Same conflict, new context: Israel and the Palestinians

Jun 1, 2016 | Israeli Politics, Middle East

The French and Egyptian peace proposals for Israel and the Palestinians are nothing new—but the Middle East is. If the peace initiatives are put in the context of post-Arab Spring regional realignment, there’s actually a chance for success after decades of failure.

France is proposing an international conference to work out a solution based on a state for the Palestinians living next to Israel in peace.

Egypt’s suggestion is less specific. It’s a call on Israel and the Palestinians to make the tough decisions that are needed to move toward peace. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi says the two sides can adopt any of a number of existing frameworks as a starting point.

We’ve been here so many times in the past that it’s tempting just to yawn and move on to the sports page. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to el-Sisi positively, saying he’d welcome peace talks—then wrenched his already hard-line government farther to the rejectionist side by virtually firing his defense minister—no dove himself—and moving to bring in mercurial tough guy Avigdor Lieberman to replace him.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas whined again about Israeli settlement construction, though it is clear to anyone who examines the situation that the settlement issue will be solved in the framework of a final peace map, because there won’t be any settlements in a Palestinian state. Abbas had his chance to sign on to just such a solution in 2008 but rejected it.

So been there, done that. But stifle that yawn—these are new times.

The 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot pact that led to drawing the borders of the modern Middle East has evoked welcome reflection about the changes sweeping the region and the inherent instability of those borders—even if they have lasted for a century. Look at the map. With the exception of Egypt, anywhere you see a straight line, it’s an artificial border that has no relation to the ethnic or religious makeup of the people on either side of it. That’s just an example of a sand castle that is doomed to collapse in the heat of the desert.

We’re seeing that happen before our eyes, though Western governments are still trying to glue the sand castle back together—which is, of course, impossible.

Arab Spring was predicated on the assumption that countries within the 1916 borders could reform themselves into democratic entities that would serve all their various tribes, ethnic groups and religions peacefully and happily. That was an ambitious, idealistic goal, but it was not shared by a critical mass of those people anywhere, with the possible exception of tiny Tunisia. So it failed.

With the collapse of the Arab Spring, traditional forces in the Middle East are asserting their claims. Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds are trying to carve out areas under their exclusive control. Extremist forces like al-Qaida and ISIS are fighting practically everyone else.

Notably on the sidelines are Israel, the Palestinians and Egypt, though Egypt is involved in its own struggle against jihadis associated with ISIS.

The three are exempt for the same reasons: They are mostly homogeneous. Israel is 80 percent Jewish, the Palestinians are about 90 percent Sunni Muslim, and Egypt is about 85 percent Sunni. Also, the Sykes-Picot borders worked for Egypt because its society predated the map by 6,000 years, while Israeli and Palestinian borders could work because they were not drawn by Sykes and Picot. They resulted from a 1947 UN partition and a series of wars.

The main problem is that the borders between Israel and the Palestinians are not formal. They are based on a 1949 cease-fire line that is not recognized by Israel as a border—and the troublesome settlements are the result. Clearly the borders are only one of the issues confronting the two sides—security and refugees are just as important, and the refugee issue is the one that has torpedoed previous peace efforts.

Now there’s a chance to break that mold, too—but it will require a rebooting of the world’s attitude toward the region as a whole.

One day the Middle East will look very different from the above map. The lines in the sand may remain for some time, even decades, but they will fade into insignificance as the forces in the region redraw the actual map on the ground. The Shiites will have their area, the Sunnis will control their regions, Kurds will form an entity crossing several current borders. There will be pockets of extremists exporting violence until the people themselves (not the West) decide they’ve had enough and silence them. “We can’t want it more than they do,” said a US official after an American soldier was killed recently while defending a front-line position already evacuated by the Iraqi army.

Then one fine day, when they are all fought out, the above factions and forces will convene their representatives, with or without the West and Russia, and everyone will hammer out a new map they can all live with. Not love, not embrace, not celebrate, but live with.

Olmert's Peace PlanIsrael and the Palestinians must be part of this process. Drawing a fixed border according to the concept of territorial realignment is almost a gimme, since the line is already clear, and everyone knows what it is—Israel offered this in 2008:

It gives all of the Gaza Strip and nearly all of the West Bank to the Palestinians with some territorial exchanges and, crucially, a land link between the two Palestinian territories through Israel—something that has never existed before. It’s more or less the same map that’s been around since 2000, the first time Israel put it on the table.

Under the new regional arrangement, ideally backed by world powers, a form of this border would be imposed on the two sides. If all this is part of a regional realignment, Palestinian whining and Israeli foot-dragging would be of little significance.

In this framework of new borders, Israel could claim the strategically vital Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967. With the realignment, Israel has as valid a claim to the Golan as others do to their territories, since the Golan Heights threaten Israel’s security but are not important to whatever replaces Syria.

It’s not peace, but an internationally recognized border is a major step toward stability. It bypasses pesky but less relevant issues like refugees—a pawn in the hands of generations of Palestinian rejectionists—and Israel’s demanding recognition as a Jewish state, a matter that is actually up to Israel alone to assert.

This progress by stages would apply to the whole region. Peace is a goal for the distant future. Under current circumstances, all anyone can really aim for is a proper realignment and resulting stability.

Do either France or Egypt see the Israel-Palestinian conflict in those terms? No. Or not yet. But they appear to be slowly weaning themselves away from the decades-old canard that resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict is the key to peace in the Middle East. The above scenario shows it’s the opposite: Once the rest of the region realigns itself, the Israel-Palestinian situation can be resolved in that framework.

Unfortunately for the people on the ground here, nothing positive will happen until then, and that means the violence and hostility are likely to drag on. The old bilateral “peace process” reached its logical conclusion twice, in 2000 and 2008, when Israel offered the Palestinians a viable state, but the process did not bring peace. There is no point in reviving it yet again, just to invite the same result.

The main lesson of the collapse of Arab Spring is that the Mideast must be treated as a region, not as a collection of individual nations. That concept must include finally defusing the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

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