A possible fresh start in the Middle East?

A possible agreement with Iran and a possible political shift in Israel could be leveraged to try and reverse the course of the recent negative and destructive developments in the Middle East.

By YOEL GUZANSKY
February 21, 2015 22:45
3 minute read.
MEMBERS OF the palace staff stand in waiting during Saudi Arabia’s King Salman’s meeting with Obama

MEMBERS OF the palace staff stand in waiting during Saudi Arabia’s King Salman’s meeting with US President Barack Obama at Erga Palace in Riyadh in January. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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The changing of the guard in Saudi Arabia, a possible agreement with Iran on its nuclear program and a possible political shift in Israel from a right-center to left-center government could and should be leveraged to try and reverse the course of the recent negative and destructive developments in the Middle East.

The model is the 1991 Madrid Conference which was convened in the wake of the first Iraq war .The US had used the victory achieved by a coalition of the US and some of its international and regional allies to bring together its Arab allies, Israel and others to launch negotiations with the Palestinians (a move which facilitated the Oslo negotiations and accords) and create five different working groups which dealt with the regional economic ,water, environment, refugees and arms control issues. The assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, the 1996 Israeli elections which first brought Benjamin Netanyahu to power and the deterioration of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian put an end to the Madrid process.

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There could now be an opportunity for initiation of a similar process. The threat of Islamic State (IS) to moderate regimes in the Middle East and to states in Europe made it possible for the US to galvanize another coalition with the objective of “degrading and destroying” IS. There have been some initial successes but a lot more will have to be invested over a long period to uproot the causes that enabled IS to gain ground in the heart of the Middle East and win the hearts and minds of thousands of European youngsters. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not the reason for IS’s creation or success, but progress toward its solution would add to the sense of regional stability. But currently relations between the two sides have deteriorated and there are no prospects for a resumption of a political process.

THE RESULTS of the March 17 elections in Israel could reverse this impasse. A coalition government in which the Zionist Union, the new incarnation of the Labor Party, is a key partner, could take steps to revive a political process with the Palestinians. It could indicate that it would be willing to include an adjusted Arab Peace Initiative based on the 2002 initiative proposed by then-king of Saudi Arabia Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, as part of the long-term solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. If such a government is emerging in Israel it should re-establish a dialogue with the current US administration. The renewed dialogue between the two governments should include not just the resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but the ramifications of the results of the negotiations with Iran, successful or not, and the ways and means to combat IS.

Willingness by the new Israeli government to view the Arab Initiative in a positive light, in addition to other measures it could take, on the issue of settlements for example, would give the US administration tools for a new strategy incorporating Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Each of these has its own interest in playing a role in such an initiative. The US should take the lead in conceptualizing this strategy and shaping the diplomatic moves that have to be taken both versus potential participants and those countries like Iran which will not participate but should be kept abreast of the proceedings so as to prevent them from trying to foil the effort.

The emergence of a new leadership in Saudi Arabia may bring with it a more dynamic regional policy.



The same could be said about Israel. In the latter case, an agreement with Iran may release the next Israeli government from the pressures and tensions with the US administration and make it possible for the two governments to reach an understanding on how to proceed with the Palestinian issue, a prerequisite for all Arab states for a regional initiative.

All of which leads to some optimism that 2015 may bring with it some positive developments.

Oded Earn, former Israeli ambassador to the EU and to Jordan, and head of Israel’s negotiating team with the Palestinians (1999-2000). He is a Senior researcher at INSS. Yoel Guzansky, Senior researcher at the INSS and former official at the NSC, the prime minister’s office.

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