Jan 8th 2013

Arabs Can Act for Syria and Palestine — Before it's Too Late

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

During the next few months, the Arab World will have its hands full with problems requiring urgent attention. Chief among them are the ongoing crises in Syria and Palestine, both of which are fast approaching their respective "points of no return". Instead of acting as spectators, enablers, or waiting for the United Nations or the United States to provide solutions, there are practical steps through collective Arab action that might make a real difference.

The continuing tragedy of Syria will be front and center for months to come, with both regime and opposition appearing determined to continue their "dance until death". UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's dire warnings should be heeded. If no political solution is found, the situation will only worsen. With the regime increasingly desperate and brutal, and the opposition better armed but lacking control of some its elements, the future promises only an accelerated casualty rate and a deepening of sectarian animosity.

Brahimi has tabled a plan that proposes a political process that transitions the government away from single party domination. The Russians have been given the responsibility for bringing the regime to the table. Key Arab states should assume the parallel responsibility of pressing the opposition to agree to a peaceful transition. 

To date, opposition leaders have refused to consider any form of negotiations or compromise with the regime. While their anger at, and distrust of, the Assad government is understandable, holding out for a decisive win is neither responsible nor is it a politically sound strategy. Given the reality of a divided Syrian polity, compromise and a transitional approach to change appears to be the wisest path forward.

The solution envisioned by Brahimi won't provide a clear-cut victory for any side, but it will end the blood-letting and pave the way for a political solution that can bring real change and an end to authoritarian rule by the Assad family. Arab states have leverage here since they are funding, arming, and supporting the opposition. Instead of merely enabling more conflict, Arab states should use the leverage they have with their allies in Syria to take the lead in ending the killing and destruction, before the country collapses, fragments, and/or the violence spills across the border destabilizing an already fragile region. 

This will not be easy—compromise never is and success cannot be guaranteed. But it is the least horrible outcome to a terrible two year long war that with time can only get worse and most certainly will not get better. Compromise will require leadership that, at this time, only Arabs can provide.

Another area where the region’s leadership must play an active and supportive role is in the effort to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace. 

The Palestinian situation was near tragic four years ago and has not improved since then. The Palestinian house remains in disarray, with leaderships in the West Bank and Gaza both physically and ideologically divided. Gaza, under the control of Hamas, continues to be strangled by an oppressive embargo. The West Bank itself is being slowly strangled by never-ending settlement growth, hundreds of intrusive and humiliating checkpoints, and an oppressive wall/barrier snaking in and out of Palestinian lands.

The failed paths chosen by Palestine's two leaderships, though contradictory, are both flawed. Hamas has made a religion of “resistance” which has won nothing but death and hardship for Palestinians, insecurity in Israel and reinforcement for hard-line Israeli policies. Meanwhile the Palestinian Authority’s commitment to diplomacy and negotiations, while commendable, has become pointless, since negotiating without leverage (and without control over the constituency for which they are negotiating) becomes an empty exercise.

Meanwhile, the hard-line Israeli government, hell-bent on conquest, continues to act with impunity—expanding settlements and tormenting Palestinians under their control. The far-right in Israel has come to define Israeli politics, while the "peace camp" has floundered. 

If this dynamic remains unchecked, in short order, one of two outcomes may occur: either Israel will complete its plan for the physical domination of the West Bank and the total transformation of Jerusalem—making separation into two states impossible; or there will be renewed violence with devastating consequences for the Palestinian people.

Our recent polling in Israel and among Palestinians both in the occupied lands and refugees in Jordan and Lebanon establishes that peace remains possible. The two publics, though divided on many issues, show important points convergence. What is required is a vision that can move opinion and leadership. These will not come from the U.S. or Israel, and cannot come from the Palestinians. But leading Arab states can provide leadership that could alter the dynamic and change opinion. 

The first priority must be to achieve Palestinian reconciliation, and the establishment of an effective and unified Palestinian government that can command both popular support and the respect of the international community. This will require more than a redux of the Mecca Accords. Up until now, Arab reconciliation efforts have focused exclusively on political matters, with hollow threats of sanctions for the party that interfered with implementation. Instead of threats, the Arab leadership ought to create incentives for acceptance.

Clearly what both the West Bank and Gaza desperately need are job creation, infrastructure and capacity-building projects, as well as immediate relief. The Arabs already participate in international efforts to subsidize the Palestinian Authority budget and individual Arab states finance projects in both Palestinian territories. But these funds given this way merely serve to underwrite the two divided Palestinian leaderships maintaining the unacceptable status quo. To move the reconciliation process forward, I would propose the creation of a massive multi-billion dollar “Peace and Reconciliation Incentive Fund” that would provide immediate relief and job-creating investment once the parties have agreed to and taken steps to implement a unity plan. The bottom line purpose of the fund would be to support the Palestinian people and to create the incentive and pressure for their divided leaderships to agree on a new government which, with Arab backing, is ready and able to make peace. 

In addition, the Arab League, instead of merely reaffirming their 2002 and 2007 peace plan, would do well to enlarge upon it by putting, as it were, “meat on the bone”. They could, for example, spell out in greater detail for Israelis the types of investment and/or trade incentives that would accompany final peace and/or normalization. And they could even create a staged sequencing (for example, with the signing of an Israeli-Palestinian framework, stage one will occur; with removal settlements and checkpoints in compliance with agreement, stage two will occur, etc.). Our polling shows that the Arab Peace Initiative has strong support among Palestinians and has the potential to positively change Israeli opinion. Spelling out, therefore, the benefits and vision that accompany final peace could be of benefit. If Arab leaders were then to "go on the road" selling their plan to world public opinion, it would have a tremendous impact in advancing peace and transforming views of Arabs.

Promoting a peaceful transition in Syria, Palestinian reconciliation, and a comprehensive Middle East peace will not be easy. Demonstrating leadership, making a difference, and changing the trajectory of history, never is.

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