A Multilateral Peace Initiative Could Work

 By CALME luminary Debra DeLee.  DeLee is the president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now and the former executive director and chair of the Democratic National Committee.

This piece was originally printed in bitterlemons-international.org

One of Ariel Sharon’s favorite metaphors was that of the “chute,” the narrow fenced structure through which ranchers push cattle to the slaughterhouse. The rancher-turned-prime minister frequently used it to refer to what he saw as attempts by the international community to force upon Israel a solution to its conflict with the Palestinians.

This specter of a “forced solution” prompted many among America’s Jewish community to quickly oppose the recently-released Iraq Study Group report.

The report puts the conflict in a regional context by pointing out that resolving it would be instrumental to obtaining other US policy goals in the region. It even goes a step further by stating that “all key issues in the Middle East–the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Iran, the need for political and economic reforms, and extremism and terrorism–are inextricably linked,” adding that unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israel conflict “the United States will not be able to achieve its goals in the Middle East.”

Further, the report suggests a regional approach to resolving the conflict. It asserts that “there must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts,” including holding negotiations under international auspices between Israel and the Palestinians and between Israel and its northern neighbors, Syria and Lebanon.

Critics of the Baker-Hamilton report misrepresent these assertions as an alleged suggestion by the committee that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is responsible for all the ills of the Middle East and that resolving it, therefore, would serve as a panacea for the Middle East’s many troubles. What the report suggests, rather, is that progress toward Arab-Israel peace would bolster America’s efforts to stabilize Iraq, counter the rise of Islamic extremism and fight terrorism.

Isn’t that a matter of common sense? Beyond being an elementary notion, it could also serve as an opportunity. Instead of being viewed as a threat to the governments of Israel and the United States it could be utilized by both, in concert, to serve their fundamental interests in the region.

For the United States, as the ISG report clearly points out, a credible Arab-Israel peace initiative could be used as a paradigm-shift that could significantly serve efforts to pull the Arab world from radicalism toward pragmatism. Real progress could do much to strengthen the credibility of pro-American Arab regimes and counteract the increasing appeal of anti-American and anti-Israeli regimes, militias and terrorist organizations. Positive movement would make it much easier to garner Arab cooperation on key US goals such as stabilizing Iraq and confronting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

This concept is not unique to the Baker-Hamilton commission. It is the prevailing view in America’s foreign service, as recently confirmed by several senior administration officials. “For the Arab moderates and for the Europeans, some sense of progress and momentum on the Arab-Israeli dispute is just a sine qua non for their ability to cooperate actively with the United States on a lot of other things that we care about,” said then State Department Special Counselor Philip Zelikow to a large group of Middle East experts last September.

For Israel, a multilateral approach could be a way to overcome the diplomatic stagnation of the past several years and finally break its isolation in the region.

After having tried bilateralism and unilateralism in striving to change its relationships with its Arab neighbors, Israel is finding that it cannot escape the involvement of regional and international players. Peacekeeping arrangements achieved at the end of last summer’s war in Lebanon were an example of the constructive role that America, Europe and Arab countries can play in stabilizing a volatile situation.

Just as there is recognition in Washington that this is time for a bold move, senior politicians and strategists in Jerusalem have been saying for some time that Israel needs a diplomatic breakthrough. Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, talked earlier this month about a “kind of opportunity” which “should not be missed” to harness the moderate Arab states to a peace initiative that would hasten the implementation of a two-state solution. “Time is not on the side of the moderates on both sides. Time is working against a solution of two nation-states,” Livni recently told Ha’aretz. Defense Minister Amir Peretz was even more outspoken. Even Prime Minister Olmert signaled that he supports this notion.

The US and Israel would not have to start from zero. The tools for launching a peace initiative with support from Arab stakeholders are there for Bush and Olmert to seize. There is the “full-peace-for-full-withdrawal” initiative that the Arab League approved in 2002. There is a European peace plan. There is the Baker-Hamilton idea of a regional conference, similar to the one convened in Madrid in 1991. Jordan and Egypt, the two Arab neighbors that signed peace treaties with Israel, are eager to help. So are Saudi Arabia and, reportedly, other Gulf states. Even Syria says that the bilateral negotiations it is calling for would dovetail into a comprehensive, regional deal.

Obviously, Bush and Olmert are concerned that a grand “regional” initiative may fail. And it may. Skeptics point out that both leaders are weak and therefore risk-averse. They are. But both could reduce the risks through working together, closely cooperating with Arab and European allies and setting up a structure that would entice the Palestinians and the Syrians to negotiate in good faith and to commit to a real peace in exchange for real Israeli territorial concessions. Both could regain power as leaders through such a joint diplomatic campaign, be recognized for making the most significant step possible toward tilting the region away from militancy and leave their mark in history as statesmen who did more than lead their countries to failed wars.

Done correctly, multilateralism is not a recipe for national devastation but rather a path for avoiding a regional disaster.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Israel, Middle East, Middle East Peace, Palestinians, Two State Solution, U.S. Role

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