Exclusive Peace Talks Are Easier to Arrange, but Is the Result Durable?

By Ghassan Rubeiz

The ongoing peace talks in the Middle East may bring an agreement. But more is needed – a lasting peace. In 1983, Lebanon signed a peace treaty with Israel under similar pressure-cooker conditions. During the civil war, the Lebanese were divided into two main political camps, one friendly to the West and the other distrustful. The 1983 US mediated agreement lasted only a few weeks.

To succeed, the current Mideast peace talks should include three missing, albeit hard-line stakeholders: Hamas, Syria and Iran. It may sound strange to suggest bringing in Iran, but Tehran’s relevance to peace is justified by its close connection to the Palestine question through Hamas, which it funds, and to Lebanon – with 400,000 Palestinian refugees – through its ally and ideological partner Hizbullah.

Israel’s peace talks with the Palestinian Authority (PA), without Hamas, leave a large segment of the Palestinians without representation. Hamas is a political party; it legitimately won the last national elections and has controlled Gaza since the split with the PA in 2007. Such an omission reduces the credibility of the PA, especially among the 4.5 million Palestinian refugees in the Arab world.

Ironically, Israel’s three-year siege of Gaza continues to benefit the political image of Hamas. Gaza has turned into a large “refugee” camp through sustained and harsh isolation; there is some degree of bonding through suffering between Gazans and the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Despite the counterproductive ways in which Hamas resists the occupation, Hamas offers many Palestinians catharsis. Hamas’s rhetoric communicates inflexibility; nevertheless it is still possible to engage the Damascus and Gaza-based Hamas leaders in peace talks, but only if Syria joins the process.

In fact, excluding Syria from the peace talks is detrimental to any long term agreement because it is perceived by Syrian and other Arabs as an acceptance by the international community of Israel’s occupation and annexation of the Golan Heights. Syria’s desire to exchange land (the Golan) for peace remains strong. Among the Arab states, Syria has the largest number of power chips in the peace game. Damascus hosts Hamas’ political leadership; it is an ally and vital supporter of Hizbullah and Iran has had a strong partnership with Damascus for years.

With Syria excluded from an agreement, Iran would be free to continue pushing many political and strategic buttons to make life difficult for Jerusalem and Washington. Iran supports Hizbullah, the strongest political faction in Lebanon, whose ability to wage asymmetric war against Israel has been strengthened since the 2006 conflagration. It reinforces Hamas’ intransigent stand and cultivates an alliance with Syria. Can peace be achieved when two strategic states in the region, Syria and Iran, are shunned, sanctioned and threatened? How can Washington, aiming for a successful outcome, involve Egypt and Jordan but leave these two players out of the game?

Time is running out for both Palestine and Israel. There is a danger that both Israelis and Arabs opposed to a peaceful resolution in the form of a two-state solution would find effective means to obstruct peace and wait as long as it takes to realize maximalist dreams that would be destructive to both sides

Currently, these actors do not have a stake in a successful process; integrating them into the process increases the chances of a long term resolution to the Israeli-Arab conflict. To motivate Syria, the return of the Golan Heights must be on the agenda in exchange for pressure on the Damascus-based Hamas leadership. To bring in Hamas, the siege of Gaza must be lifted while border security re-arranged to satisfy both Israelis and Palestinians; an overdue Palestinian national election could result in a unity between Fateh and Hamas. When the Arab world, especially Syria, rallies around the peace process, Iran is very likely to soften towards Israel and the West, both regarding “Palestine” and the nuclear issue: Sanctions are already affecting Ahmedinejad’s grip on power; the wider Muslim world would move in the Arab direction and Iran would then feel too isolated to maintain its present position.

Washington needs help in shepherding Mideast peace. The United States must work very closely with Europe to promote and enforce peace while ensuring Israel’s security. Israel has recently joined the OECD and is asking for closer ties with the EU. Brussels and Washington could jointly formulate and publicly re-announce the parameters of a peace product: restoration of 1967 borders – with adjustments for consolidated settlements, a shared Jerusalem, massive human and economic empowerment of refugees, return of the Golan Heights, multinational forces, normalisation with all Arab states and regional cooperation.

If peace is to take place the reconciliation process has to widen as soon as possible to include all major stakeholders. Lasting peace requires an inclusive bargaining table. It would not be easy but it would be lasting.

Dr. Ghassan Rubeiz is an Arab-American commentator on issues of development, peace and justice. He is the former Middle East Secretary of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches.

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