The Old Mideast Peace Paradigm Is Dead; This Is the New One

The old peace was a worthy wish, but the old peace was an illusion. If we are successful in defining, articulating and promoting New peace, we will bring something new to the Middle East: hope.

Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit
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A truck removes a Zim-branded shipping container at the Haifa Port.
A truck removes a Zim-branded shipping container at the Haifa Port.Credit: Bloomberg
Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit

The old peace is dead. In the year 2000, when the second Camp David summit led to the second intifada, peace was badly wounded. In 2008, when Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert didn’t succeed in signing a final-status agreement, peace was critically wounded. But in 2014, when John Kerry’s ambitious peace initiative collapsed, the old peace died. The hope for a signed peace treaty was shattered. The belief in the piece of paper that would bring about an immediate end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dissolved.

What we all should have understood in the first year of the third millennium, most of us understand a decade and a half later. Whether because the old peace was never there, or because it melted away under the circumstances (settlements, Hamas, Arab chaos), the old peace will never come into being. Not now, not in our time, not in the way we imagined it and dreamed about it for decades.

It’s childish to ask who is to blame for the death of the old peace. It is perfectly obvious that the Israeli prime minister is to blame: Benjamin Netanyahu is a Jerusalem man who would never conceive of compromising on Jerusalem. It is perfectly obvious that the Palestinian president is to blame: Mahmoud Abbas is a Safed man who would never conceive of forgoing Safed. It is perfectly obvious that the U.S. secretary of state is to blame: John Kerry is a decent, naïve person who deluded himself into thinking he could extract from Netanyahu and Abbas a fantastical Jerusalem-for-Safed deal.

But the truth is, the Israeli national leader and the Palestinian national leader have a good deal in common. Both of them cling to the basic beliefs of their national movements, but both of them wrap their beliefs in an ostensibly pragmatic, diplomatic suit-and-tie. Both of them abhor violence and both understand that violence will not advance them toward the ideological goal. But neither of them really mean it when they sing peace songs to the Americans.

Thus, the latest attempt to resolve the old peace failed because there is absolutely no connection between tactical moderation and strategic moderation. Between the spring of 2009 and the spring of 2014, Netanyahu and Abbas dramatically reduced the scale of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed, but neither of them possesses the ability or the desire to end the deep conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Still, the problem does not begin or end with Netanyahu and Abbas. Nor is the mistake only that of John Kerry. In the past 20 years, the best of the Israelis, the best of the Palestinians and the best of the Americans tried to realize the old peace. Three American presidents (Bill Clinton; George W. Bush; Barack Obama) and six American secretaries of state (Warren Christopher; Madeleine Albright; Colin Powell; Condoleezza Rice; Hillary Clinton; John Kerry), a series of Israeli peace people (Yitzhak Rabin; Shimon Peres; Ehud Barak; Ehud Olmert; Tzipi Livni; Yossi Beilin) and a series of leading Palestinians (Mahmoud Abbas; Abu Ali; Saeb Erekat; Nabil Shaath; Yasser Abed Rabbo) tried time and again and again – and failed.

So, after three or four instances when we all ran into a wall, maybe the time has come to understand that there is actually a wall there. After the hypothesis of the feasibility of the final-status-agreement-now was tried almost scientifically, maybe the time has come to admit it’s been refuted. The old peace was a worthy, sublime, touching wish, but the old peace was an illusion. Grievously and regrettably, the body of the illusion lies before us. After Oslo and after Camp David and after Annapolis and after the Kerry initiative, it is dead in the water.

Is the conclusion to be drawn that we should give up on peace? In light of the resounding failure, are we now to accept the continuation of the occupation and the continuation of construction in the settlements and the continuation of the status quo? Absolutely not. The international community was wrong to promote a political idea that was disconnected from reality, but it was absolutely right in understanding that the seventh day of the Six-Day War created a historical situation that is intolerable morally, politically and demographically.

The peace movement was wrong in the way it tried to arrive at peace, but was absolutely right in regard to the curse of the occupation, the disaster of the settlements and the necessity of the two-state solution.

The international community and the peace movement need to take advantage of the moment when the old peace has died to profoundly examine themselves, in order to launch a creative thinking process and to produce a new idea of peace. A peace that is not flighty but realistic. A peace that is not immediate but gradual. A peace that is not official and final but practical and process-driven.

The aim of New peace will not be different from the aim of the old peace: a two-state solution. But the new peace will not try to formulate the coveted, mythical document that ends the conflict declaratively. It will, rather, create the conditions that will enable the cessation of the occupation in practice and the emergence of a two-state state.

The new peace will not promise a utopian Middle East but will address the brutal Middle East as it is, and will try to extract the maximum from it. The new peace will not be messianic and heavenly, but sober-eyed, with both feet on the ground. It will oblige the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Arabs, and also the Americans and Europeans, to behave in a completely different way in order to arrive at a different peace, one which can be achieved in practice.

The Israelis first. The Israelis will have to start by freezing construction in all the settlements that lie across the separation line. Immediately afterward, they will have to initiate graduated, small-scale withdrawals from different areas of the West Bank.

The Palestinians will have to undertake that every area that is evacuated by the Israelis will become a zone of intensive development in which Rawabi־like projects will be built. The Saudis and Gulf states will have to underwrite the development projects, which will transform Palestine-in-the-making into a thriving Palestine; and the Egyptians and Jordanians will have to provide the process with the required political-security envelope.

The United States will be the entrepreneur and producer of the new peace, while Europe will play its part by granting Israel a genuine place in the European space.

While the Israelis advance the nation-saving process of ending the occupation, and the Palestinians advance the nation-building process of forging a state, the moderate Arabs and Turks will join them by promoting regional economic projects that are of geostrategic importance. Gas pipelines, desalination plants, Internet networks and free-trade zones will weave the fabric of the new reality of peace. Mutual dependence, cooperation in the face of extremists and shared economic interests will be the concrete substitute of New peace for hollow documents, stale declarations and barren diplomatic rites.

In contrast to the old peace, which revolved around signing ceremonies on the White House lawn, the new peace will be based on intelligent, quiet leadership of the White House. The Americans will oversee the coordinated unilateral processes in Israel-Palestine and the larger regional process in which they will be integrated. It is they who will set in motion two־state dynamic that will lead to a two־state state that, a long way down the line, will produce a two־state solution.

The Middle East will not turn into the European Union in one fell swoop, but in the face of the instability that currently characterizes it, a regional Arab-Israeli framework will be posited, and Palestinian-Israeli coexistence will be promoted, that, after a decade or two, might be able to produce a comprehensive, signed peace.

New peace will be good for Israel. Most Israelis understand that the only viable way is the two-state way. But most Israelis are politically paralyzed because of the previous failures to implement the two-state solution and because of the regional savagery. At the same time, the weakness of the Israeli republic does not allow it to cope in one blow with the challenge of the settlements. For strategic, political and psychological reasons, Israelis need time. They need a gradual, cautious approach that will pare down the occupation without taking overly abrupt steps or unreasonable risks. They need to know for certain that if mistakes are made, it will be possible to correct them, and that their national existence will not be shaken or undermined because of an irreversible withdrawal.

The threatened citizens of the only democracy in the Middle East despaired of the old peace because it asked them to believe in Mahmoud Abbas, ignore Hamas and believe that Syria is the Netherlands. But if New peace offers them a step-by-step path, which does not ignore the history of the conflict and the cruelty of the Middle East, there’s a good chance they will endorse it.

Amid this, they will also be able to carry out the governmental and regime reform that is needed in order to implement partition of the country without sparking a civil war or bringing about a blood-drenched paralysis of the state.

New peace will be good for the Palestinians. Abbas’ inability to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is further proof that the Palestinian national movement has a deep – and understandable – difficulty in arriving at a historic conciliation with the Jewish national movement. Whereas Israel recognized the Palestinian people, its legitimate rights and the need to establish for it a nation-state of its own, many Palestinians still find it difficult to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish people and its right to self-determination in its historic homeland. This ideological recoil, which makes Israelis suspicious and edgy, was one of the major obstacles to the old peace.

But deep and promising changes have occurred in the West Bank during the past decade. Positive, significant Palestinian forces have appeared who wish to move ahead, to achieve freedom and prosperity amid coexistence, and to build a worthy, democratic Palestinian state. Salam Fayyad on the one hand, and the new city of Rawabi on the other are the most salient expressions of this transformations. But the Fayyads and Rawabis cannot yet cope with the question of Jerusalem, the question of the refugees and the challenge of ending the conflict. What they can do is grow and generate growth within the protective greenhouse of New peace.

If the Palestinian condition will improve at every point in time, if the geographical-political-economic volume of Palestine will increase year in, year out, then the odds are good that a new generation of modern, global-minded Palestinians will take the stage, who ultimately will be capable to overcome the residues of the past and choose a historic reconciliation.

New peace will be good for the Arabs. The Arab chaos had two contradictory results: on the one hand, there is not one moderate Arab leader today who is vested with sufficient legitimacy to sign a new and official peace treaty with Israel; but on the other, the need of the moderate Arab leaders for a strategic alliance with Israel has greatly increased. As a result of fear of Iran, fear of the Muslim Brotherhood and fear of American decline, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf emirates are today closer to Israel than ever before. Lack of legitimacy makes it impossible to realize this closeness in the form of solemn agreements of the type that generate a Nobel Prize. But it is definitely possible to realize it by forging a true alliance between the Jewish state and the moderate Sunni Arab nation-states. That alliance will not be viable without gradual progress toward the termination of the occupation, a development that will be underwritten, supported and sustained by the affluent Sunnis. New peace is the only conceptual framework that will make it possible for the Sunni-Jewish axis to stabilize the Middle East and advance it toward a reasonable future.

New peace will be good for America. In the past twenty years, the United States made every possible mistake in the Middle East. It tried to impose a Scandinavian peace in the region and tried to force a Jeffersonian democracy on the region – and failed. It tried diplomacy and it tried war – and came out with nothing. Neither Democratic nor Republican administrations read the map correctly or understood the reality, and they made mistake after mistake after mistake. As a result, many Americans, grown weary of the Middle East, want to escape from it.

But as 9/11 proves, and as the events now unfolding in Iraq demonstrate, the Middle East has a habit of pursuing everyone who tries to flee from it. Accordingly, the United States needs a new strategy that will cope with the violent, harsh region as it is. Dreamtime is over. An absolute withdrawal is not possible. The only way for America is to promote the great Jewish-Sunni alliance, which will be based on shared economic interests, on strategic cooperation and on joint work to end the occupation. If the United States will oversee the coordinated unilateral processes in Israel-Palestine and integrate them in a broad regional context, it will be the one to lay the firm foundations of the new peace that is so badly needed.

Forty-four years ago, the United States did just that. Henry Kissinger mediated between Jordan and Israel and was able to cobble together a de facto peace that was sustained solidly for 24 years – until the official peace treaty was signed. The Israeli-Jordanian model of 1970-1994 can definitely serve as a model for the New peace of the 21st century. For a quarter of a century, without signed treaties, without ceremonies and without embassies, Israel and Jordan conducted an intimate relationship that allowed them to help each other, and stand by each other at times of crisis.If America reprises realistic creativity like that of Kissinger, it will be able to induce practical Israelis, moderate Arabs and pragmatic Palestinians to forge a similar relationship, which will gradually change the face of the horrendous Middle East we face today.

It’s not easy to shift paradigms. It’s especially not easy to replace sanctified paradigms. Because they are familiar and tranquilizing and reality-organizing, they accord us a sense of security and an illusion of hope.

But the failed paradigm of old peace has been leading us astray for a generation. Instead of drawing us closer to peace, it played into the hands of the enemies of peace. Instead of dividing the Promised land, it allowed the land to be filled with settlements and settlers. So that now, when it is perfectly obvious that the old peace is dead, we need to restart, switch direction and replace the refuted paradigm with a new one.

It is incumbent upon us to think differently about peace and to behave differently about peace. If we do not do so at once, an Israeli-Palestinian debacle will occur whose beginnings we are already witnessing. The 100-year-old conflict is liable to lurch out of control only because we were not wise enough, and courageous enough, to cope creatively with an intractable reality. But if we succeed in defining and promoting New peace, there will be hope. Not heavenly hope, not messianic hope – but, still, hope.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the New Republic in May 2014.

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