"Regional peace" -- A New Idea for the Middle East!

If you thought that after all these years there could not possibly be a new idea for making peace between Israel and the Palestinians, well, as the cliché goes, think again. Better yet, it is a damn good idea. It holds that Israel would implement the long talked about two state solution (a Palestinian and a Jewish state, "living next to each other in security and peace")--and Iran would actually give up its military nuclear program.

So far, there have been those who held that the road to Tehran, Damascus, Beirut and the rest of the Arab world leads through Jerusalem, meaning that peace in the Middle East requires that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict first be resolved. Only in this way, we have been told a score of times, one can hope to "turn the Arab street" to agree to support other changes that peace in the region requires. Others held that given that Israel sees the Iranian bombs as directly threatening its very existence and that the time is near at which Iran will have nuclear bombs, this is the matter that must be most urgently attended to. And--nobody moved. The new idea is that we can get out of this stalemate by moving on both fronts at one and the same time.

Some are sure to hold that Israel already agreed to a two state solution, hence it will give nothing new in exchange for a deproliferation of Iran. However, the same holds for Iran--it has long and repeatedly declared that its nuclear program is strictly dedicated to peaceful pursuits. Hence, if it would show to IAEA inspectors that it has not been militarizing its nuclear program, it merely would be showing that it was not lying through its teeth.

Both arguments are disingenuous. Although previous Israeli governments declared themselves in favor of a two state solution, the "details"--what such a solution entails and above all the ways to get there--were never agreed upon. And Iran keeps threatening to wipe Israel off the map, which it can hardly hope to do without nuclear arms, which many believe it is rushing to develop. In short, a mutually and simultaneously implemented deal not only makes a great deal of sense, but breaks the stalemate.

There is room here from some truly creative thinking and adroit diplomacy. Step 1? Israel freezes the settlements on the West Bank; Iran freezes the enrichment of uranium. Step 2? Iran opens up some parts of its nuclear industry to international inspection; Israel turns over some parts of the West Bank to Palestinian forces and so on.

Other scenarios can surely be developed. All will have to survive those who will maintain that the whole deal is unfair for one reason or another. I rush hence to reiterate a point Shibley Telhami (a leading Palestinian-American) and I made some years ago, that this is not the time to sort out what ultimate justice entails, who is at fault, who started it all, etc. These kinds of arguments are used by both sides to demand that the other side--the guilty one--yield, and that their sides need not make any concessions. For now, we argued, all sides should focus on where we go from here. Later we can have a Truth Commission to figure out who the real culprit was. The time to make peace is now, all other matters will wait. The new idea has one more attractive feature. Many Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, are very keen for Iran not to have nuclear bombs. They also favor the two state solution. In short, the regional peace plan has a ready-made, significant political constituency right there in the Middle East. Although the US is expected to lead the negotiations that must take place, above all by ensuring that both Israel and Iran take parallel steps to implement their part of the deal, Russia should also be involved. Russia is the power that could tip the scales in Iran if it joins the West in promoting an end to the nuclear military ambitions of Iran. Hence, Russian support should be courted, and if need be rewarded, by granting Russia some of the items on their long agenda - for instance, as Obama in effect already offered, the US folding the missile defense system that Bush planned to place in Poland and the Czech Republic to stop Iranian missiles. Finally, the regional peace plan will serve as a sort of Rorschach test. There are those whose reaction will reveal that they are so confident that Iran has no intentions to build a bomb, or that if it did it "would never be so crazy to use it" that they will not support the plan. There are those so mad at Israel that they want to force it to make major concessions to the Palestinians, come what may. And there are some who see Iran as a major threat to many nations in the Middle East, and are less preoccupied by the Palestinians, especially those who still declare that they are out to destroy Israel. One cannot but hope that all these players would put aside their special takes on the situation and their special pleadings, and recognize a good deal when it is laid out right in front of them. Otherwise, even this sage plan may end up where so many attempts to bring peace to the Middle East have ended up--in the dustbins of history, followed by more bloodshed.

Amitai Etzioni professor of international relations at The George Washington University and the author of Security First (Yale 2007). For more, go here.