One can imagine a different approach, extracting the best of multilateralism, of bilateralism, and of unilateralism. One can imagine a new international effort, inspired by but not based on the Arab Initiative, that would stipulate a resumption of negotiations on all tracks and promise full Arab recognition and normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for a comprehensive peace. One can imagine Israeli-Syrian negotiations beginning in earnest. One can imagine unilateral Israel withdrawals from the West Bank —coordinated with President Abbas and with active supervision by a third party acceptable to both sides—developing into full-fledged Israeli-Palestinian negotiations once Palestinians have sorted out their domestic situation and improved their security capacities. One can imagine and hope for such an approach, but one ought not to expect it. For it would demand the kind of political creativity, boldness, and skill that have been disastrously in short supply.
This is the conclusion to a piece by Rob Malley and Hussein Agha in the latest edition of the New York Review of Books. In it Rob and Hussein provide a comprehensive tour de force of the current state of play in the peace process, among and between the various parties.
Given how insightful these two authors are, it is hardly surprising that they deliver most of the key observations worth making right now.
If you don't have time to read the entire article, here are some key arguments.
On Hamas' evolving political positions and how to respond to Mecca:
The US and Israeli governments will be tempted to ignore the change, persisting in their attempts to isolate Hamas and deal only with non-Islamist members of the government. But it is only a matter of time before such fantasies come crashing down. One of the goals of the US and Israel may be to bolster Abbas, yet nothing has weakened the Palestinian president more than misplaced international attempts to strengthen him. If Hamas feels thwarted in its attempt to share power, it will do what it can—and it can do much—to torpedo Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. One cannot prevent the Islamists from ruling and then expect them to acquiesce in a political process from which they have been kept out. To negotiate with the Palestinian Authority while simultaneously excluding Hamas would be tantamount to negotiating with only one part of the political system, controlling only part of the security forces, and commanding only partial loyalty from a divided, and inherently suspicious, population.
On the current mood in Israel regarding peace options:
Nor is there much ideological enthusiasm remaining for a two-state solution. Israelis accept it and most believe it is inevitable, but gone is the passion or zeal. The dream of Greater Israel has expired, but so has Oslo's vision of peaceful reconciliation with the Palestinians. There has been too much violence and bloodshed, and too much disenchantment with the Palestinians, their leaders, and their methods and ability to govern, for it to be otherwise.
With Hamas's rise, Iran's ascent, and Hezbollah's war, the politics of the region also have become far more baffling; Israelis exhibit uncommon indecision. They ponder whether it is time for bold military moves or grand diplomatic bargains, whether to respond to Syria's peace overtures or to spurn them, whether to deal with Abbas or to forget him. The government, troubled by its failure to defeat Hezbollah or release its captive soldiers, is still searching for a response to the Islamists' intensive rearming. Criticized from all sides and divided from within, it lives day to day, as if on borrowed time. A nation accustomed to certainty has become hostage to doubt.
On the real meaning of the Arab Initiative:
As Arab countries and Saudi Arabia in particular conceive it, the initiative ought to be valued not so much for its content—its vague language on territory and vaguer language on refugees hardly qualify as a peace proposal, let alone a plan—as for its promise. Rather than provide the substance of an agreement, it was a roundabout way of inviting Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese to sit down and sort out their disputes and it was implicitly a way of saying that whatever they can agree on will be regionally rewarded and protected.
The Arab League's offer was not to negotiate with Israel. It was intended to describe, instead, the shape of life after a comprehensive agreement: peace, reconciliation, and normalization of relations with the whole of the Arab world.
... Palestinians cannot make historic decisions on their own; but they could do so, perhaps, with the backing and political cover of the entire Arab world.
And finally, on the need to involve Syria and go for a comprehensive agreement:
On its own, a peace agreement with the Palestinians, but without agreements with Syria and Lebanon, will not necessarily prompt peaceful relations between Israel and the rest of the Arab world and will do nothing to discourage either Damascus's allies in Palestine from undermining the deal or Hezbollah from maintaining its military pressure in the north. For Israel, the strategic advantages of a separate Palestinian deal are partial and the political costs are high. By contrast, a comprehensive agreement with Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese would amplify the payoff. It will result in peace treaties, diplomatic recognition, and normal relations with Arab neighbors, far and near. If Israel and Syria can settle their conflict, a pragmatic Hezbollah will have to put much less emphasis on its military component and accelerate its transformation into a purely political party. The Iranian leadership will also have to adapt, not so much by cutting its ties to Syria as by fitting into a radically different Arab-Israeli relationship. By boosting the rewards to Israelis from making territorial concessions, a comprehensive deal can make up for the absence of sustained effective pressure on Israel to reach it. In short, peace negotiations under the Arab Initiative's umbrella could help minimize Palestinian obstacles to a deal while simultaneously maximizing the returns Israel can expect from it.