Is now the right time to pursue a peace agreement? This question is being debated vociferously in Israel today, not only by academics and pundits but by Israel's own president and prime minister. In a recent visit to Madrid, President Shimon Peres stated that "Now is precisely the time to resume the talks between us and the Palestinians ... this storm (of protests in the region) is also an opportunity for peace." However, days later in remarks to the Knesset, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu squirmed at the thought of negotiating during a time of such upheaval. "There may be debate regarding a peace partner today, but there is uncertainty regarding the existence of a partner tomorrow," he said. "We do not know what will happen to our west, and we do not know what will happen to our east, and who can determine whether the Palestinian state -- in the middle of it all -- will hold on?" So which perspective is correct? Do the current regional crises provide a moment of opportunity for Middle East peace? Or does the regional uncertainty require peace efforts to be placed on hold?
If there has ever been a time to push for a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement, the beginning of 2009 appeared to be it. A new U.S. president had just come into the Oval Office, committed from day one to help the parties reach a two-state solution. Israel had re-established its deterrence against rocket fire from the Gaza Strip following Operation Cast Lead. Hezbollah was also deterred, a fact illustrated by its silence during Israel's campaign in Gaza. By many accounts the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had come very close to concluding a peace agreement with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert just a few months earlier, yet was hesitant to do so knowing that Olmert would soon be indicted and out of office. Meanwhile, security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority was soaring to new heights, mirroring the rapid growth of the West Bank economy. The Arab League continued to stand by its pledge to normalize relations with Israel upon a successfully negotiated agreement to the Arab-Israeli conflict. A new Israeli government was soon formed with a solid coalition. That summer, President Barack Obama made a historic overture to the Arab world in his speech in Cairo, and the right-wing Likud Prime Minister in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, accepted the principles of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a speech at Bar-Ilan University. With so many ingredients in place, 2009 appeared to present a genuine opportunity to achieve a long sought-after regional peace that would finally safeguard the independence, security and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
In the end, however, all of the parties failed to seize the moment. The reasons are many, and have been analyzed and re-analyzed by pundits ad nauseam for the past two years. Ever since, the prospects for peace have appeared to significantly regress. Gone are the high hopes that accompanied President Obama into the White House. Hezbollah has re-emerged as a major political force behind the government in Lebanon, reconstituting a significant threat to Israel from the north. At the same time, Hamas remains entrenched in its control of the Gaza Strip and empowered by the Egyptian revolt to the south. Israelis and Palestinians are refusing to budge from their current positions, and are accusing each other of not being a partner for peace. Iran continues its march toward obtaining nuclear weapons, and Israel is under attack by a considerable international delegitimization campaign that is leaving the Jewish state more isolated -- and therefore, more defensive -- than ever before. Meanwhile, the future of the Arab League's Peace Initiative, like the status of the regimes throughout the region, may be in doubt as the Middle East undergoes an historic and unprecedented wave of unrest, revolution and reform.
If on the surface the ingredients were in place for a breakthrough in 2009, the recipe today appears to have the region headed for disaster -- or is it? There are two main schools of thought with regard to the "window of opportunity" for Middle East peace:
The first argues that there is never a perfect time to pursue peace, to which I wholeheartedly subscribe, and therefore opportunities for peace must be continuously pursued and even created. Furthermore, moments of crises could in fact lead to moments of opportunity for peace. This view is most often predicated on the belief that if Israel does not achieve a two-state solution soon, it may face dire consequences. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is among the adherents of this view, once telling reporters that "If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished." This "now or else" approach considers that the long-term challenges that will face Israel if it does not achieve peace are likely far worse than the short-term risks posed to the Jewish state by pursuing an agreement.
On the contrary, the second argument posits that without necessary assurances -- whether security, political, economic or social -- pursuing peace is an unnecessary risk and a distraction to securing short-term national objectives. This perspective generates the commonly heard arguments that peace cannot be pursued until Israel's neighbors take specific actions to ameliorate the regional atmosphere to be conducive to successful peace talks. Unlike the first perspective, this view fears the risks of the present far more than those of the future, and therefore adherents are reluctant to change a status quo that appears manageable, if not ideal, especially since any peace agreement requires significant Israeli concessions.
The debate between these two arguments can be easily resolved today with an additional question: Is Israel better off than it was two years ago? The answer is unequivocal -- no. Israel is more isolated in the international community and more threatened from all sides than perhaps ever before.
But what can and should Israel do amidst unprecedented regional turmoil and uncertainty? Any major Israeli concession now would be viewed as a sign of weakness. Throughout the Middle East, autocratic regimes are bribing their people with money and instituting some reforms in a blatantly transparent attempt to sidestep the revolts. Any major move by Israel would similarly be viewed as a desperate measure to ride out the current storm. However, Israel cannot afford to do nothing and allow its position to deteriorate even further. The new governments formed in Egypt and elsewhere will eventually address domestic discontent and refocus their attention on foreign policy matters. They will be especially susceptible to populist demands to aggressively counter Israel's continued occupation of the Palestinians. Meanwhile, leaders of nations with which Israel must make peace: Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinians, have thus far been immune to the revolutions sweeping the region.
Rather than making a major concession under pressure, Israel should send signals that - consistent with Prime Minister's speech at Bar-Ilan University - Israel is 1) committed to maintaining peace with Egypt and welcome its continuing mediating role with Hamas, 2) ready to negotiate with the Palestinians regarding future borders, and 3) prepared to engage the new-look Arab League on its Peace Initiative. All three steps would represent a change of tone and substance, but from a position of strength.
The Israel-Egypt peace treaty is critical to Israel's security calculations. Nearly 70 percent of the Egyptians were born after the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed and have lived under conditions of peace with Israel. But inevitably the new Egyptian government will be pressured to downgrade its relations with Israel should there be no movement toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace. It is critical that Israel give the Egyptians no pretext that justifies the diminution of Israel-Egypt ties.
The Palestinians have refused to negotiate despite Israel's claim that it is ready to negotiate unconditionally. That is because few among the Palestinians and in the international community believe Israel's calls for negotiations are sincere. Furthermore, Israel has privately insisted that any negotiations start with security matters. By indicating its willingness to begin talks on borders, a key issue of concern for the Palestinians would signal that Israel is indeed serious about returning to peace negotiation, and place pressure on the Palestinians to respond. While the unrest in the region is creating an uncertain future, it is clear that without a change to the status quo, Israel will be more isolated than ever. By September, the Palestinians plan to seek a United Nations General Assembly Resolution declaring Palestinian statehood in conjunction with the completion of Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad's state-building plan. Avoiding such a prospect will require Israel to demonstrate seriousness about peace talks, and in so doing disabuse Palestinians and the international community of the belief that Israel is completely opposed to peace.
If the Arab League meets as scheduled on March 29 in Baghdad, it will be addressing unprecedented challenges. However, in the dust of the regional turmoil, Arab confidence is also shining. The future may be murky, but at the moment the peoples of the Arab world appear more hopeful and optimistic. Israel should capitalize on this moment by providing the Arab League another issue to think about in Baghdad: an Israeli overture praising the Arab Peace Initiative and a declaration that Israel is prepared to discuss its contents with Arab representatives as a basis for a comprehensive regional peace. If it does not seize the Arab Peace Initiative now, and the prospects for peace further deteriorate, the opportunity may be lost. Israel should therefore send an unequivocal message: it welcomes the more transparent, accountable and democratic trends in the region and is prepared to engage the Arab states to reach an historic peace agreement. However, if, as reported, Netanyahu comes up with his own peace plan, it must be compelling so that the Palestinians take it seriously. Any unilateral steps taken by Netanyahu -- presumably to advance the peace process -- will fail and will be counterproductive, just like the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005 by former Prime Ministers Barak and Sharon respectively. Only through a negotiated agreement will an Arab-Israeli peace endure.
In navigating the current regional environment, Israeli leaders today should reflect on the famous saying by Rabbi Hillel: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?" There will never be a perfect time to make peace with enemies. However, there is never a bad time to take steps toward peace that could ensure Israel's security as a Jewish, democratic state living alongside its neighbors in peace. Now is the time.
Follow Alon Ben-Meir on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AlonBenMeir