Taking Advantage of the Calm Before the Storm

01/31/2012 07:12 pm ET | Updated Apr 01, 2012

Last week, I asserted that it was unlikely that the Israelis and Palestinians would achieve a diplomatic breakthrough by January 26. The history of failed bilateral negotiations shows that it may be time to try a novel and multilateral approach advocated by the Arab Peace Initiative.

This proposal agrees to recognize Israel, terminate its state of war with the Jewish state and normalize relations in exchange for a return to 1967 boundaries (although most analysts agree that a final settlement will be subject to border modifications). This maximal objective could still serve as a basis for comprehensive peace, while a minimalist aim should be for dialogue to persist. Some analysts argue that now is not the time for Israel to negotiate a comprehensive peace with Arab nations whose fate remains uncertain as they struggle with revolution, civil war and an ascendancy of Islamist parties. The opposite may in fact be true.

Three major factors suggest that the time is ripe to take advantage of a political settlement. The first indication is the obvious fact that the West Bank has been relatively quiet for several years. There have been no rockets launched; no suicide bombings; and no massive protests against Israel during the Arab Spring. West Bankers, who are technologically connected to events in neighboring countries, are watching Arabs from Morocco to the Persian Gulf demand freedom and reform. Thus far, no wide scale protests have erupted against the Palestinian Authority or Israel, but this relative calm may be fleeting. Israel, encouraged by the United States, should take full advantage of this relative calm. Negotiating peace under duress is far more difficult than during periods of tranquility, and what we have now is such a period.

The second encouraging factor is the decline of Hamas's power. After losing its political headquarters in Damascus, Hamas is on the defensive and is even more susceptible to outside pressure. Iran threatened to reduce aid if Hamas withdrew support from Syrian President Bashar Assad. Hamas is looking for new patrons and a new base. It would like to relocate close to Israel, and Jordan would be a top choice. However, King Abdullah has refused to permit Hamas to engage in any political activity. Other options include Tunis or Cairo, and rumors surfaced that Ankara would offer asylum and financial backing to Hamas, although Turkey denies this.

Nonetheless, these nations either have peace treaties with Israel or have close ties to the West. Therefore it is unlikely that they would tolerate Hamas to resume anti-Israel activity on their soil. This new political paradigm has already influenced Hamas to adopt a more pragmatic and less intransigent posture. By ostensibly agreeing to join the PLO, Hamas might one day agree with PLO declarations that it could accept a Palestinian state along the 1967 boundaries.

The third reason Israeli-Palestinian dialogue should continue lay in the unpredictability of future Arab governments. Marwan Muasher, Jordan's former foreign minister and deputy prime minister articulated that new governments forming in the Arab world will be more sympathetic to the aspirations of their constituents -- most of whom are highly critical of Israel. He warns that while the Arab Peace Initiative remains a viable pan-Arab peace proposal, it will not be on the table indefinitely.

Once more, Israel cannot negotiate out of fear but it concurrently cannot stand oblivious to shifting geopolitical realities. In such a rapidly changing Middle East whose future remains uncertain, dialogue must continue. In the past two decades, the Israeli-Palestinian bilateral track has repeatedly failed to produce a final agreement. If this track has reached a dead-end, perhaps the multilateral Arab Peace Initiative should be considered.

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