The Arab Awakening May Finally Bring Peace to the Middle East
By Ghassan Rubeiz
Israel has been monitoring the storm sweeping the Arab world with anxiety. For decades, the peace with Egypt has been governed by paper agreements rather than grassroots engagement between the two peoples. The overthrow of the Egyptian government and the contagious rebellion have raised Israeli concerns that this dramatic change could spell the end of the Camp David Accords and consequently terminate peace with Egypt.
Israelis are divided about whether now is the best time to make peace with the rest of the Arab world. The sceptics are worried that if the people of Egypt and Jordan unite and throw out their leaders, they could also throw out the peace treaty with Israel. But the pragmatists, on the other hand, argue that since Israel is still in a powerful position – enjoying military superiority and economic prosperity – now is the time to make a deal with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab countries. This latter group reasons that as time passes, the power pendulum may shift and leave Israel with less leverage to make peace on their terms.
Indeed, lasting peace between Israel and the Arab world requires progressive integration of Israel into the region. One of the lessons one may draw from the revolutions is that Israel’s peace with select Middle East countries is much more fragile than a regional peace deal would be.
Israel’s opposition leader, Tzipi Livni, holds this read-the-signs view. In a recent letter to J Street, a US-based advocacy group committed to peacefully ending the Arab-Israeli conflict, she appealed to Israel’s leaders to seize the moment: “Recent momentous events in the region serve to highlight the unsustainable nature of the status quo and the need for initiative and courage in Israel’s pursuit of peace and security with the Palestinians and across the Middle East.”
Livni’s emphasis on the need for Israel to pursue peace with the Palestinians as a step towards regional peace is perceptive: an incomplete peace is not lasting. The 1978 peace accord between then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin ended the warfare between Israel and Egypt but ignored the ongoing occupation of Palestinian and Syrian land. By reaching a deal with the Palestinians, Israel could mitigate a source of great frustration and open the door for peace with the rest of the Arab world.
Beyond demonstrating the unsustainability of the status quo, the sweeping changes in the region could spell renewal for both the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic and intra-Palestinian politics.
Palestinian factionalism has no doubt been an impediment to peace negotiations. Today, there are two Palestinian leaderships, Hamas dominating Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority representing the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Palestinian spilt is also ideological: Hamas is religiously conservative and ambiguous about its political objectives, while the rest of Palestinians mobilise on purely nationalistic grounds and have explicitly accepted the two-state solution.
The new political environment has already forced Palestinian leaders to take positive steps. Feeling the threat of revolt, the Palestinian Authority has already called for parliamentary elections to be held by September.
Moreover, the new leaders in Egypt may have a better chance than Mubarak did to press Hamas to participate in the elections, reunite with the Palestinian Authority and contribute to a probable new round of peace talks. To the young and educated Arab citizens who have been leading these revolutions, Gaza’s traditional leadership will otherwise seem increasingly regressive.
United, the Palestinians could be in a much stronger position to make commitments to Israel’s security and to building an independent modern state of their own. And if Egypt emerges as a leading force in a changing Middle East, it may be able to reintroduce the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API) with much greater impact. Unfairly, the API – which offers full relations between Israel and the Arab world in exchange for withdrawal to the pre-1967 war borders – has been marginalised as an outdated document.
The current dramatic political change in the region must be embraced. There is an opportunity to expand the peace by making it applicable to Palestinians, comforting to Israel and relevant to all Arabs. What may appear as a crisis could be approached as an opportunity.
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.Filed under: Opinion