Becoming a Footnote

We should not be afraid of the phrase "economic peace" because it seems to conceal a refusal for political peace.

The following is a list of political events that took place this past week in the Middle East, and Israel was not invited. Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who was supposed to visit Israel in January, visited Iran with full media coverage. In Riyadh, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia hosted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the Kuwaiti ruler and Syrian President Bashar Assad for a little four-way summit. The gathering marked the great Arab reconciliation with Syria and the ending of the distinction between "moderate" and "extremist" Arab states.

Also this week a series of visits to Iraq by senior Iranian figures was rounded off with the signing of a number of bilateral cooperation agreements. And in Lebanon and Iran preparations for elections in June are at their peak. In Cairo, reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah is being cobbled together. So far the agreements are to form a national unity government, bring Hamas into the Palestine Liberation Organization, establish joint security organizations, and hold presidential and parliamentary elections. Finally, the Arab League is meeting in two weeks and is expected to declare the existence of a new and quieter Middle East.

This is a Middle East that was quick to understand reality and appreciate the need to prepare a landing strip for Barack Obama, who seeks to make friends with the Muslim world and is interested in an American policy that favors dialogue, not war. The window of opportunity "to rescue the sinking Arab ship," to quote Ghassan Charbel, an editor at the daily Al-Hayat, is not an original expression. The results of the Israeli elections have made it clear to the Arab leadership that they can present a moderate Arab Middle East vis-a-vis the extremist right in Israel; a sober and practical Middle East. Vis-a-vis the opponents in Jerusalem of a two-state solution, they are formulating a worthy Arab alternative that Washington will find appealing.

The Arab leadership's work appears to be easier than ever. Like Israel, they think Iran is a problem that needs to be contained, but like Washington they prefer diplomacy over attack. They, unlike Israel, are sticking with the Arab initiative that the United States and the Europeans have adopted. They, like Israel, consider Hamas a problem, but unlike Israel, they are willing to accept a negotiated Palestinian solution. Finally, they no longer consider every friend of Israel an enemy of the Arabs, and have thus accepted Turkey as an inalienable part of the Arab strategy.

In face of the Arab "threat" to keep Israel out of the process of shaping a new Middle East, Israel has an answer. Except that it is accompanied by the assumption that we cannot expect anything other than an uncompromising stance from Benjamin Netanyahu and his government. This assumption has entrenched a sense of public despair, relinquishing the right to make rational political demands. It is not rational, we are told, to demand that Bibi gives up the Golan Heights, removes illegal outposts or ceases construction in the settlements. And what about a center-left government? Did that government meet expectations? Was it realistic to demand a political breakthrough from that government?

We should demand from Netanyahu precisely what was asked of the Olmert government, or what would have been asked of the government had it been headed by Tzipi Livni. He can and should renew negotiations with Syria because Washington has already begun talking with Syria. He can and should cooperate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, because the European Union will talk with them and perhaps also Washington. He should declare that he is adopting the Arab initiative because it is accepted by the entire world, and he must formulate a vision for peace with the Palestinians and begin implementing it. Let him do it in comfortable ways: the economy, investments, lifting roadblocks and granting territorial contiguity.

We should not be afraid of the phrase "economic peace" because it seems to conceal a refusal for political peace. We can assume that Israel would not turn its back on an economic peace with Syria, or with Libya if it were offered. The other option is that Israel will become a footnote because it refused to do what was possible and gave in to its prime minister from the start.