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No substitute for Oslo and the ‘new Middle East’ – opinion

For a moment, I felt that the voice of the late president Shimon Peres was coming from the mouth of Netanyahu.

Published in the Jerusalem Post.

The agreement to normalize relations between Israel and Sudan – another important step adjoining the agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – fuels the debate over whether a “new Middle East” is emerging before our eyes. Indeed, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu first announced the agreement with the UAE, he spared no superlatives: “historic,” “a breakthrough for peace in the Middle East,” “a horizon of opportunity and hope for the region.”

For a moment, I felt that the voice of the late president Shimon Peres was coming from the mouth of Netanyahu. The Israeli media that enthusiastically reported on the event even resuscitated Peres’s concept of “the new Middle East” as a headline for their broadcasts.

Unfortunately, Peres, the fourth anniversary of whose death was recently commemorated, cannot see that the vision he formulated for Israel is alive and kicking and has survived the condemnation and eulogies it garnered over the years. Moreover, the positive developments that have taken place in the region – from the Arab Peace Initiative to the normalization agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan – rely in one way or another on the Oslo Accords and the historic mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO. Accordingly, in order to secure this historic breakthrough, starting with the agreement with UAE, Netanyahu had to re-recognize the two-state solution and break his election promise to annex territories in the West Bank. No wonder key members of the ideological Right attacked him with such a strong sense of betrayal. In that sense, the agreements prove that the principle of “annexation and peace” is an oxymoron.

So, what is it about Oslo that no one can escape? The answer is simple: There is no other way to peace. The essence of Oslo is the division of the land and mutual national recognition between Israel and the Palestinians. This is the only way to preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, to fortify its existence in the region, to enable sustainable reconciliation with the Arab world and to lay a necessary cornerstone in the long, and often frustrating, journey to a new Middle East.

THIS IS the heart of Peres’s doctrine, for which he endured endless scorn. His critics were adept at finding deficiencies in his vision, but never presented a viable alternative. In his 1993 book, The New Middle East, Peres details the strategic goal: Resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; establish bilateral peace agreements with Arab neighbors; at the same time, establish regional cooperation; and promote modernization efforts that will change the face of the Middle East while enabling Israel to become a legitimate partner in the region.

In Peres’s view, peace is an essential component of Israel’s security concept. He believed that over time, no culture can deny the forces of the modern economy, globalization, the international media and the Internet. Even a reluctant and violent Middle East will ultimately capitulate to these forces. Slowly, the acknowledgment that only regional mobilization will make it possible to combat regional dangers and make the most of regional opportunities will prevail.

When the “Arab Spring” was crushed, Peres did not see it as a justification for sinking into despair. On the contrary, he believed the young Arab generation had proven its desire for change. The dissent will continue to bubble and the storm will erupt again and again. Change – even if it is delayed – will surely come and must be encouraged. Peres knew full well that the road to the new Middle East would be long, trying, and full of bumps and setbacks. But the journey, no matter how difficult and demanding, must be embarked upon.

The agreements to normalize relations with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan may prove to be a significant milestone on the long road toward realizing the vision of the new Middle East. Will the Israeli government rely on the agreements to perpetuate the occupation, or will it leverage the achievement to advance a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians?

If he was still with us, Peres would be the first to congratulate Netanyahu on the peace agreements. But in the same breath he would warn: We must not delude ourselves. The division of the land between us and the Palestinians continues to be the indispensable condition for both peace and a new Middle East.