Jun 28, 2007 -


Upcoming Event

The Arab-Israeli Confrontation

Thursday, June 28 -
The Brookings Institution
Falk Auditorium

1775 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC

The Saban Center for Middle East Policy convened the inaugural session of the Crisis in the Middle East Task Force to address the topic of “The Arab-Israeli Confrontation” on June 28, 2007. The Task Force is a monthly dinner discussion series that brings together a high-level group of policy analysts, Middle East specialists, government officials, and journalists for a year-long effort to explore means of treating the region’s many maladies.

The conversation examined the factors shaping the contemporary Arab-Israeli conflict. Participants explored current prospects for, as well as challenges to, the conflict’s peaceful resolution with an emphasis on the benefits and risks of engaging Hamas, as well as the possibility of exploring negotiations between Syria and Israel.

One participant described how the conditions that shape the context of the Middle East peace process have changed. The Palestinian national movement has splintered , facilitating the growth of radical groups and, in Lebanon, aspiring versions of al-Qa’ida (“al-Qa’ida wannabees.)” At the same time, efforts to make peace are complicated by a lack of trust between Israelis and Palestinians. Regional dynamics present challenges as well. The Palestinian domestic arena is heavily influenced by outside actors. In a polarized environment, the external forces, Syria and Iran, are posturing against the United States (and vice versa), and are making decisions regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is further compounded by the loss of U.S. credibility which limits U.S. ability to advance peace regardless of the interests of the Bush Administration. Lastly, in the view of one participant, the progress of the conflict feeds and is fed by events elsewhere in the region. This point was discussed by participants who disagreed about the nature of the linkages between the conflict and other events while agreeing that the Palestinian issue has great salience.

However, changing dynamics also could create new opportunities. Participants commented on interesting developments across the region. Saudi Arabia condemned Hizballah for its kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers in July 2006. It was also noted that Saudi Arabia is interested in promoting peace and that this avenue should be pursued. One participant suggested that a mutual fear of Iran may facilitate Arab-Israeli partnership.

Participants proposed and discussed different policy options for making peace in the Middle East. One participant suggested that because the unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral paradigms for the Middle East peace process have all failed, a new long-term framework must be developed that will incorporate pieces of these three paradigms.

Another participant laid out several policy options as well as likely difficulties with these scenarios. One option is to implement Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s 2006 plan to unilaterally dismantle settlements in the West Bank. However, Palestinians have an aversion to incremental strategies and this plan will be difficult for the Israelis to adopt without a guarantee of peace in return. Alternatively, the conflict could be resolved using the help of a third party, like the United Nations or NATO. However, it is difficult to imagine which body would play this role and Israel would be hesitant to trust an international force. Additionally, the option of confederation with Jordan should be considered. A recent poll found that 42 percent of Palestinians surveyed support confederation with Jordan. Palestinians leaders have raised this notion privately and former Jordanian Prime Minister Abdul Salam al-Majali has advocated this idea in public. However, confederation can only be pursued if the Palestinians publicly choose it.

In the view of this participant, disagreements about territory can be resolved through land swaps. The territorial issue, according to this line of argument, will not prevent a peace deal. The key issues that must be addressed are the status of Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem, as well as the need to ensure security after Israeli withdrawal, as has been highlighted by violence in Gaza and Lebanon.

One participant suggested that a solution could be imposed by the “great powers” as has often been done throughout history rather than negotiated between the parties themselves. Another participant was skeptical that this approach would work.

Participants expressed different ideas for how to deal with Hamas. One participant argued that it is necessary to try to create more unity on the Palestinian side—if Hamas is not incorporated into negotiations, it will be able to obstruct Fatah’s attempts to make peace. Thus, the U.S. should either encourage or at least remain neutral about a power-sharing agreement between Fatah and Hamas. However, another participant countered that a new unity government will only gloss over significant points of disagreement between the two.

Several participants argued that Hamas should be engaged because bolstering Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and weakening Hamas could actually worsen matters by creating splinter groups and benefiting so-called al-Qa’ida wannabees. It was argued that the experience in Iraq of collaborating with unnatural allies to fight al-Qa’ida suggests working with Hamas towards similar ends. One participant commented on the significance of al-Qa’ida figuring so prominently in a conversation about the Middle East peace process.

Other participants opposed engaging Hamas. Such a policy would betray Fatah and moderates who advocate a two-state solution. Yet, participants noted that Hamas could change. One participant highlighted the diversity within Hamas and questioned what steps Hamas would have to take to show its moderation. If Hamas were to enforce a ceasefire, another participant noted, Israel would treat it differently. However, this participant felt that Hamas had clear ideological principles that must be recognized.

Another participant opposed engaging Hamas because, in his view, the Bush Administration will not work with the group. Therefore, he advocated financially supporting Abbas over the next year and a half to see whether or not this is an effective strategy.

Participants also explored the possibility of negotiations between Israel and Syria. There are those within the Israeli security establishment who favor such a plan. One participant argued that it is not clear if the Syrians are truly interested in this option or are just looking to reliev the pressure they are under because of the international tribunal investigating the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. If there is serious interest in an Israeli-Syrian option, this participant argued that secret discussions between the Syrians and the Israelis would be possible similar to those undertaken by then-Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister Hassan al-Tuhami in Morocco in 1977.

There are several benefits to an Israeli-Syrian track. Negotiations with Syria would prevent Syria from interfering with the peace process and would weaken Hamas. Additionally, engaging in a peace process with Syria would bolster the institution of states in the Middle East at the time when states are threatened by Palestinian, Iraqi and Lebanese civil wars. However, in the view of one participant, pursuing the Israeli-Syrian track, without U.S. sponsorship and in the wake of the Cedar Revolution, would be difficult.