04 March 2007

04 March 2007 – The Saudi plan, and Sapir cont.

A bit of good news to start the day: Israel and Saudi Arabia are discussing the 2002 Saudi peace plan – recognition of Israel by the Arab states, in return for Israel’s withdrawal to the 1967 borders. The plan was approved at the Arab League summit in Beirut in 2002, but rejected by Israel because of an amendment calling for return of the Palestinian refugees and because it did not allow for border adjustments.

Now the Saudi plan is going to be re-introduced at the Arab summit in Riyadh at the end of the month, and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has seized the opportunity to negotiate a better deal. By a seemingly bizarre coincidence, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has just conducted his first visit to Saudi Arabia, and Saudi news sources are reporting that he endorsed the Saudi peace initiative.

The Saudi plan is the work of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, one of the country’s most important diplomats and a long-time advocate of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. (Bandar is reported to have told Yasser Arafat that walking away from the peace deal offered by Israel at Camp David in 2000 was a “crime.”) Is he perhaps the kind of “Machiavellian” peacemaker Sapir Handelman writes about?

It is too early to say—but the Middle East offers good surprises as well as bad, and it is possible that years of deadlock could be broken in the next two weeks. Why not? The Israeli government is looking for a way out of the political doldrums; the Syrians, who have been making noises about peace (and war), want to shore up their regime; and the Saudis and Iranians may be looking for Sunni-Shia détente.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is looking for a way to seal Iraq’s borders to prevent more jihadis from entering the country. It has demanded that Israel cease exploratory talks with Syria, but meanwhile is preparing to sit down with both Syria and Iran to discuss Iraqi security. Political stalemate and military exhaustion are the traditional prerequisites for successful diplomacy—so perhaps there is hope.

But back to Sapir’s ideas. I spent time reading three of his papers this weekend, in which he goes into his theories about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in greater detail. Sapir points out that the two great advances in Middle East diplomacy—the Israeli-Egyptian peace deal and the pullout from Gaza—were achieved by Machiavellian leaders whose self-interested acts achieved good results for all.

Why not include the Oslo peace accords, too, I wondered? Sapir seems to regard the other two steps as more important because of the psychological effect they had on both sides. The disengagement from Gaza, he says, was profound because it showed Israelis that it could evacuate its settlers and the state would still survive, and also that it could afford to take unilateral steps in the event that no peace deal emerged.

The disengagement was also significant, he argues, because it suggested to Palestinians that they had to take steps to establish their independence by building their own institutions. The Oslo process had established Palestinian institutions, but had done so in cooperation with Israel. Now that such cooperation was all but gone, it would be up to the Palestinians to begin to shape their future on their own.

As we know, the Palestinian leadership failed at the first hurdle. The abandoned Israeli settlements have become launching pads for rocket attacks by Palestinian terror groups; the old greenhouses are now used for smuggling weapons instead of planning fruit and vegetables. Amidst a widening civil war, there are no Palestinian leaders emerging that can unify the various factions toward a common goal.

I thought about Arafat as I read Sapir’s papers—surely he was a Machiavellian leader? Perhaps Sapir would agree, but would point out that Arafat was incapable of yoking his own interest to the national interest, save for in the signing of the Oslo accords themselves. At the moment, the Middle East is bereft of leaders that can do what Sadat and Sharon did, unless Prince Bandar emerges as a successor.

Sapir points out that it may be impossible to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and even to manage it in the near term. Paradoxically, however, he notes that because the two sides are so entwined, their relations have the potential to transform from bitter animosity to close partnership. But direct approaches, he argues, have not succeeded in the past and are less likely to succeed now.

Instead, he says, both sides should seek indirect approaches—specifically, by asking “how do we conduct a decent society in times of conflict?” before asking “how do we resolve the conflict itself?” On the Palestinian side, this means building stable democratic institutions that meet the needs of the people; on the Israeli side, this means building an open and robust national identity that can embrace minorities.

The key, Sapir seems to suggest, is that by resolving their internal contradictions, both sides may eventually begin to open up to each other. Israel, for example, may be prepared to make greater concessions if it does not experience Arab identity as an existential threat. And the Palestinians may be better prepared to make peace if their institutions are capable of enforcing and policing its provisions to the letter.

The problem is that both sides are deeply traumatized—both by history and by each other in the present day—which makes any thought about identity difficult, because both sides seek refuge in reductionist or fundamentalist ideas. Still, Sapir says, it’s worth a try, because just about everything else has been tried, and also because focusing on a domestic agenda could help re-invent the rules of the conflict.

I’m not sure where Sapir would like to begin the discussion of Israeli identity. He suggests playfully that the old Diaspora maxim, “a Jew at home and a gentile in the street,” might be a formula for the separation of synagogue in state—though hardly an uncontroversial one. As for Palestinian institutions—could anyone but an outside force build them at this stage—NATO perhaps, or another benign coalition?

Looking over Sapir’s recommendations, it seems there are three possible approaches to peace: direct negotiations between leaders (Oslo, Saudi initiative); direct negotiations between parties in an institutional forum (my suggestion); indirect negotiations through domestic reform (Sapir); and abandonment of negotiations through unilateral withdrawal (Sharon). Perhaps we should explore each in turn.

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