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Israel's moment to be bold
The crisis in Egypt will present Israel with an opportunity to seize the high ground — and maybe peace, too
 
Robert Shrum
Robert Shrum

Not for the first or last time, Frum and Shrum disagree. Frum now sees peace in the Middle East as a dead end. I believe its time has come — that Israel can retool its approach and transform its place in the region and the world.

First, though, the Frum arguments.

The peace process, he writes, isn’t "important" because the Egyptian uprising was fueled by economic and political dissatisfaction, not the Arab-Israeli conflict. Well, one source of instability is hardly an excuse for perpetuating another. A settlement is important to Israel's security and perhaps ultimately to its survival. America has a vital interest too, and not just because Israel is our close ally. Palestinian dispossession is not just a pretext, but a cause and a battle cry for extremists.

Peace, Frum continues, is not "achievable." The Palestinian demands exceed what the Israelis would ever be willing to give. Well, this is the Middle East — people do try to drive a better bargain — although I will argue that it is a pattern that Israel can and should break.

Finally, Frum asserts an agreement won’t be "durable" because Palestinian leadership is fractured, sustained by Egyptian support — and the Egyptians are about to run out on their "international commitments." That's probably unlikely. In any event, the surest way to avoid peace is to decide not to seek it.

Yet seeking it — now, in a new and different way — is precisely what Israel ought to do. The foundations are there, laid by two Israeli Prime Ministers, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. I was involved in Barak's 1999 campaign, when he drove the uncompromising Benjamin Netanyahu from office. What I remember most in the hours after that victory was not the crowd of 300,000 Israelis that spontaneously gathered in Rabin Square — as inspiring as it was — but what he told me the next night. He was going to risk his premiership to test the Palestinian willingness to settle the conflict. This wasn’t a case of softheaded idealism, but the hardheaded calculation of the most decorated soldier in the country's history. As he put it, "The balance of power in the region is likely to shift against us in the next ten years."

Sadat took the initiative; Israel should too.

I was there again less than two years later when he lost the next election after Yasser Arafat refused to sign the deal that Barak and Bill Clinton had offered at Camp David and then in last-ditch negotiations at Taba, an Egyptian city on the Israeli border. The deal was more than anyone could have imagined an Israeli Prime Minister contemplating: Palestinian control of a substantial portion of the old city of Jerusalem, the return of Gaza and most of the West Bank as the territory of a new Palestinian state — with compensating land transfers for Israeli settlements that remained. There was, however, no "right of return" for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flood back into Israel; there never will be. But there could be compensation financed in part by the United States.

Barak was certain, he said to me in the days before his defeat, that when and if peace ever came, that would be its contours. Today he's the Defense Minister in the Netanyahu government (in the Israel political cycle, the same cast always seems to return to power). I don’t know what he thinks now. But he was right ten years ago. Since then, the balance of power, and world opinion, has moved against Israel. Still today, in its essentials, the old deal is the new deal that must be pursued again.

But not in fits and starts, or in furtive talks of the kind recently revealed by WikiLeaks. Instead Israel should launch its own WikiLeaks diplomacy that defies not only the conventions of negotiation, but the bazaar bargaining of the Middle East. Not just once, but publicly, week after week, Israel should offer a settlement along the lines of Camp David and Taba. Put the document on the table for all the world to see. And offer to meet the Palestinians anywhere, any time, to sign it.

This would require a halt to the construction of new settlements. It would also require a new governing coalition. Netanyahu may be stuck in the paradigm of intransigence; he's undoubtedly hemmed in by the far right parties in his cabinet. The only available alternative is Tzipi Livni, leader of the Kadima Party, who’s previously insisted that since she won the most seats in the 2009 election, she wouldn’t agree to take any post other than Prime Minister. But she might agree to serve in a coalition that would give peace a chance.

Perhaps even Netanyahu can change, following the path of the most improbable convert of all, Ariel Sharon. As housing minister, his only apparent interest in housing was in new West Bank settlements. When a group of us met with him in the 1980s, he whipped out a set of maps to prove his case for a Greater Israel reaching to the Jordan River and beyond. After he vanquished Barak in 2001, he stunningly shifted direction, withdrawing from Gaza, evicting Israeli settlers, expelling recalcitrant ministers from government, and founding the moderate Kadima Party. In 2006, he was only months from victory over Netanyahu and the Likud Party he had helped to found when a stroke left him in a permanent vegetative state.

Netanyahu may be paralyzed by his own ideology and Egypt's unexpected uprising. In any event, any Israeli outreach would have to come after the resolution of the crisis in Cairo. Until then, the Israelis have to lie low. But then, the opportunity will be there — especially because the cold peace with Egypt has been durable and likely will be when Tahrir Square is quiet again. This reflects hard realities: The Egyptian Army's $1.5 billion in military aid from the United States would end if the treaty did. And to secure their borders, the Israelis would likely re-occupy Sinai.

Contra Frum, the durability of Egypt’s treaty with Israel rests not on the endurance of a dictatorship, but on enduring national interests.

The course I'm suggesting may be unthinkable. But so was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s 1977 visit to Jerusalem, where he opened the path to peace in a speech before the Knesset that no one ever expected to hear. A year later, under the auspices of Jimmy Carter, he signed a treaty with a hard-line Prime Minister of Israel. Before Sadat kicked over the conventional wisdom, peace wasn't achievable.

Why can't Israel take a similar chance? What is there to lose — if the alternative is the demise of the peace process? The repeated, public offer of a Camp David-Taba Accord would let Israel reclaim the high ground internationally and morally, and re-engage Arab leaders who are inclined toward a settlement with Israel. Boldness here just might work.

In hunkering down now — in caution, calculation and calcified ideology — an Israeli government could doom itself to another decade when, as Ehud Barak said, "the balance will move against us." If the fever of non-violent protest reaches the West Bank, Israel could be tempted to repress it violently — at the price of becoming more isolated than ever. And indefinite control over a rapidly increasing Palestinian population will inescapably threaten Israel's essential character as a state that is both democratic and Jewish.

Once Mubarak is forgotten, it will be Israel's time to remember Sadat.

 

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