Savir's Corner: The day after

The leaders have to look beyond just pomp, ceremony and rousing speeches, and toward making important realistic decisions.

March 7, 2013 21:34
US President Barack Obama

US President Barack Obama 370 (R). (photo credit: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

With the historic visit of President Barack Obama to Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan at the end of the month, it seems that leaders in our region are thinking along the lines of “life before Obama” and “life after Obama.” One can safely assume that both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas cannot wait for the day the American president returns to Washington.

Both understand too well the clout of the leader of the free world when he comes to “inspect” the region. They know that Obama expects them to voice reasonable and realistic policy proposals which will serve both their own interests and the interests of the United States in order to stabilize the Middle East.

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In other words, to answer the question of how to ignite a necessary and viable peace process and begin direct negotiations. They understand that their traditional sloganeering of “immediate direct negotiations without preconditions” or “renewal of negotiations on the basis of international law and prior negotiations” will not suffice to convince the American guest.

Both local leaders are more obsessed with domestic political considerations of political survival than with strategic considerations about the future of the Middle East and their constituencies. Netanyahu and Abu Mazen (Abbas) seem determined to get away with compelling argumentation rather than presenting policy proposals.

Both are hypnotized by their domestic scene rather than focused on regional and international realities.

Netanyahu has to maneuver among Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi), the right-wing Likud faction and Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and between the need to have dramatic budget cuts and a protesting middle class.

Abu Mazen is maneuvering between the more radical elements in Fatah and the opposing Hamas, between an ailing Palestinian economy and a public opinion ready to rise up, not only against Israel, but also against his own authority.

Both leaders know that Obama will not resolve any of their domestic predicaments, which may just serve as arguments in order to delay difficult and necessary decisions on peace. It is a critical time for the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to think in more strategic terms and to reflect about what Middle East the American president will leave behind when he leaves the region.

The day after the visit, the Middle East will still be at critical crossroads and the visit should serve to steer the region in the right direction, a crossroads between several contrasting realities: • A much needed peace process or a foreseeable process leading to violent confrontations – a war process.

• The status quo is dead. It is buried under the lack of stability, resulting from non conclusive revolutions in the Arab world and a total stalemate in the peace process. In post-Arab Spring countries, liberal pragmatism of young demonstrators are at odds with better-organized Islamic forces which have kidnapped the revolutions for now.

The Islamist political leaders are still directing the dissatisfaction of the poor and the unemployed in their political favor. Yet these new governing Muslim Brotherhood leaders find it very difficult to handle modern economies as they fear globalization. They count on garnering popularity by advocating anti-American and anti-Israeli positions with which they poison the minds of their constituencies. These leaders do not opt for war, but see peace as an Israeli surrender and not an accommodation with the Jewish state. It may very well be that with time more democratic and secular forces will take over, yet in the meantime those who claim to speak in the name of God have the upper hand.

In Israel there is somewhat of a mirror image of strong religious right-wing tendencies of political parties à la Bennett and the settlers. They too preach for a surrender of the other side, mainly of the Palestinians under Israeli rule. They believe that the occupation of the West Bank is redemption, and they deeply mistrust the rest of the world, including the United States. Peace to them is a left-wing conspiracy. They still have a hold on Netanyahu’s views of the world.

The strengthening of Arab and Israeli religious forces risks turning the Arab-Israeli conflict into a dangerous religious one; this process has been amplified by the real fundamentalist jihadists of Tehran, Hezbollah and Hamas, who have the capacity to turn this conflict of religious motivations into a violent flare-up that could deteriorate into a regional ballistic war.

War in the region is still preventable but not by security measures or even military deterrence. War is only preventable by peace. And peace is possible with the one dominant Arab player: the Palestinians. The Palestinians know that the independent state they yearn for will not come into being without an accord with Israel. A viable Israeli-Palestinian peace process would deter most of the Arab world from a violent regional conflict that would prevent the creation of a Palestinian state.

The region is therefore at a crossroads between secularism and fundamentalism, between security and dangerous conflict, between war and peace.

• A process leading to a two-state solution or one resulting in a binational state. Six million Jews and four million Arabs live between the Sea and the River; 20 years from now there will be an Arab majority.

Unless there is a political settlement, this will lead to the end of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state and to the end of Palestine as an eventual Palestinian democracy. It is the nationalists on both sides who advocate such a suicidal venture. Those in Israel who want the Greater Israel will end up with no Jewish state, with an apartheid regime at best, boycotted by the rest of the world. There are Palestinians who threaten us with this prospect, not understanding that with a binational state instead of Palestine, they would get a former Yugoslavia-situation at best.

Therefore the two-state solution is an existential need for both sides and can only be achieved by a viable peace process and a negotiated settlement along the lines of the visions of Bill Clinton and Obama, i.e. with a secure border based on the 1967 lines.

• A major economic crisis or economic development.

In today’s bellicose Middle East, most economies are in crisis and at risk to be isolated from the developed, globalized world. The alternative for all states is to invest in their economies and in people with smaller defense budgets and good economic relations with the world.

The choice is between economic crisis on the verge of collapse and economic growth with social equality. It’s between war economies and peace economies; between social stability and social turmoil; between developing a regional economy given today’s regional interdependencies, or weakening one another’s economies through conflict; between belonging to a transitioning world, or being left behind as pariahs.

• Governments for the people or for the leaders.

The ultimate choice in this situation for the governments and leaders of the region is to decide if they continue to serve narrow ideological and political self-interest, or do they serve their people. Do they serve the young of Tahrir Square, or the radical preachers at Al- Azhar; the young middle class protesters on Rothschild Boulevard, or the radical rabbis of the settler movement; their people suffering from conflict, or their political coalitions thriving on it? Therefore the choice to be made at this point is very much related to the very identity of Arab and Israeli societies – forward to democratization, respect of human rights and socioeconomic equality, or backward to violent conflict, social turmoil and archaic leaderships? On the days before and after the visit of President Obama, the Middle East will be at these critical crossroads with Israel and Palestine at the junction of danger and opportunity. The visit is an opportunity for the regional leaders to make the right choices, much more than for the guest.

The talks with Obama in Jerusalem and Ramallah need to focus on concrete policy proposals that will create concrete plans for the creation of a coalition of pragmatic forces in the Middle East, for peace with a two-state solution, for the defeat of fundamentalism and Iran and for economic development and democracy.

The leaders have to look beyond just pomp, ceremony and rousing speeches, and toward making important realistic decisions. This is what they were elected to do.

It will not all be decided during the Obama visit, but the historic occasion can put the core of the region on the right track.

On the day after, Obama may very well see a region unique in history and culture from the windows of Air Force One, but a region on the path to continuous selfdestruction, sacrificing lives and livelihoods. Or he may see and reflect on a region, an Israel and a Palestine attempting, against all odds, to create a bridge to a better, more peaceful future, with independence and interdependence, seeking normality and security.

The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.

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