the American withdrawal from Iraq, the economic crisis in the United States and Europe, and the continuing rise of Asia’s international influence. In addition to these, one highly significant development threatens Israel’s basic interests – the increasing reluctance of the United States to be present and involved in the region. Although the geopolitical picture is replete with risks, an energetic effort by Israel to reach an agreement with the Palestinians could actually yield positive strategic change.
Some of the dangers Israel faces are “hiding” behind tumultuous events that seem to signal, for some, an improvement in Israel’s strategic position. The Arab states are so preoccupied with troublesome internal political, social, and economic problems threatening their stability; their embarking on a conventional war with Israel seems an unlikely scenario. The Syrian army is busy with a civil war; the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis is threatened; Hamas has lost its base of support in Syria and, following the military ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government, the sympathy of Egypt; Hezbollah’s standing has diminished as a result of its support for Assad; and the Arab world as a whole is preoccupied with internal Sunni-Shiite conflict. At the same time, the peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt remain in place, relations with Turkey are no longer at a low ebb, Israel’s development of gas fields that will turn it into an energy exporter continues, and Obama’s March 2013 visit signaled America’s unequivocal support for Israel.
Encouraging as these facts may be, they do not stifle other underlying, negative trends or alter the reality that Israel is located at the heart of a violent and unstable region, which presents it with grave risks:
Security deterioration in the form of possible flare-ups on Israel’s borders (Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Gaza); terror attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets overseas; missile attacks against population centers; the use of chemical weapons and, in an extreme case, a comprehensive war in which Israel is forced into simultaneous conflagrations on a number of fronts, including its home front.
Damage to Israel’s diplomatic standing arising from the possible perception that Israel is prolonging the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the erosion of U.S. stature, the rising strength of political Islam, and a weakening of Israel’s strategic axes with Cairo and Ankara.
Economic damage resulting from security deterioration, diplomatic pressure or, as part of the de-legitimization campaign against Israel, the imposition of boycotts and sanctions against Israeli public figures, products, tourism, investment, etc.
Damage to U.S.-Israeli relations might occur in the wake of a possible Israeli attack on Iran against U.S. wishes, or as a result of American support for an agreement with Iran that is unacceptable to Israel, or if Israel fails to live up to Washington’s expectations of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track. All these are likely to strengthen existing (though at this stage far from dominant) trends in the United States in which Israel is perceived as harming American national interests and the cost of friendship with it is seen as steadily rising. Those in the United States holding this position warn that their country could be dragged into another Middle East war against its will, that its image and credibility in the Muslim world is being damaged, that it is being pushed into isolation in international forums, and that it is incurring corrosive criticism because of its support for Israel. From the Israeli perspective, it is hard to overstate the strategic importance of America’s friendship.
Thus, Israel would be significantly affected not only by a qualitative change in its relations with Washington, but also by a decline in U.S. global standing. The American dominance of the post-Cold War era has given way to a “world disorder” that has yet to consolidate into a stable, functioning system. Along with the rise of Asia and geopolitical challenges posed by Moscow, U.S. power and international standing continue to be threatened. North Korea’s continuous provocations, Iran’s persistence in advancing its nuclear project, and the terrible bloodshed in Syria, which includes the use of chemical weapons, strengthen an emerging image of the United States as a power focused inward on serious domestic problems, one that prefers to lead from behind and to act – if at all – from within multi-national frameworks. A vicious irony of timing is evident yet again: just when the stabilizing influence of a global superpower is desperately needed in a critical region undergoing political turmoil, America’s waning appetite for involvement in the Middle East is unmistakable.
The overthrow of the Middle East’s autocratic rulers has not brought liberal democratic governance in its wake. On the contrary, the regional earthquake cleared a path for the rise of political Islam, whose performance at the helm of power – as seen over the past year – has brought disappointment and disillusionment, culminating, in Egypt, with a military coup. Central governments in the region are weakening with potentially grave strategic consequences. Iraq, Egypt, and Syria are experiencing their own versions of internal political strife, and Jordan’s fate remains unclear– all this while Iran continues to develop nuclear capabilities.
Even though the tremors in the Arab world are likely to continue for years, we can already make a number of observations that should inform Israeli strategic thinking. First, political Islam is now a significant force in the regional arena. Second, the power of the “Arab street” has grown considerably. Third, the regional economic crisis is worsening. Fourth, ethnic and religious differences have erupted; central governments have weakened as terrorist organizations and sectarian militias have strengthened. Fifth, Israel’s traditional strategic anchors–its relations with Egypt and Turkey – have been compromised. And sixth, there is a growing perception in the region that Israel’s ally, the United States, is in a process of decline and of abandoning the Middle East.
While the current geopolitical picture indeed reduces the military threats that other states pose to Israel (except, of course, Iran), it strengthens non-state actors hostile to it, making the Jewish state’s operating environment even more sensitive and complex. But the regional turmoil cannot obscure a fundamental strategic truth: the inability to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict poses a threat to Israel’s Jewish-democratic character, damages its diplomatic standing, and fuels the de-legitimization campaign being waged against it.
If the negotiations John Kerry has re-launched fail, the Palestinian side can be expected to wage a diplomatic-legal assault against Israel in the international arena to replace the model of “direct talks under U.S. mediation” with a “quasi-imposed solution under multi-national sponsorship.” In order to increase pressure on Israel, the Palestinians may attempt to hand back responsibility for the entire West Bank to Israel in favor of a “one state for two peoples “solution, which would focus the emerging Arab majority west of the Jordan River on claiming equal political rights. These developments severely threaten Israel, not least is the prospect of a third intifada.
The failure by many in Israel to recognize the strategic opportunity the renewal of peace talks offers is a result, among other factors, of the implicit assumption that “time is on Israel’s side.” This assumption is flawed, for the following reasons:
- Continued settlement in the West Bank will make it difficult for any future Israeli government to implement a two-state solution. This means that the passage of time (together with the demographic reality) will increasingly weaken Israel’s ability to maintain its paramount national goal: its existence as a Jewish and democratic state.
- The growing perception of an American decline and its inclination to reduce its profile in the Middle East do not bode well for Israel. U.S. disengagement exacerbates regional instability and damages both Israel’s strategic resilience and its deterrent posture.
- Demographic trends in the United States show the rise of populations without a deep tradition of amity toward the Jewish people and Israel. This, along with intra-Jewish developments, could lead to an erosion of American Jewry’s political influence.
- Perceptions of American decline and the emergence of a multi-polar global order harm Israel as Washington’s dominance over issues that are sensitive to Israel will steadily disappear. For example, as time passes, we can expect that actors less friendly to Israel will seek a share in the management of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
- Changes in the nature of warfare and weaponry do not augur well for Israel. Wars between regular armies gave way to guerilla warfare and terrorism waged in and targeting urban centers.WMD proliferation together with high-precision missile capabilities by terrorists pose increasingly grim challenges. All these suggest that the passage of time will only bring intensified security challenges. These developments require a response that combines the finest military capabilities with the smart use of diplomatic levers and the establishment of regional security alignments.
With most of these developments suggesting that time is working against Israel, we must ask what major move, if taken now, could help stem deterioration and bring positive strategic change in its place.
One day, Israel’s eastern border will be settled. Typically, the argument is over the desired delineation of the border and over other elements that influence Israeli withdrawal to permanent and recognized lines. Less consideration is given to the question of timing: when, from Israel’s perspective, is the optimal moment to reach a two-state solution?Future historians will be better positioned to point to the moment in which Israel enjoyed the best “bargaining position,” when it could receive the best deal in exchange for its territorial control of the West Bank and Gaza. One could argue that Israel is now in the final moments of its optimal bargaining strength, and perhaps has already passed it. Despite difficulties in implementing an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, there is considerable value in reaching one now. An accord that can win international legitimacy and that will reflect the advantages Israel still enjoys in its current bargaining position. In achieving an agreement, Israel will take leave, for its own good, of the temptation to invest and settle in areas beyond the agreed-upon border. This will ensure that Israel retains its Jewish majority. An agreement on a final border (even if returning to it is accomplished gradually), will remove the incentive to establish “facts on the ground” since this is only possible while the territories’ final status remains open.
We must recognize just how weighty this decision is. Every leader has a strong instinct to avoid such a painful decision during his term in office. While the leader who ends the conflict is likely to be remembered in history as the one who brought Israel the peace it has longed for, he will also be remembered by some as the leader who allowed historical lands of the Jewish people, including in the holy city of Jerusalem, to slip away from its control. Such a decision entails intense internal disagreement with an unmistakable potential for violence.
As a result, the decision –to go for an agreement now, or not to – disrupts the human tendency to put off so weighty a decision until “after my term ends.” As we have seen, it is customary in this context to claim that time is, indeed, on our side. This claim advertises a supposed “proof”: that it is actually because we did not rush into setting the final borders that even the Palestinians themselves now accept that we will not return to the 1967 lines, and that the settlement blocs close to those lines will remain under Israeli sovereignty. But this “proof” assumes that, since time has worked to Israel’s advantage so far, it will necessarily continue to do so in the future. The current geopolitical reality described above argues that it will not.
Alternatively, a determined approach to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations aiming at ending the conflict (and taking advantage of the Arab Peace Initiative) has the potential to bring about a positive strategic change in the face of unfolding negative trends. This step has strategic significance because it would provide Israel with permanent internationally recognized borders, ensure its Jewish majority and democratic character, and lay the foundation for settling relations with the Palestinians and, after them, with the rest of the Arab world. Syria’s preoccupation with its internal war reduces its ability to sabotage a settlement.
Ultimately, an Israeli-Palestinian agreement will provide a response, albeit partial, to the new challenges engendered or exacerbated by the “Arab Spring,” among them:
- Helping to remove the Israeli issue from the agenda, of the “Arab Street”, which has become a substantially more important factor in the policy making of Arab governments vis-a-vis Israel.
- Reducing the temptation of Arab countries to solve or deflect attention from internal revolts by initiating a violent conflict with Israel.
- Removing some of the glue that holds the extremist resistance camp in the region together (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and other Islamic terrorist groups).
- Clearing the way for the normalization of Israel’s relations with the entire Arab and Islamic worlds.
- Improving Israel’s ability to strengthen and rebuild strategic axes that have either been damaged (Egypt and Turkey) or are threatened (Jordan).
- Improving Israel’s ability to stabilize the regional strategic alignment against Iran’s hegemonic aspirations.
- “Inoculating” U.S.-Israeli relations by giving the United States a historic achievement as the sponsors of the agreement, boosting its standing in the Middle East, enhancing its ability to achieve its goals in the Arab world, and setting the stage for its continued engagement with the Middle East.
- Improving Israel’s image and diplomatic standing around the world, and significantly stemming the tide of de-legitimization against it.
- Strengthening Israel’s ability to cultivate ties with the rising powers of Asia and South America.
- Upgrading the Israeli economy’s capacity for growth and reaching new markets.
- Helping to manage internal co-existence with Israel’s Arab minority.
But in order for its demands to be seen as legitimate, Israel must accept the principles that for years have been recognized as the basis for an agreement, above all the reliance on the 1967 lines with agreed-upon territorial swaps. The very act of demonstrating such an approach – and all the more, the achievement of the agreement itself – would significantly enhance Israel’s regional and international position and provide it with the most potent strategic lever with which to face the difficult challenges ahead.