|Alon Ben-Meir | Journalist and Author||United States|
Perhaps more than anything else, the fortieth anniversary of the 1967 Six Days War has shown a spotlight on the present crisis of leadership in the Middle East. Israel is now being led by a government paralyzed by self-inflicted wounds, a government that lost its compass in the wake of the war with Hezbollah along with the courage to risk seizing the initiative and taking real steps toward peace. Meanwhile, the Palestinians continue to pay dearly for their delusional and inapt leaders, who have missed every opportunity to give them any hope for the future.
It is true that some important and positive developments have occurred since 1967: Israel signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan in 1979 and in 1995 respectively. The Arab League adopted a resolution in March 2002 and reintroduced it in March 2007, offering Israel a comprehensive and normal peace in exchange for the territories captured in 1967. The Initiative is in stark contrast to the resolution the League adopted more than 30 years ago in Khartoum, which is known for its three No’s: no recognition, no negotiation, and no peace. And today, however, a majority of Israelis and Palestinians accept the principle of a two-state solution. Despite these moves forward, the ongoing violent conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and the existence of a state of war between Israel and Syria have substantially hurt Arab-Israeli relations. The continuing occupation has strengthened Islamic radicalism throughout the Middle East, and the Iraq war has vastly increased anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiments all across the Arab world. Given the disarray and bloody infighting among Palestinians, and Israel’s internal political frenzy coupled with the absence of any national consensus about the nature of peace, the political and security environments are rapidly deteriorating to newly dangerous levels. The extremists on both sides, although they are in the minority and pursue different means, are gaining in strength. Taking advantage of the present situation, they have usurped the political agenda and through their actions and single-mindedness are pushing the majority toward the precipice.
Forty years after the Six Day’s War, it seems, now more than ever, that the sanest questions to ask are: What are Israelis and Arabs, especially the Palestinians, waiting for? How, and by what measures, can any party improve its position, given more time? Forty years of occupation have given Israel no added security and no recipe for a lasting peace. Forty years of blind resistance has consumed the Palestinian community from within and is destroying the last vestiges of a civil society.
A comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace is still possible, but how much more destruction must both sides endure before they recognize this bittersweet truth? Although Palestinian factionalism and violent internal rivalries are to a large degree preventing Israel from undertaking open-ended negotiations with the Palestinians, the Israeli leadership must somehow rouse itself from its “deep sleep” and find the resolve to develop a coherent strategy to deal with the Palestinian conflict. At the same time Israel needs to move more forcefully on the Syrian front and seriously explore the possibility for peace. Israel must not reject Syria’s call for peace negotiations without testing Damascus’ real intentions. Not do so would be nothing less than a continuation of the failed policies that led to the last summer’s war. It is obvious that hewing to these policies will only result in future wars that will exact a far greater toll. It is not that Syria can instigate wars at will without serious risks to itself; it is that the growing forces of Islamic radicalism, terrorists, and Jihadi movements will create conditions beyond anyone’s power to control, including Syria’s. Because the stakes are so high, Syria must demonstrate that its call for peace is genuine.
A breakthrough with Syria will isolate extremist Palestinians such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad and strengthen the moderate camp. As Israel negotiates with Syria, it must do everything in its power to encourage Palestinian moderates by taking some unilateral actions on the ground to ease the lives of ordinary Palestinians. Measures that Israel can enact without major risk to its national security concerns may include the much-spoken about release of prisoners as well as allowing for the freer movement of people and goods. In addition, Israel should reward non-violent communities with economic incentives, signal an end to settlement expansion, and channel tens of millions of Palestinian tax dollars to moderate Palestinians. Most importantly, the Israelis should not wait for the Palestinians to get their act together. Israel must abandon its tit-for-tat policy and pursue a strategy that will eventually lead to ending the conflict. Meanwhile, the Arab states, having just reintroduced the Initiative for a comprehensive peace, have to remain relentless in pursuing a peace agenda. They must demonstrate the capacity and the political will to deal with extremist elements that undermine the Arab collective will.
John F. Kennedy once observed, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” The last forty years have been long enough and painful enough to suggest that forty years from now the requirements for peace will not significantly change. But the price of peace, as shown in the effect of delay on human lives and resources, will be monumentally higher. Will the current Arab and Israeli leaders gather up their courage and take heed or by their inaction usher in another forty years of deadly delusions?
A noted journalist and author, Dr. Ben-Meir is the Middle East Director of the World Policy Institute at The New School, and a professor of international relations and Middle Eastern studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University and at The New School. Born in Baghdad and currently residing in New York City, he holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University.