Will Obama Solve the Middle East -- All at Once?

The administration may, at a stroke, be seeking to solve all aspects of the many-faceted problem of Israel's relations with its Arab neighbors: that means Palestinians, Lebanon, Syria, all at once.
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There are immense and tectonic shifts underway on the Arab/Israel dispute. Nothing is confirmed, but the signs are growing of a new US policy that is remarkable in its scale and ambition: nothing less than a comprehensive solution to all "tracks" (as they have hitherto been known) of the peace process. In other words, the administration may, at a stroke, be seeking to solve all aspects of the many-faceted problem of Israel's relations with its Arab neighbors: that means Palestinians, Lebanon, Syria, all at once.

One straw in the wind is a remarkably candid interview by King Abdullah of Jordan given to Richard Beeston of The Times (of London) on May 11, in which the King suggests just that - that the US is aiming not for piecemeal progress separately with the Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians etc, but at a "global solution" - or, in his words, not a 2-state solution (ie a state for Israel and the Palestinians) but a 57-state solution - ie all the Arab states, and others, who today do not recognise Israel, at last recognising and accepting Israel's existence.

To those, like me, who have followed and worked on the issue for many years, this approach has a compelling logic. The "peace process" approach, if one may call it that, has simply not worked. Treating Israel's relationships with its neighbors as separate discrete issues has produced no real or lasting progress in any of them. There are too many spoilers both within Israel and without who use problems on one track to derail progress on another. But above all, the holistic approach provides at last not only for the necessity of a Palestinian state but for something that the Palestinians alone cannot provide let alone guarantee - a comprehensive answer to Israel's security and thus an end to the perpetual insecurity and conflict that has plagued Israel since its establishment as a state.

What would such a deal look like? Something not a million miles from the Arab peace initiative, first proposed in 2002. Its rough outlines might comprise:

  • Palestine - two states defined (more or less) by the 1967 borders; some land swaps may be necessary to compensate for settlements that may remain in the West Bank; some kind of shared sovereignty over East Jerusalem but with some kind of international element too, acknowledging Jerusalem's unique importance to three world religions; return of some Palestinian refugees, but compensation for the others;
  • Lebanon - recommitment by Lebanon (including Hezbollah) to acceptance of Israel's complete withdrawal in 2000; guaranteed demilitarization of southern Lebanon;
  • Syria - Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights; perhaps some interim international presence on the Heights and permanent demilitarization; Syrian sovereignty on the Heights restored but perhaps with a permanent unoccupied margin around the Sea of Galilee (or Lake Kinneret); some sharing of water rights;
  • On the basis of the above, recognition by the Arab world of Israel, signed and sealed by some historic treaty, endorsed by the UN, and signed by the whole world (or at least most of it).

Achieving this supremely-ambitious result would require, at a minimum, three things. First, highly-energetic international diplomacy, led by the US, the only country that has the ability, political firepower and the credibility even to begin to attempt to persuade Israel to accept it. Secondly, it will require a long-term and sustained international military involvement to provide credible security to guarantee all the above, in Palestine, southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights. Credible to the Israelis may mean American. Finally, all of this would have to be lubricated by vast amounts of international aid money (this is where the Europeans will be called upon, as before), not least to provide a lot of money to compensate the Palestinians who will not be granted the "right of return" to their homes within Israel's post-settlement boundaries and to fund the establishment, at last, of a proper sovereign and economically-independent Palestinian state.

There are dozens of uncertainties in all this. How to bring Hamas to accept a deal of this kind. Who talks to Hamas, in the first place? (I have little doubt that the US, through intermediaries of some sort, is communicating in some way with Hamas today.) Persuading a right-wing Israeli government (and a nervous people) poses no less of a challenge. A list of all that might go wrong would fill many books. But the big potential fly in the ointment is of course Iran, which through its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, has the potential to scupper progress. This is at least one reason why the forthcoming presidential elections in Iran, where Ahmadinejad's hold on power is under threat, are so important.

Given the immense challenges and complications of all this, it would be easier, as the Bush administration did, to wash one's hands and say, let's leave it to the parties. But this would be a profound irresponsibility and would lead, as Abdullah bluntly but correctly warns in The Times interview, inevitably to renewed war between Israel and its neighbors, whether in Gaza or Lebanon. The scale and ambition of such an approach, if this is indeed what the US is planning, are breathtaking. Doubtless speculation, like this blog, will be pooh-poohed in spades by those involved (I would do the same in their shoes). But I hope they will allow me nevertheless a small moment to say, hooray.

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