Time for an Israeli peace initiative

The Arab Spring offers new motivations to rekindle the deadlocked peace process.

Political cartoon (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Political cartoon
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
Almost two decades have passed since the signing of the Oslo Agreements but an end to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is not in the offing. The two sides missed several opportunities to solve the conflict along the way, yet timidity, lack of resolve and fear, on both sides, frustrated various attempts – bilateral and through third parties – to offer a solution.
Many Israelis and Palestinians believe that, despite the current talks between the sides in Amman, the deadlock will continue.
On the Israeli side, the revolutions taking place in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen strengthen the voices calling for not taking risks in a period characterized by instability and change. Moreover, the split of the Palestinian territories into two entities – one ruled by Fatah and the other by Hamas – seems to preclude the possibility of engaging with a legitimate Palestinian leadership. Yet the recent reconciliation deal between Fatah and Hamas may offer an opportunity to the Israeli government. But the Palestinians see the policy of the Netanyahu-Lieberman government as a deliberate attempt to prevent the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Moreover, the unwillingness to freeze the settlement activity is seen as another indication of Israel’s opposition to the two-state solution.
Is there a way to unlock this seemingly inevitable deadlock?
History attests that major events such as wars, revolutions and regime changes offer opportunities that might serve as a catalyst to hitherto unforeseen solutions. Such was the case after the 1973 Yom Kippur War with Egypt, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the 1991 Gulf War and the consequent Madrid Conference. The current revolutions in the Arab world will undoubtedly be regarded as a major turning point in the history of the Middle East, leading to changes in regional alliances and coalitions.
The fact that the Islamic forces in Egypt (including the Salafi) do not necessarily disavow the peace treaty with Israel and the relative moderation in Hamas’ recent discourse may indicate winds of change.
Such a change offers an opportunity to solve the conflict but, in order to be seized, an attractive offer has to be made by one of the conflicting parties or a third party. Israel, therefore, the stronger party in the conflict, should seize the opportunity and submit an attractive offer to the Palestinians. Such an offer is included in the text of the Israeli Peace Initiative, which was launched in April 2011, by a group of former security leaders, businessmen and academics, as a response to the Arab Peace Initiative, which was launched by the Arab League in March 2002 but has never been accepted by Israel.
An attractive initiative to the Palestinians, which may serve as a basis for a solution, offers several advantages: First, it would extricate Israel from its growing isolation in the international and regional arenas. Second, it would strengthen Fatah and Abbas in their internal struggle for legitimacy and leadership. So far, the school of thought represented by the relatively moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which supports a peaceful dialogue, has not been rewarded for its moderation and has not produced meaningful results for the Palestinians.
In contrast, the other school, represented by Hamas, which supports a continued struggle mainly by violent means, is being regarded as more successful.
Second, the continuation of the political deadlock, in light of the possible repercussions of the Arab revolutions, would likely lead to a Palestinian revolution, not against its own leadership, but against the occupying power. An Israeli initiative would thwart such a possibility.
Third, such an initiative would mitigate the anti-Israeli voices heard in the Arab world. It would serve to pacify Arabs who oppose the policy of the Israeli government, though it would certainly not affect those who are bent on destroying the state of Israel. The possibility that Islamic parties may take over at the end of the revolutionary process should not be interpreted as an inevitable end of the peace process and peace relations.
On the contrary, if the peace treaties remain in force, since they are of paramount importance to the Egyptian and Jordanian states, they would become more legitimate having been endorsed by an elected majority. And, because the Palestinian problem is still a core Arab issue, its solution would undoubtedly create a better atmosphere between Israel and the Arab states.
Is this an overly optimistic scenario? Perhaps. Yet, the situation in certain Arab countries was ripe for a revolution after a process which lasted for several decades; the possibility exists that the time is now ripe for a solution between Israelis and Palestinians. A poll conducted by the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University shows that a majority on both sides supports the two-state solution.
What is needed, therefore, is a strong leadership, bold enough to offer an attractive initiative. Passivity is a recipe for maintaining the status quo; it seems to serve Israel well but, in fact, it would undermine its interests in the long run.
 Prof. Elie Podeh teaches at the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a member of the Israeli Peace Initiative.