Many and varied are the interpretations of what the hurricane blowing through the Arab world means for Israel.
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Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in a speech to the Knesset on February 2, as millions poured into the streets of Egypt and Hosni Mubarak still hung on, said that the basis for this country’s stability and future, and for preserving and extending peace “especially during unsteady times, is by reinforcing the might of the State of Israel.”
In other words, not knowing what may be coming down the pipeline, it is imperative that the country ensure its ability to defend itself against any combination of threats that may emerge from the current chaos. In ensuing days he talked about the need to increase military expenditure, and reiterated the importance of ironclad security arrangements in any future agreement with the Palestinians, including an Israeli presence on the Jordan River.
His reasoning was simple: If Jordan became another Arab domino to fall – perhaps following the fiery Libyan model, rather than the more peaceful Egyptian one – there needed to be an Israeli buffer to ensure that, to quote Jeremiah, “an evil does not break forth upon the inhabitants of the land,” this time from the east, not, as the prophet warned, from the north.
BUT FOR Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, generally considered one of the most critical foreign ministers toward Israel in Europe, this is not the interpretation Israel should be taking from the epochal events swirling around us.
Rather, Bildt’s conclusion – one he shared in an interview during his four day visit here this week – was that rather than talking about “more boots” on the ground, it should be focusing on how to make peace not with Arab rulers, but with the Arab people.
Having just spent two days in Egypt, Bildt said he was “basically optimistic” and didn’t believe the country would change its peace treaty with Israel or its basic strategic orientation.
“The possibility that exists now for Israel is to sort of make peace not only with rulers of Egypt, but with the people of Egypt,” he said. “That will make that front even more secure.”
Acknowledging that making peace with the people is more difficult than signing agreements with leaders, Bildt said that “in the new situation, if the peace is not more solidly anchored, then the boots on the ground are not going to help anyhow.”
Reminded that the Egyptian people have not exactly embraced peace over the last 30 years, and that the media there is rabidly anti-Israel if not downright anti-Semitic, Bildt – somewhat predictably – said it all came back to the Palestinian issue, saying that in the Arab world this was an issue both of substance and symbol.
“If I were sitting in Jerusalem in a position of responsibility,” he said, sitting on the balcony of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel sipping a cup of tea, “I would now find it even more imperative to try to reach out to the Palestinian side of things. First, because of the issue itself. And secondly, if Israel ends up on the wrong side of history in this transformation of the Arab world, it will make things more complicated down the road – there is no question about it. It is difficult to think it will be easier to make a peace agreement five years from now than five months from now.”
Bildt, who spent four days here and in the PA – distinctively deciding to sleep over one night in the Al-Yasmeen Hotel in Nablus – said that one of the striking things he found in post-revolution visits to Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan, “is the absence of Israel in what people are saying.” He said that in two days of intensive discussions in Egypt, Israel was only mentioned when he brought it up.
That being said, he warned, “further down the road, you should be alert
to the fact that the issue of Israel and the Palestinians can be
operationalized by different factors for their own purposes, as we have
seen in the past.
But has it come from the bottom up, from the street? Yet to be seen.”
HIS MESSAGE, and the one being sent by a number of other European
leaders coming through Jerusalem on recent tours to take the temperature
of the region, is that if Israel feared the rise of Islamic radicalism,
one way to combat it was to deny these elements an issue – the
Palestinians – and to take away that topic by solving the conflict.
Asked whether the EU was so obsessed with the conflict that it simply
overlooked for decades the human rights abuses in the Arab world, Bildt
said that “we all have to search our souls on this one,” including
Israel and the Palestinians.
Yasser Arafat, he said, supported Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi
after Libya was bombed by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and Israel was
constantly warning “that the Muslim Brotherhood was everywhere.”
“There are nuances to the picture,” he said.
As to whether the dramatic regional events have not disproved the
argument that the Israeli-Palestinian issue was the core of all the
problems in the region, Bildt responded that he never said this was the
“core problem,” but that it was undoubtedly one of the major issues with
wider significance because it had a “mobilizing influence all over the
Unlike those in Israel who no longer view the conflict as strictly a
territorial one that could simply be solved by ceding land, Bildt
continues to maintain it remains – at its core – primarily a national
territorial conflict, though acknowledging an ideological component “all
related to where we are sitting [Jerusalem].”
“Everything about Jerusalem tends to be ideological,” he said. “The rest
of the conflict is national.” He added that “If it were to explode into
an ideological conflict, then it becomes much more dangerous.”
Bildt also said the sides were tantalizingly close, at one time after
the Annapolis conference in 2007, to reaching an agreement, and that
this was seen in the Palestinian documents released recently by Al
Jazeera, the socalled Palestinian Papers. There was a “fair degree of
consensus” at a solution “broadly acceptable to both sides,” he argued.
When this notion was challenged, and Bildt was reminded that the
Palestinian documents showed many Israelis that the Palestinians did not
accept elements of a future agreement that many here thought were a
given – such as the retention of settlements such as Ma’aleh Adumim –
Bildt said “it is not for the Swedish foreign minister to draw the map.”
“There is no question that individual housing units, or suburbs, or
settlement blocs – call them whatever you want – are going to be
extremely controversial,” he said. “But if you are going to be talking
about the big issue of the national conflict that has been here in the
lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean for x number of
decades, to get that solved is not the question of individual settlement
According to Bildt, 60 percent-70 percent of the populations on both
sides say “draw me a two-state solution, with some sort of division,
some sort of security.” Reminded that Hamas, a rather important player
in the Palestinian polity, was not exactly on board with that position,
Bildt agreed, but then said, “We’ll see.”
It took a long time for the PLO, as well as for Ariel Sharon to come to a
two-state idea, he said. “Netanyahu accepted the two-state solution, at
least he says so. Hamas – it is not for me to judge what they say,
because I have not talked to them. What I read is that their official
position is a long-term truce for a generation or two.
“The politics on the Palestinian side with Hamas is complicated,” he
said. “The politics in Israel – with the settlers and others – is also
complicated. But the message of opinion polls, as I can read it, is that
given political leadership on both sides, it is perfectly doable and
will have support.”
As to how Israel could have any confidence that what happened when it
withdrew from Lebanon and got Hezbollah on its northern border, and left
Gaza and received Hamas in the south, won’t happen if it left the West
Bank, Bildt – representing the view from Stockholm – replied that
“clearly you never have absolute certainty what the future will bring.
You might consider peace to be risky. I would argue that the absence of
peace is even more risky.”