WAKE UP, ISRAEL!

by Alon Ben-Meir Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. Web: www.alonben-meir.com 29.05.2009

I am departing from my usual analysis of the Arab-Israeli conflict as I profoundly feel that these are neither ordinary times, nor ordinary circumstances. The challenges and opportunities that Israel faces today will undoubtedly lay the ground for its future coexistence both in the Middle East and as an ally to the West. With new US and Israeli leadership in office comes a renewed prospect to solve the old struggles, and to address once and for all the Palestinian question of statehood. Israel must wake up and heed the call of the international community, rise to the occasion and use the support it has now and its overwhelming power to make the necessary sacrifices for peace. Above all though, Israelis must look introspectively and ask themselves where they want to be in 10, 15 or 20 years from now. Do they want to live in peace with security and prosperity or do they wish to continue the struggle, which is becoming increasingly more threatening if not existential? I believe that Israel is approaching that fateful hour.

Prime Minister Netanyahu's visit to Washington raised many hopes-but then quelled just as many expectations. It appears he was neither ready to deal with the hard choices presented to him by President Obama, nor was he prepared to offer credible alternatives to deal with the simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At this point in the process, coming to Washington to discuss Arab-Israeli peace without acknowledging the two-state solution only hurt Netanyahu's standing with the new American administration. President Obama and Secretary Clinton have made it clear that there will be no peace without a Palestinian state, and there will be no Palestinian state with the continued expansion of the settlements. President Obama's demand that there will be a moratorium on settlement building and expansion is rooted in the simple logic that the settlements not only impede the viability of a Palestinian state, but they rob the Palestinians of any hope that they have a partner in peace who respects their claims to the land. The settlements, furthermore, tell twenty-two Arab states that Israel is not interested in their peace initiative. Continued expansion signals to the United States that Israel does not take seriously American strategic interest and friendship, and it tells the European Union to mind their own affairs. Most importantly, Israel's inability to control its settlers conveys to the majority of Israelis who are yearning for peace that they should expect nothing but more violence and bloodshed for decades to come.

The Obama administration has stressed that a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the top of American national strategic interests, and that the US will provide the utmost security for Israel. Successive American administrations have committed themselves to Israel's national security and President Obama's commitment is as unshakable as any of his predecessors'. The difference today is that the President has inherited a region in turmoil with an alarming rise in Islamic extremism, terrorism and sectarian strife as well as a daunting Iranian nuclear threat capable of destabilizing the region in a fundamental way. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict only feeds into this frenzy, edging ever closer to the precipice. Caring about Israel's national security requires more than supporting Israel's policies and providing it with the military means to defend itself. Support for Israel will not come with a blank check and a blind eye. President Bush offered unmatched cooperation, but he failed miserably to deal effectively with Iran as it threatened Israel existentially time and again. Bush also neglected to pursue a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the majority of his two terms, and thereby undermined Israel's only prospect for peace and real security.

Israel has every right to thwart any potential Iranian nuclear threat, but it must first exhaust every peaceful option with its closest and most trusted ally the United States. President Obama has come to the conclusion that isolating Iran is not making Israel or the US any better off. He offered a direct dialogue with Tehran and established the end of 2009 as the time to determine whether or not Iran is willing to commit to negotiations on its nuclear program, leaving all military options on the table. But he has also committed to finding a solution to the Palestinian problem that has eluded all of his predecessors. The President knows as well as anyone that there is no issue that has helped Iran undermines Israel's national security concerns more than the Palestinian conflict. He appreciates Netanyahu's legitimate concerns about Iran, and thus reasons that dealing more effectively with Iran and weakening its resolve in the Mediterranean would in effect distance Iran's mischief from the Palestinian interests. Netanyahu must do better than dismantling a few illegal outposts, offering a lip service to a President who believes in Israel's destiny and is ready to commit time and treasure to insure it as a safe and thriving state.

Netanyahu is correct when he suggests that Israel and the Arab states share a common Iranian nuclear threat, and it would seem logical to invite the Arab states to join hands in dealing with Tehran's bellicose policies. What Netanyahu fails to understand is that while the Arab states-led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt-are gravely concerned about the Iranian nuclear program, they will not cooperate with Israel as long as the occupation persists and Palestinian plight continues to haunt them. Leaving the Palestinians at this stage to their own devices after sixty-two years of debilitating struggle would challenge the legitimacy of the Arab states' government. The Arab countries do not wish to see Iran in possession of nuclear weapons, but the prospect of provoking en-masse anti-government sentiments throughout the Arab world is deemed considerably worse. From their perspective, continued Israeli occupation has not only displaced the Palestinians but provides a constant reminder of Arab humiliation, and nothing reinforces that more than the building and the expansion of settlements. More so, if they were to see a moratorium on settlements while negotiations began, they are very likely to offer major concessions, such as state visits to Israel or the opening of economic trade talks.

The Arab states came full circle when their League passed the Arab Peace Initiative (first in March 2002 and again in March 2007) that offered Israel a comprehensive peace with all twenty two Arab countries in return for territories captured in 1967 and a fair settlement of the Palestinian problem. Regardless of the imperfections of this resolution (such how to deal with the refugees, which both sides know cannot be solved in their right to return to Israel proper) it represents nothing less than a historical transformation, especially when compared to the 1967 Arab League resolution which proclaimed no peace, no recognition and no negotiations. The Arab Peace Initiative should be a major triumph for Israel; after more than six decades of violent rejection the Arab nations are ready to embrace Israel as a member Middle Eastern state to live with its neighbours in peace and security. Israel must know by now the implication of making real peace with each and every Arab state, something that has eluded it for over sixty years. True, the Israelis have many reasons to be sceptical; decades of enmity and bloodshed have left an indelible mark etched in the memory of countless Israelis who suffered tragic losses. But now the Arab states, perhaps out of the desire for self-preservation, have come to accept the inevitable: Israel is here to stay and they must live with it in peace or continue a fruitless struggle that will only endanger the security of their own regimes.

In one form or another Israel must face the reality of the Palestinian people and commit to finding an equitable solution that can endure long-term. Like several of his predecessors came to understand, Netanyahu must realize that this is not a matter of blame or right versus wrong. No solution will be based on such a judgment. The Palestinians have been dispossessed, just as the Israelis have been denied the right to exist and had to assert their right. No party involved in the Palestinian plight is blameless: the Arab states, Israel and the Palestinians have all contributed to the tragic unfolding of events. Now it is time to put an end to this saga that has dehumanized both the occupied and the occupier. Each Palestinian has an inherent right to his homeland, and no one can understand this better that the Israelis who equally feel that deep attachment to the land of their forefathers. Now that the parameters of two-states have been repeatedly established and accepted by a majority of Israelis and Palestinians-as well as endorsed by the International community and the Arab states-the Israeli government is duty bound to move expeditiously to implement a negotiated agreement. And if Netanyahu's current right-wing coalition is not fit for the task at hand, he still has the option of forming a government with Tzipi Livni's Kadima party on the premise of a two-state solution.

Netanyahu can no longer use the Palestinian disunity or Hamas as an excuse for not negotiating a final status agreement. The Arab states through their Peace Initiative are committed to providing Israel with the security it seeks and can tame Hamas once the territories are evacuated. However legitimate Israel's national security concerns may be, the Israelis cannot live in fear with paralyzed leadership unable to act in the best interest of the country. The process of developing adequate security and confidence building measures will take few years to develop, and Israel will not be required to withdraw its forces from the West Bank before such measures are in place. But then again, Israel under no circumstance will relinquish its national security to any other agent and will remain militarily vigilant to deter any future enemy. That being said, the Israelis must face the inevitable and begin to build trust with their neighbours. But how they can engender trust by building more and more settlements, by impeding Palestinian movements with hundreds of road blocks, by incarcerating thousands of Palestinians, demolishing homes and above all by denying psychologically any future prospect of letting the Palestinians live as they see fit?

Every day, every month or year that passes will only add to the alienation and disdain toward Israel which has become ingrained in the Palestinian psyche. The zealot settlers have wrested the political agenda, and now Israel's leadership has allowed itself to become woefully misguided by a group endangering the very premise of why Israel was created in the first place. Israel was meant to provide a home, a refuge for the Jewish people, not to rule other people against their will. Why have there been no demonstrations in the street by Israelis demanding an end to the occupation? How can Israelis revel in the plenty of today and forget the scarcity endured by multitude of Palestinians? Imagine peace with fifty seven Arab and Muslim states and the renaissance that could usher into the region. Imagine Israel and its neighbours engaged in business, cultural and academic exchanges, imagine the power of Israeli and Arab resources put together and the incredible prospect of reaching a new high never known before between both peoples.

It is time for Israel to wake up; do not allow this historic chance for peace to slip away because of complacency or lack of courage. The US and international communities are offering an unprecedented opportunity that cannot afford to be squandered this time around. America has offered its utmost support and the Arab states are ready to assume their responsibility. If Israel is destined to bring light onto other nations, this is the moment.


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