Prospects for Arab-Israeli Regional Cooperation

, February 7, 2010

Vol. 9, No. 19    February 7, 2010

  • Regional cooperation begins with resuming negotiations with the Palestinians. In the interests of achieving a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace, Israel sees the economic domain as one of the cornerstones of good relations.
  • Political dialogue with our Palestinian partners is critical, but it will not be furthered by allowing a settlement freeze to be imposed as a precondition to negotiation. Nor will it be advanced by a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood.
  • Beyond the Palestinian question, the largest obstacle to regional peace is the current Iranian regime, which continues to do everything in its power to undermine the moderate regimes in the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the good relations that Israel might have with Muslim and Arab countries.
  • If Syria is transferring missiles to Hizbullah, then Syria cannot be serious about making peace. Although Syrian rhetoric is full of references to that country’s willingness to negotiate, Syrian support and financing of terrorist organizations belie the claim. Still, Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated clearly that he is willing to resume negotiations with Syria without preconditions.

The Time Has Come to Make Peace

The time has come to make peace in the Middle East and, in my view, the prospects are good, provided the Americans and the Europeans act judiciously to help the parties involved narrow the gaps.

Regional cooperation begins with resuming negotiations with the Palestinians. As minister of regional cooperation, I am working to implement some projects with the Arab world, but with the Palestinians it is more difficult than with the others, in part because of the personalities involved.

Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is trying to build his political career as an independent. He is not part of Fatah, and many senior officials in Fatah oppose him. They view him as someone who has spent too many years in the United States and who had been “bought” by Condoleezza Rice and George Bush. Fayyad knows that in order to build himself up as a political figure, he must not engage Israel in a way that would hamper support from his Palestinian constituency. The Palestinian Minister for National Economy, Bassem Khoury, was forced to resign after he met with me under the auspices of the Joint Economic Committee formed in 1995 in order to implement the Paris Protocol, the economic part of the Oslo Accords.

Having met PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad many times, I believe that they are sincere about their willingness to move towards peace. Of course they envision peace quite differently than Israel does. Abbas, for instance, says that peace should include the implementation of the “right of return,” which of course would spell the end of the State of Israel.

Anyone who imagines that Marwan Barghouti, a terrorist currently serving five life terms, should be president of the PA, or that he could bring an end to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, is gravely mistaken.

Initiatives to Assist West Bank Development

In the meantime, there is much Israel can do to work toward the achievement of a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace. First, Israel sees the economic domain as one of the cornerstones of good relations. Some examples: Israel, together with the EU (Germany, in particular), is trying to set up an industrial zone in Bethlehem. Israel has opened a vehicle crossing that will enable 500 cars a day to cross from the Israeli side to Jenin in the West Bank. Israeli Arabs shopping in Nablus and other places are helping the PA economy to grow at a rate of close to 8 percent.

The American Jewish Committee’s Paris representative, Valérie Hoffenberg, who also acts as a special envoy of President Nicolas Sarkozy, comes to Israel every two weeks, and now she would like to get involved with the project to link the Red Sea and Dead Sea with a canal. We are also planning to develop the Jordan River for tourists, so that they can access the place where, according to the New Testament, Jesus was baptized by St. John. We are working to grant licenses to Jordanian investors to enable them to build in the Ramallah area. Finally, to ease the daily life of the Palestinians, Israel has removed hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints since the Netanyahu government came into power in April 2009.

The Need for Political Dialogue

Progress must come not only through economic measures, but also through political dialogue. The settlement freeze initiated by Prime Minister Netanyahu in order to restart negotiations with the Palestinians was unprecedented. No settlement freeze was imposed on Prime Minister Ehud Barak when he offered the Palestinians 90 percent of the territories, nor on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when he carried out the disengagement from Gaza, nor on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when he offered 96 to 98.5 percent of the West Bank. Moreover, if negotiations begin with an agreement on the creation of a Palestinian state and a settlement freeze – both issues forthe final status negotiations – then what is left to negotiate besides the status of Jerusalem and the refugees, where there is a deadlock?

The recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is not a precondition. Israel’s recognition of the Palestinian right to an independent state is equivalent to a Palestinian recognition of the existence of the State of Israel, which by Israeli law is a Jewish state. It cannot be, therefore, that Israel will recognize the Palestinian right to an independent state without Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. At the same time, the Palestinian plan to unilaterally declare statehood in two years is not feasible; the international community will not recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders through Security Council fiat. A Palestinian state should be achieved through dialogue and negotiations, and not as a unilateral move.

Israel will negotiate with Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad – or their replacements if they resign – but not with Hamas, which has to this day not abandoned its ambition to destroy Israel. According to the Hamas covenant, the land currently occupied by Israel belongs not to the Palestinians, nor to the Arabs, but to every Muslim around the world, which is why no Muslim – whether he is a king or a president – has the right to relinquish even an inch of that territory.

As foreign minister, I persuaded the European Union in 2004 to place Hamas on the list of terrorist organizations, a decision that was followed immediately by Canada, Australia, and Japan. Hamas still refuses to meet the three conditions on negotiations agreed upon by the international community: recognition of the existence of Israel, a renunciation of terrorism, and an acceptance of previous agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority.

Israel desires peace, but a peace that will ensure security. If the Palestinians come to the table, Israel will negotiate immediately.

The Iranian Threat

Beyond the Palestinian question, however, there are larger obstacles to regional peace. The current Iranian regime – eager to revive the Persian Empire and to become a regional power – continues to do everything in its power to undermine the moderate regimes in the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the good relations that Israel might have with Muslim and Arab countries.

Regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the time has come to make decisions and take action.
The dithering of the international community, which continues to beg the Iranians to accept its offers, has merely enabled the Iranians to buy time. The world no longer believes that a nuclear Iran is Israel’s problem alone, and indeed this may boost President Obama’s efforts to reach a consensus for tough sanctions. It is also true that Iran’s high-volume trade with the United States, the European Union, Canada, Australia, Japan, and others makes it vulnerable to such sanctions. But Iran will never abandon its ambitions to obtain nuclear weapons. To wait for a Security Council resolution, therefore, is a waste of time. Russia and China, for one thing, are not likely to impose real sanctions. Energy-hungry China has signed a $75 billion oil contract with Iran.

Yet quite apart from its nuclear ambitions, Iran seeks to exert pressure on regimes within the Middle East, and eventually to control the whole region. A newly reinvigorated Hizbullah remains the long arm of Iran. Hizbullah is now estimated to have 40,000 to 50,000 missiles with a much longer range than it deployed during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah recently claimed that his militia has missiles that put all of Israeli territory within range. IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi admitted that Hizbullah now has missiles with a range of 300 kilometers, or 200 miles. Weapons smuggling from Iran and Syria to Lebanon continues through Syria’s Damascus airport and Latakia seaport in blatant violation of UN Resolution 1701. UNIFIL is doing little, if anything, to stem the flow of weapons.

Syrian Support for Terror Groups

Needless to say, if Syria is transferring missiles to Hizbullah, then Syria cannot be serious about making peace. Although Syrian rhetoric is full of references to that country’s willingness to negotiate, Syrian support and financing of terrorist organizations belie the claim. All the weapons sent from Iran to Hizbullah go through Syria. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have headquarters and training camps in Syria. Still, Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated clearly that he is willing to resume negotiations with Syria without preconditions

Conclusion

We have in some respects already narrowed the gaps between Israel and individual Arab countries. Egypt and Jordan have embassies in Israel, and Israel has a significant natural gas agreement with Egypt. I have met the foreign ministers of Pakistan and Indonesia and others from the Gulf States and North Africa. I visited Tunisia – the first visit of an Israeli minister to arrive in an Israeli airplane – as well as Turkey, Mauritania, and other countries that cannot yet be revealed. Despite the region’s many dangers, I hope that through judicious negotiations, responsible leadership, and deft diplomacy, Israel can in the coming years do even more to foster regional cooperation.

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Silvan Shalom has served as Vice Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Minister of Finance, Minister of Science, and Deputy Minister of Defense. He is currently Israel’s Vice Prime Minister, Minister for Regional Development, and Minister of Development of the Negev and Galilee. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation to the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on November 12, 2009.

About Silvan Shalom

Silvan Shalom is a Deputy Prime Minister in Israel. From 1997-1998 Shalom served as Deputy Minister of Defense and as Minister of Science from 1998 until July 1999. From 2001-2003 he served as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, and from February 2003 until January 2006 as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. He has also served as Minister for Regional Development and the Development of the Negev and the Galilee.