The Regional Context

The most striking achievement chalked up by Israel in the wake of Madrid and Oslo was the peace treaty with Jordan.

"Madrid and Olso failed" has become a catchphrase in Israeli public discourse. So often has it been uttered that no one even disputes it anymore. The debate is confined to the reasons for their failure. The right accuses the left of signing bad agreements, and the left accuses the right of sabotaging the peace process. Each side claims that the other is responsible for the intifada death toll.

There is no doubt that the peace process over the past decade has failed to achieve its aims. The Madrid Conference did not lead to a solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict, and the Oslo Accords did not develop into a permanent agreement or even a long-lasting cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians. But this is only half the picture. If we look beyond the stormy borders of Israel, past the settlements and the refugee camps, we will see that Israel has used the peace process as a springboard for upgrading its regional and international standing.

The most striking achievement chalked up by Israel in the wake of Madrid and Oslo was the peace treaty with Jordan, which has led to close strategic collaboration and is now a central component in Israel's defense thinking. Even beforehand, Zionism and the Hashemite Kingdom had common interests and secret meetings, but the peace treaty has brought them into the light and has broadened them.

Since the peace with Jordan, the Gulf States and North Africa have also edged closer to Israel, albeit with great caution. Tzipi Livni's meetings with her Arab colleagues at the UN General Assembly, like those of her predecessor, Silvan Shalom, have become so routine that they are hardly reported anymore. Before Madrid and Oslo, no one would have dreamed of such a thing.

Before the Madrid Conference, the Palestine Liberation Organization - disguised as a virtual State of Palestine - had more embassies around the world than Israel. After Yitzhak Rabin shook Yasser Arafat's hand, Israel normalized its diplomatic relations, establishing strategic and economic alliances with India and Turkey that remained solid even throughout the intifada years.

These achievements should not be forgotten when we talk about resuming the peace process, now that the war in Lebanon is over. Today, as in 1991, after the Gulf War, Israel, the United States and the pro-American governments of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have common interests. They all fear Iran's growing strength and are preparing for the day it goes nuclear. They all see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a dangerous minefield that continues to stoke public anger in Arab countries. They are all in favor of isolating Syria, Tehran's ally, and strengthening Mahmoud Abbas over Hamas in the Palestinian Authority. This is the backdrop for Saudi Arabia's recent attempt, brokered by Jordan, to reach out to Israel.

The situation in this region is not what it was 15 years ago. At that time, the very fact that Israelis and Arabs met, and the very fact that Israel was willing to speak to the PLO, were dramatic and momentous events. Now such gestures are not enough. In 1991, the United States, emerging victorious from the Cold War, was perceived as an unchallenged superpower that could dictate moves and impose settlements. Today, America has a weak president in the White House, and Ehud Olmert and Abbas are also wobbling in their chairs. Their views are no longer so far apart, and there is no backlog of personal animosity between them. But that will not be enough if they dare to confront opponents of compromise on both sides.

For this reason, rekindling the political process depends on the regional context. Direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are doomed if they move beyond the cease-fire, prisoner release and easing restrictions at border crossings, and attempt to address more serious issues. As things stand, only an improvement in the regional atmosphere, manifested in the establishment of a "moderate front" against Iran, greater Arab receptivity to Israeli gestures, and an American umbrella of support, will pave the way for progress in resolving the conflict. The question now is whether Israel should be the initiator, or wait for outside overtures.