We need a Middle East grand design

Instead of current erroneous thinking on Middle East conflicts, selective learning from history is needed.

Olmert Abbas 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Olmert Abbas 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Current thinking on Middle East conflicts, in Israel, the US and other countries, suffers from serious fallacies leading to nowhere. Particularly pernicious are four widely accepted but wrong assumptions: One: Agreements between Israel and the Palestinians and between Israel and Syria based more or less on the 1967 borders will result in stable peace. This is very unlikely unless the Middle East as a whole is stabilized. Two: Radical and in part fanatic actors, such as Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran, can be convinced by diplomacy and economic incentives to change their nature. This view lacks understanding of the nature of these actors and ignores the necessity to combine peaceful efforts to transform them with credible threats of violence and, if this is not enough, forceful measures. Three: Democratization is the way to make the Middle East peaceful and prosperous. This opinion is incorrect both normatively and realpolitically. There is no moral justification for ideological neo-colonialism trying to push Islamic countries towards a Western-based regime. And it is wrong realpolitically in ignoring the obvious fact that in the foreseeable future mass opinion in most Arab countries opposes peace with Israel, in contrast to strong leaders, many of whom and are less blinded by emotions. Four: The view held by a large number of Israelis and Jews in other countries, though they become increasingly a minority, that Israel can continue for long to keep most of the occupied territories and exclusive sovereignty over Jerusalem. This view suffers from ignoring long-term realities, being based instead on quasi-mystical postulates, while also suffering from moral inadequacies. Instead, selective learning from history is needed. From September 1814 to June 1815, the Congress of Vienna, orchestrated by Metternich, restored the order of Europe following the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. Decried for many years by historians as reactionary, it is today recognized, in line with the doctoral thesis of Henry Kissinger, as having stabilized Europe and thus enabling relatively stable social, political and economic progress, until disrupted by World War I and the mistakes of the Versailles peace treaties. A main lesson from that and other episodes is that massive interventions with historic processes are needed to change their trajectory for the better, piecemeal improvements being often of no avail. This fully applies to the Middle East. Stable peace between Israel and its main neighbors will be an important component of application of parts of the Congress of Vienna frame of thinking to the region, but is not sustainable unless combined with other critical components. What is needed is a Middle East grand design integrating an overall peace agreement, containing and reversing fanaticism and proliferation of weapons of mass killing, abandoning efforts to push Western-type democratization and encouraging non-violent development and cooperation in assuring domestic and regional stability and security. The Arab Peace Initiative can serve as an initial platform for movement in the proposed direction, though it needs broadening and much revision. For moderate Arab regimes this provides the best chance to prevent revolutionary turmoil with much human suffering and to contain Iran and nuclear proliferation. For Israel, having peace treaties with a Palestinian state and Syria in combination with normal relations with most Arab and Islamic countries within the context of a Middle East agreement is worth the costs of withdrawing from nearly all the occupied territories and reaching a compromise on Jerusalem. But such payment for peace with the Palestinians and Syria alone is not a good deal, as such agreements are likely to collapse without overall Middle Eastern stability guaranteed by mutual cooperation and big power support. Also, the difficult refugee problem can only be solved within a Middle East settlement with quotas to be accepted by all countries according to an agreed formula, without any allocation of blame. Over-expectation should be avoided. There will be ups and downs. Graduated force will have to be used against groups and countries refusing to join the Middle East agreement. And some strong measures to assure domestic security may be necessary. But these are the least of all the evils sure to come unless the Middle East as a whole is stabilized for a generation or two, so as to permit evolutionary processes to take their course. Progressing towards a Middle East agreement requires moving ahead with Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian talks. But progress in bilateral talks should be linked in an agreed road map to normalization of relations between main Arab and Islamic countries and Israel within an overall Middle East agreement. And, instead of working on an isolated Israeli-Palestinian peace vision according to the Annapolis agreement, efforts should be devoted to agreeing on an overall Middle East grand design, serving as a basis for reverse crafting of partial agreements. Moving ahead on the proposed lines will also facilitate stabilization of Iraq and of the Afghanistan-Pakistan-Indian triangle. There, too, piecemeal policies are probably futile, with comprehensive grand policies being instead essential. But the Middle East is ripe for a grand settlement, and should therefore come first, setting a useful pattern for other explosive regions to follow. Advancing a Middle East grand design requires a foundational leader combining realistic visions with practical skills. This is the role awaiting Barack Obama. It behooves Israeli leaders of all main parties, together with Jewish leaders in the US, to cooperate with such leadership, abandon narrow thinking and vigorously support a comprehensive approach which is the only one having a real chance to bring about a peaceful Middle East with a thriving future. The writer is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He served as senior adviser to prime ministers and defense ministers and was a member of the Winograd Committee investigating the Second Lebanon War.