An idea born of desperation

In recent weeks, an interesting idea has emerged from moderate Arab circles. The same Arab leaders who wish to refocus world opinion on the March 2002 Arab League initiative for a Palestinian-Israeli accommodation are also suggesting a new and very specific order of priorities for dealing with the conflict.

Let the Bush administration in Washington propose and the UN Security Council ratify final borders for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, they argue. And let negotiations begin from this point of departure. Once the borders are agreed, it will be easier to solve the remaining heavy issues.

At some other point in recent history this idea might have had merit. When, for example, President Clinton tabled his plan for an Israeli-Palestinian end-of-conflict agreement in late 1995, it might have been useful to suggest that Israelis and Palestinians drop all other contentious issues and devote their deliberations first to determining their shared borders, based on Clinton’s proposal. After all, the Clinton border reflected a substantial narrowing of differences between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders of the day, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat. Perhaps, had they been urged to come to terms first on an agreed border, it would then have been easier to agree on the tougher, "existential" issues like refugee right of return and the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.

Today, the borders-first idea is not really on anyone’s priority agenda.

US President George W. Bush is not Bill Clinton. He has never evinced the slightest interest in discussing a two-state solution in any but the most general terms. His power is weakening, and his last two years in office are far more likely to be devoted to Iraq and Iran than to Palestine. Hence, under current circumstances, American sponsorship of a borders-first approach appears to be unrealistic.

Coming from the Saudis and Egyptians, the idea seems to reflect a desperate, panicky search for any sort of gimmick that might somehow extract a peace process from the black hole that is the Israeli-Palestinian situation. The timing of the moderate Arab initiative appears to be linked mainly to the need to demonstrate some sort of achievement so as to get the Palestinian issue off the Arab street agenda and devote Arab energies to countering Iran’s bid for regional hegemony, rather than to any genuine devotion to the Palestinian issue.

Meanwhile, back in Israel/Palestine, the Olmert government has no agenda for dealing with the conflict, while things are so anarchic on the Palestinian side that every week now President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) comes up with a new agenda: a unity government, a technocrat government, a referendum, new elections, "bread before democracy".

More than any other factor, then, it is the looming threat from Iran that appears to be dictating the latest Arab peace offensive. In the aftermath of this summer’s war in Lebanon, both Israel and the moderate Arab states perceive a need to "clear their agendas" in order to deal with Iran.

In this regard, the most important step Saudi Arabia and Egypt could take in the near future would be to arrange for Israel to open a dialogue with Syria rather than a peace process with the Palestinians. A renewed Israeli-Syrian negotiating framework would be aimed at testing whether the regime of President Bashar Asad is genuinely interested in and capable of delivering on a peace agreement. The ultimate payoff could be to neutralize Damascus as an Iranian ally and geographically detach Iran from direct involvement in the Levant and its conflicts, thereby shortening its strategic reach.

Saudi and Egyptian energies might best be devoted to this task, in Washington, Damascus and Jerusalem, rather than to creating the virtual borders of a Palestinian entity that has failed at state-building and is on the verge of civil war. Not that we do not desperately need an Israeli-Palestinian peace. But a realistic assessment of the Palestinian situation must, for the time being, lead us to the conclusion that the most we can accomplish is to manage this conflict, not solve it. And conflict management in the Palestinian context requires pragmatic, tactical steps–not a sweeping border initiative.