A regional approach to ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict
Writer Ghassan Rubeiz explores the challenge of ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and achieving peace on a regional basis.
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
Peacemaking is more about settling on new ideas and novel experiences than about border disputes. In the role of occupiers, Israelis have developed an arbitrary sense of entitlement to all the land they invade or control. Faith-based politics offers Tel- Aviv the sweet rationalization needed in writing history. But, as a germ, bias lives across borders: Palestinians still claim “Historic Palestine”.
Regressive politics of Arab leaders unwittingly serves, rather than curbs, Israel’s hegemonic interests. An example: The Arab world has taken a long time to realize that Israel, with its immense creative human resources, could possibly participate in the rebuilding of the region. But, sadly, this Arab opinion shift has emerged out of questionable motives.
Now that some Sunni Arab states are weaker than ever, they are covertly seeking Israel’s partnership, not for cooperative regional renewal, but for defense against an imaginary “enemy”, namely Shiite Iran.
The chances of achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians are near zero in today’s cold war politics. The resolution of this conflict requires the willingness of the US to pressure Israel to end its 1967 occupation and Saudi Arabia to end its diplomatic campaign against Iran. Reciprocally peace requires the willingness of Russia to pressure Iran to end its aggressive military adventures in the Middle East. Without normalizing relations between Iran and Israel, on one hand, and between Iran and the Sunni Arab world on another, it is impossible to, first, create a regional climate of peace and, second, to challenge Palestinians to integrate their resistance to occupation with democratic state building.
Regardless of external pressures, Israel might be motivated to end the occupation when it is fully accepted by its neighbors and supported by a sound international framework of security. The Saudi Peace Initiative of 2002, which offers Israel “normalization” of diplomatic relations in exchange of ending the occupation, has lost its appeal after the Saudis turned their full attention from Palestine’s demise to Iran’s “threats”.
This Initiative also lacks specifics on provision of solid measures to structure enforcement of peace terms.
To settle this century old conflict, a two-phase political transition may be needed. A long process of transition would have to start by a deliberate act to end the Israeli 1967 occupation accompanied by a region-wide program of normalization of diplomatic relations, with no state excluded. This sounds like a tall order.
That said, it may be prudent to speculate that Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia may one day come to discover the benefits of regional cooperation as they face a harrowing common crisis, possibly an approaching war humiliating all its major actors. It might take a serious war of no winners to radically change allies or to bring about fresh ideas for peace. With domestic troubles growing on all fronts, the emergence of new leadership in Tel Aviv, Tehran or Riyadh may either help or hinder regional peace efforts.
Back to our hypothetical peace plan, assuming that Israel would at some point in the future accept to end the occupation, conditional to a sound regional plan. The plan is “hypothetical” since there is ample contrary evidence that some Israeli leaders are dead serious on annexing the West Bank.
Ending the occupation would have to occur in stages. One could imagine a twenty to a thirty year plan in two phases: The first phase would be a legal transition from a 1967 occupation regime to a single state with equal rights for Palestinians and Jews. After an interim stage of, say, twenty years phase two would emerge: either as a bi – national confederation, or as two separate states- one for Israel and the other for Palestine. Political transition would take place with regional support on many levels:
- Resumption of diplomacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran
- Normalization between Israel and the Arab world
- A regional peace force to guarantee enforcement of a phased, long-term peace plan
- Bold social engineering: A region-wide program of economic empowerment, a climate of cultural and interfaith tolerance, and an environment of social freedoms and human rights.
- A Regional industrial program reinforced by provisions of massive resources from the international community
Israel does not need a new humiliating war to end the occupation. The experience of the last three decades has shown that it is no longer possible for Israel to rely on military superiority to contain domestic or geopolitical threats. The demographic hour of truth has already come to the Holy Land. Currently, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, there are as many Jewish Israelis as there are Palestinians Arabs.
The latter group is of three categories: Palestinian (formally labeled “Arab”) Israeli citizens, West Bank and East Jerusalem residents under occupation and a Gaza Strip overcrowded population living under Hamas’s autocratic self rule, made much worse by a tight siege – imposed by Israel on one side and Egypt on another. The occupation is heading toward an apartheid regime.
Serious cultural and political factors underlie widening political distance between the two people, but this distance is man-made and amenable to change with insightful planning. Israelis have a western life style and is more European than Middle Eastern. Palestinians are Levantine Arabs, a mixture of secular Muslims and Christians, including a conservative Islamist minority. Ironically, Palestinians are socially closer to Israelis than the rest of the Arabs. For one thing, they have extensive exposure to Jewish life; many speak Hebrew. Regrettably, the Israelis ignore this cultural feature in Palestinians. Under peace conditions the Palestinians could become the natural cultural mediators between Israel and the Arab world.
None of the current modalities of immediate ending of the conflict is any longer workable. The instant two-state solution, based on the 1967 border paradigm, is no longer realistic. Israel has gone too far in settlement building, eroding the space for an integral Palestinian state. A spontaneous one-state solution is also not easily imaginable. In a forced one state solution, the Jewish population would feel marginal after a single generation. Finally, the status quo is unsustainable. A war breaks out every few years.
Mideast peace can only take place in a context of regional, comprehensive social engineering. This social engineering would have to be programmed over decades, not a span of a few years. Peace will require arranging border security, installing radically new educational goals, introducing a radical industrial program, and enforcing religious freedom for all five states that are impacted directly by the conflict, namely, Israel, Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.
Israel will have to stop settlement building; Palestinians will have to focus on civil state building. Israel needs to treat all Palestinians under its political control as normal residents with equal rights and privileges.
It is not yet clear what political model the two communities would choose subsequent to a lengthy experimental period of sharing a single state. As stability and quality of life improve for all, people will then be able to discern what they want for their future.
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