PostScript: One man’s storm is another’s island

With the Arab world in turmoil, a positive change in the Israeli-Palestinian vector takes on a new significance.

By HIRSH GOODMAN
November 24, 2011 22:08
PA President Abbas with PM Netanyahu

PA President Abbas with PM Netanyahu 311 (R). (photo credit: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

 
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This would be an extremely good time for Binyamin Netanyahu to stop expending his energies on pandering to members of his coalition, and their frenzy of democracy-restricting legislation, and engage the Palestinians in meaningful discussions.

There are good strategic and tactical reasons for this, important for both Israel and the Palestinians. This is not the opinion of the prime minister and others in government who point to how the Arab Spring has gone wrong and the problems this raises. The situation, however, also brings possibilities.

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The Arab world is at war with itself, with the prospects of instability in both Syria and Egypt on the cards for the foreseeable future. In Syria it is now clearly civil war, with whole elements of the military defecting with their weapons and knowledge of the country’s sensitive installations to the anti- Assad rebels.

Bashar Assad and those around him have no exit strategy, and enough loyal troops to fight on; those who want to topple the regime know that even if they wave a white flag the retribution they would face for revolting will be terrible indeed. Everything indicates a long and bloody battle ahead.

The situation in Syria has put Hezbollah on the defensive.

Their link to Iran has been disrupted and the Assad regime, the organization’s principle backer in Lebanon, has disappeared. In the wake of the findings of the UN Hariri assassination investigation that placed Hezbollah in the center of the plot, the organization has been even further on the retreat and its ability to radically alter Middle East realities has been dramatically reduced.

In Egypt, the army stays loyal to the leadership, but massive tensions remain between the hopes of Tahrir Square and the ability of the leadership to deliver at any level.



The country’s stock market has lost half its value; tourism, the biggest income earner, has all but halted; the gas pipeline to Israel and Jordan, another major income earner, has been sabotaged five times; hundreds of thousands of degree-holding students have no jobs and no prospects for one, given that the main employer, the state, is already overburdened with a bloated bureaucracy.

Not only can’t those in power deliver on any of the economic demands being made, but critically they cannot deliver on the open democracy the demonstrators are demanding. The coupling of the two high expectations and the inability to deliver, seems to portend a long period of internal instability in Egypt, and one during which one can assume that dealing with Israel will become an extremely prickly matter. If there was some advance on the Israel-Palestinian track, this could be ameliorated.

With Hezbollah on the defensive and Syria in turmoil, Hamas has to be worried.

True, the lack of central control in Sinai, and the huge weapons caches found in Libya, have helped the Islamist group to smuggle even more arms into Gaza, but these weapons are not going to be its salvation.

Hamas, as we read, is also under increasing pressure from Gaza’s population to make life more livable, to give people a bit of hope on the horizon. They also have their own opposition who are not impervious to what is going on the Arab world around them, or to the demands of the young, the vast majority of Gaza’s population.

Hamas has repeatedly offered Israel a 10-year hudna, or cease-fire. We should take it. If during that period the cease-fire is broken, there will be a war. If the peace is kept, who knows what 10 years of cooperation in one form or another will bring. And, in tandem, because of the turmoil around us, Israel should with dexterity begin to seriously engage the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank in negotiations toward the two-state solution that both parties are committed to.

The PA’s leadership has demonstrated responsibility, made great inroads in civil society and fiscal transparency.

They have been important in thwarting terrorist attacks on Israel. Their economy is growing and the PA saw over a million tourists last year. They have renounced violence and agreed to border changes based on the principle of land swaps, and in one way or another, are about to receive world recognition.

These are people the government of Israel can sit down with and talk reasonably. If Hamas is taken off the agenda and that conundrum unraveled, the chances for conciliation become much higher. How the PA and Hamas want to deal with each other becomes a Palestinian problem and not one for Israel to resolve.

With the Arab world in turmoil, a positive change in the Israeli-Palestinian vector takes on a new significance, a new dimension, something positive against a backdrop of bloodshed and confrontation, despite those who say this is not the time to make concessions.

It is also a time when Israel’s most vociferous opponents are weakened and when the West Bank Palestinian leadership, perhaps for the last time, is seriously prepared for the implementation of a two-state solution. This is a time when the US and its allies are preoccupied in Afghanistan, and when Israel and these countries share common interests in terms of international terror and confronting a nuclear Iran.

This would be a very good time for Israel to take itself off the problems list, and move to take advantage of the propitious strategic realities that have converged.

These now justify a new look at the advantages of reengaging the Palestinians in a way that makes sense for all sides, and offers an island of stability in a region of stormy seas.

The writer is a senior research associate at the Institute for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. His most recent book, The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival, was published by Public Affairs, New York, in the fall.

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