Window of Opportunity

The Possibility of a Peace Agreement Between Israel and Arab States by the End of 2008 - Reality or Wishful Thinking?

Left to right: W. Posch, B. Kodmani, F. Kössler | Photo: Kreisky Forum

Knesset member Y. Beilin (r) speaks with F. Kössler (l) | Photo: Kreisky Forum

Left to right: W. Posch, B. Kodmani, F. Kössler | Photo: Kreisky Forum

Left to right: W. Posch, B. Kodmani, F. Kössler | Photo: Kreisky Forum

April 2008 brought a new round of sensational statements about the Middle East peace processes. A line of new promises was made both by Israeli and the Arab states, another group of intermediaries representing many countries got involved, and new attempts were made to restart negotiations.

Why now? Today it feels like another train is leaving the station; the doors are closing, and all sides of Middle East conflict face a new threat of failure in establishing peace in the region.

The Annapolis Conference set the fast approaching end of 2008 as a benchmark date for a resolution. The world is now anxiously awaiting results.

Present in a discussion entitled “New Security Challenges in the Middle East” at Vienna’s Bruno Kreisky Forum in mid April, were Israeli politician Yossi Beilin, a member of Knesset, Bassma Kodmani, Director of the Arab Reform Initiative, a consortium of Arab policy research institutes, and Walter Posch, a research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, focusing on Turkey, Iran, terrorism and Middle Eastern security issues, moderated by Franz Kössler, a journalist with ORF television and editor of international weekly Weltjournal.

The discussion revealed both recent changes in the Arab world and the latest developments in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Iran’s growing power in the region following the Iraq war toped Posch’s personal list of critical challenges. According to the EU researcher, Iran’s approach has shifted over the last three years from a pragmatic style to a propaganda model, with an ideology based on their nuclear program and its presumed threat to the outside world.

This approach is obviously targeted at the “Arab street,” Posch said, earning support for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while severing ties to the West. At the same time, many Iranians want to overcome the accompanying isolation and would prefer to come to an unwritten agreement with the United States to firm up their position in the region. While not unilateral, the West generally takes the position that no matter what the real situation in Iran is, their aggressive intentions are all that matters.

Inside the region, Bassma Kodmani of the Arab Reform Initiative reported that small Arab states consider Iran a serious threat and would prefer an end to all nuclear programs in the country. This does not automatically mean that Arabs world support the Western position. Ultimately, though, Posch did not expect any escalation of the conflict from the Iranian side unless there was a major provocation of any kind in the country.

There are also fears of terrorism.

“All [countries] have to deal with it on the constant basis, keeping forces fully mobilized to fight it. And this is what shapes the attitude,” Kodmani said. Meanwhile, she claimed that the “war on terror” – instead of positive results – had increased authoritarian tone in the Arab world, welcomed on the “Arab street.” Another contributing factor to instability in the region is the lack of a meaningful peace process.

“For people there are no other means, accept radical ones,” Kodmani said. Nevertheless,
in spite of social divides of religion and ethnicity, the panelist was convinced that Arabs in general were ready for change and to escape despotic rule. Israeli parliamentarian Yossi Beilin called the Arab-Israeli conflict “a pretext for the extremism factor” in the region, used to justify any actions or threats. A member of the  governments of Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak, Beilin has for many years identified Israel’s national interest in the achievement of a fair, just, and comprehensive peace in the region. There were times when success seemed close, particularly in1993 and 2000:  “After all, there was hope, although people understood it was difficult.”

With the Camp David negotiations held by the former US president Bill Clinton in July 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat, ended with no results. The frustration turned into the al-Aqsa Intifada. Now, after a long period, a new window of opportunity has opened. Beilin credits all sides with an interest in a new peace initiative:

“There is chemistry between leaders that has never been here,” Beilin said smiling. At the same time, it is clear that the Hamas factor still threatens the peace process. Thus, Beilin advocated the idea that they should be included in the negotiation process. Without a Gaza solution there can be no peace, he said. since Hamas represents the force able to torpedo the peace process. In this sense, Beilin highly appreciated the efforts of ex-US President Jimmy Carter that resulted in a recent Hamas proposal of a six-month truce with Israel.

The window of opportunity will not stay open indefinitely, however, and if not taken advantage of, Beilin said, it will close in January 2009 with the exiting of Abbas and Bush from the political arena. And it will, in all likelihood, not open again any time soon. The chemistry will disappear.

But more than that, the region will enter another swirl of frustration that may again end up with an escalation of violence. This would be dangerous.

“We should not take a risk of a new explosion,” Beilin warned. He has seen what that means. “I’m not optimistic at all. That’s why I fight for peace.”

Israelis and Palestinians both also hope for peace, an enduring fact  proven by polls both in Israel and in Palestine. But do they believe in peace in 2008? Not at all. He smiled, But it was a sad smile that acknowledged his frustration.

Knesset member Y. Beilin (r) speaks with F. Kössler (l) | Photo: Kreisky Forum

Speaking of chances to meet the 2008 target date, Beilin insisted on a change of attitude from all sides. “If the behavior remains what it is today… you cannot reach an agreement this year.”

Nevertheless, Beilin continued, in the case of successful negotiations, a pragmatic plan should follow, that includes unilateralism on the West Bank, solutions concerning Jewish settlements and many other pending issues.

No one dared to utter the word “Jerusalem.” And it is this concern that remains the most difficult to tackle in the Middle East conflict.

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