A Diplomatic Revolution In The Middle East?

October 10, 2013

The rapid development of events in the Middle East over the last several months has persuaded some observers that a diplomatic revolution is under way. For the first time in many years, serious negotiations are taking place between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that could bring about a peace settlement. In addition, a process is now under way that not only may deprive the Syrian regime of its chemical weapons, but also may lead to peace talks in Geneva that could end a civil war that has already cost 115,000 lives. Finally, a rapprochement is under way between the U.S. and Iran that could lead to the elimination of the possibility that Iran could acquire nuclear weapons.

Each of these three developments, if they were to come to fruition, would greatly enhance Israel’s security. However, despite some optimistic forecasts, it is necessary to take a hard look at whether success in any of the three will be achieved.

There are some promising signs in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. First, the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appears to have come around to the view that a two-state solution is the only path to follow. In addition, some Likud hard-liners, such as Tzahi Hanegbi, seem willing to make concessions on Jerusalem, one of five final status issues that must be negotiated. Third, President Barack Obama has made solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one of his two foreign policy priorities; the other is Iran. Secretary of State John Kerry is devoting a considerable amount of his time to the issue. Finally, a nine-month time limit has been set for the completion of negotiations.

Nonetheless, there are several serious problems that must be surmounted. Are the Palestinians willing to make concessions on the so-called right of return of Palestinian refugees, now numbering more than five million? That’s not clear yet.

Problems remain on the Israeli side. There are die-hard Israeli settlers who, either for nationalistic or religious reasons, will violently resist giving up major portions of the West Bank and who will have to be evacuated for any peace agreement to take place.

Even if this problem is solved and a peace agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Israel isachieved, the problem of Hamas-ruled Gaza remains. With the ouster of Mohamed Morsi as Egypt’s president, Hamas lost its main ally in the region, and it is currently being squeezed hard by the new military-led regime in Egypt.

This poses a rather stark choice for Hamas. Either it will modify its Islamist program, which calls for the destruction of Israel, and move toward a rapprochement with Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, or it can move back toward the so-called “resistance” front of Syria, Iran and Hezbollah. The recent decision by the Hamas leadership to form a joint front with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad — an Iranian-supported terrorist organization — may indicate the direction in which Hamas is moving … and it’s not favorable toward peace.

Dr. Robert O. Freedman is the Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone professor of political science emeritus at Baltimore Hebrew University and visiting professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches courses on the Arab-Israeli conflict and on Russian foreign policy.

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