A good thing in the right circumstances

One of Israel’s central strategic concerns during the second intifada that began in late September 2000 was that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would succeed in "internationalizing" the renewed Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jerusalem feared lest Arafat somehow induce or compel neighboring Arab states to intervene military, thereby expanding the conflict and leveling the battlefield from the Palestinian standpoint. Israel invested a major diplomatic effort to ensure that Jordan and Egypt remain on the sidelines.

Now, ironically, this very "internationalization" (the term in fact denotes regionalization) is taking place and Israel is playing a major role in encouraging it. Israel relied on Egypt to broker a ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza and is now using Cairo’s good offices to discuss a prisoner exchange. Cairo has also offered to mediate renewed intra-Palestinian discussions aimed at again creating a unity government that embraces both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while Israel voices no protest at the prospect of Hamas rejoining such a government.

Meanwhile, Israeli-Syrian peace talks have helped pave the way for Damascus to upgrade its inter-Arab status and either compete or cooperate with Egypt in facilitating Palestinian unity talks. In the course of the past two years, both Saudi Arabia (the Mecca agreement) and Yemen (the Sana’a agreement) have played active albeit abortive roles in mediating among Palestinians. The distinct Arab-Arab dimension to this flowering of Arab mediation efforts also extends to areas that don’t involve Israel. Thus, Qatar brokered the Lebanese reconciliation agreement that has now finally produced a new government in Beirut.

These developments reflect a number of significant strategic underpinnings and ramifications.

For one, Israel’s decision to turn to Egypt for help in dealing with the Palestinians, which began with the Gaza withdrawal three years ago and the arrangements made then concerning the Rafah crossing, reflects Jerusalem’s dilemma regarding the two militant Islamist non-state actors on its northern and Gaza borders. Neither Hizballah nor Hamas plays by the traditional inter-state rules; neither recognizes Israel or agrees to talk to it, thereby denying it a diplomatic solution; and both appear to welcome the prospect of Israel, in its exasperation, invoking military solutions and ending up confronting their terrorism as occupiers. This to some extent explains Israel’s decision to solicit the deployment of UNIFIL II to southern Lebanon two years ago as well as its eagerness to discuss the fate of Hizballah with Syria and its current reliance on Egypt.

But Egypt does not have easy solutions, either. In view of its concerns regarding the Muslim Brotherhood at home and Islamist terrorism in Sinai, all of its efforts regarding Hamas and a Palestinian unity government seem designed to ensure that Gaza remains an Israeli problem and not an Egyptian problem–but not to solve the problem.

In this regard, the current Egyptian and possibly Syrian efforts hardly reflect some sort of Arab diplomatic renaissance. Neither Egypt nor Saudi Arabia, traditional leaders of the Arab world, has recently pulled its weight in inter-Arab affairs. No fewer than five Arab League members–Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan and Somalia–are in a state of semi-disintegration or chaos, with Yemen threatening to join them. True, the state of affairs has improved recently in Iraq and Lebanon, but it is too early to judge whether these tactical successes will prevail or induce yet more violence.

Nor is it an accident that Qatar and Turkey–the one an immensely wealthy tribal emirate that can buy its way to successful mediation, the other a non-Arab regional power–have been the most successful facilitators and mediators recently rather than Egypt, Saudi Arabia or the Arab League. Incidentally, even Doha and Ankara’s efforts have succeeded to no small extent because the global superpower, the United States with its huge diplomatic and military investment in the region, has receded to lame-duck status until 2009.

Despite all these drawbacks and weaknesses, the appearance of Cairo, Doha and even Damascus as regional mediators is potentially a good thing–for Israel, for the region and for the international community–as long as it fulfills two conditions. First, it must not evolve at the expense of Israel’s vital interests, for example by strengthening Iran and its allies and proxies. In this respect, Doha’s success with Lebanon is a mixed bag insofar as it stabilizes Lebanon but strengthens Hizballah. And second, once a more rational and constructive American administration takes over in Washington, room will have to be made for its renewed and welcome efforts in the region.