Diplomacy's role

The war and the expected demise of realignment have led to calls for a second "Madrid Conference."

annan olmert 298 gpo (photo credit: GPO)
annan olmert 298 gpo
(photo credit: GPO)
Wars produce a flurry of diplomacy, not just to end them, but in their aftermath. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's admission in the Knesset yesterday that his "realignment" plan "has changed" can be expected to add to the impetus for some diplomatic initiative. Diplomacy, particularly in the Arab-Israeli sphere, abhors a vacuum. The war and the expected demise of realignment have already led to calls for a second "Madrid Conference" and to talk of attempting to negotiate with Syria. In his Knesset appearance, Olmert poured cold water on the latter. Given the fluid situation, Israel is in dire need of a diplomatic strategy, beyond the necessary efforts to ensure that Lebanon implements UN Security Council Resolution 1701, itself a tall order. To start, it is necessary to step back and review where we have come since the original Madrid Conference, held 15 years ago next month. "Our objective must be clear and straightforward," said President George H. W. Bush at the opening of that conference. "It is not simply to end the state of war in the Middle East and replace it with a state of non-belligerency. This is not enough; this would not last. Rather, we seek peace, real peace. And by real peace I mean treaties. Security. Diplomatic relations. Economic relations. Trade. Investment. Cultural exchange. Even tourism.... "Real peace - lasting peace - must be based upon security for all states and peoples, including Israel," he went on. "For too long the Israeli people have lived in fear, surrounded by an unaccepting Arab world. Now is the ideal moment for the Arab world to demonstrate that attitudes have changed, that the Arab world is willing to live in peace with Israel and make allowances for Israel's reasonable security needs." The fall of 1991 was, indeed, an ideal moment. The Berlin Wall had fallen, and the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse. The US had just ejected Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Yasser Arafat's PLO, having backed Saddam, was diplomatically and financially reeling from the loss of support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The US was at the height of its power and a wave of freedom seemed to be sweeping the globe. The Madrid moment, which did produce some fleeting direct talks between Israel and Arab states, demonstrated what should be considered the first rule of diplomacy: Talks do not truly shape the strategic situation, they - at best - support and harvest the fruits of a favorable international landscape. Fifteen years ago, the West stood victorious in World War III, also known as the Cold War between American democracy and Soviet communism. Now we are in the midst of World War IV, the struggle against militant Islamists who are, as President George Bush put it on August 31, "successors to Fascists, to Nazis, to Communists and other totalitarians of the 20th century." In the current struggle, there have been victories, but we can hardly consider ourselves victorious. Since 9/11, three terror-supporting regimes - in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya - have either been removed from power or driven out of the terror and nuclear business. But this campaign, instead of leading to the fall of the largest and most dangerous of the terror regimes - in Iran - seems to have faltered and even emboldened that regime. It is critical - particularly in the wake of a conflict made in Iran and fought by Israel against what was effectively a division of the Iranian army in Lebanon - that diplomacy be placed in its proper context. That context is one of fighting a war that is reaching its critical moment, not attempting to harvest fruits of a victory that has yet to be achieved. This is not to say that diplomacy has no role. On the contrary: Iran is betting that through bluster and intimidation - including by means of terrorist militias in Lebanon, Iraq and Gaza - it can paralyze the West. Yet if diplomacy can deliver draconian economic and diplomatic sanctions on Teheran, the West can still avoid being left with, as author Michael Ledeen put it, "two terrible options: surrender or bomb." How Arab-Israeli diplomacy fits into this picture depends on whether it is designed to pressure Israel into dangerous deals, or the Arab world to prove its readiness to end its jihad against any Jewish state. The assumption of such Arab willingness in 1991 proved tragically premature; to assume the same today borders on the delusional.