Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

A New Paradigm for Arab-Israeli Peacemaking: A Comprehensive Regional System for Security and Cooperation

Filed under: Hamas, Israel, Israeli Security, Jerusalem, Palestinians, Peace Process, The Middle East
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 438    September 2000

Bilateral versus Multilateral Peace Processes

Over the last two decades, the reliance on separate negotiating tracks in the Arab-Israeli peace process has resulted in a cumulative loss of territories vital for the defense of Israel’s very existence, without any corresponding buildup of peace and security for Israel that could last for generations. The military capabilities of Israel’s potential adversaries have not diminished, but, in fact, have expanded considerably. The normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world, as stipulated in the peace treaties between Israel, Jordan and Egypt, has not advanced, but, rather, has been held hostage to further Israeli concessions in each of the separate negotiating tracks. Finally, the employment of terrorism and violence by Israel’s neighbors became part of the negotiating process with Syria and the PLO.

This was not the original paradigm for the peace process. In 1975, a year after the peace process began under the umbrella of the Geneva Conference, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin gave priority to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace process, in the context of an agreed strategic framework, as opposed to moving forward with separate, bilateral peace tracks with each of Israel’s neighbors. However, the bilateral approach eventually became the choice of Israeli governments that sought to circumvent difficult problems, like the status of Jerusalem and the location of international boundaries.

In order to obtain separate peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, Israel withdrew from all of the territories it had captured to which they held claim (all of Sinai went to Egypt and territories from the Arava as well as in the Jordan Valley went to Jordan). To reach an interim agreement with the PLO in accordance with the Oslo Agreements, Israel has so far conceded control of 40 percent of the West Bank and 90 percent of the Gaza Strip. Yet, with all of these separate agreements, Israel did not modify the joint Arab approach to red lines for peace with Israel, as detailed below.

One central factor influenced the decisions of Israeli governments for territorial withdrawals of such an extent for the sake of separate peace agreements: the involvement of the United States, which provided Israel with greater self-defense capabilities and increased financial assistance in order to offset the risks of renewed warfare and terrorism. In other words, the U.S. made up for the inadequacies of the strategy of separate peace tracks through its technological and foreign aid programs for Israel. Additionally, security arrangements, including limited forces zones and demilitarization in Sinai, were instituted in order to impede any real-time, surprise attack from Egypt or Jordan.

However, the real hopes of Israelis for a secure peace as a result of these separate agreements have not been realized. If implemented in spirit and in practice, they were supposed to provide fertile ground for the eventual emergence of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace that would provide Israel with security for generations. The “end of the Arab-Israel conflict” would be realized when peace would spread across the entire region, but this has not occurred.

Presently, given the expected agreements with a future Palestinian state and with Syria, ones that require Israelis to deal with tearing at the heart of Judaism (the status of Jerusalem) and the basis of Israeli national security (Israel’s final borders), it makes sense to have the remainder of the peace process advance within the framework of a comprehensive peace.

This peace framework should be based on the provision of secure borders for the Jewish nation-state (and not for a bi-national state) on the basis of changes in the lines of 4 June 1967. These changed borders should be created by annexing and placing under Israeli sovereignty certain settlement blocs that were originally established out of national security considerations, whose purpose is to safeguard the unity of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, widen the approaches to Jerusalem from the coastal plain, provide defense for the coastal plain from the western slopes of the hills of the West Bank (western Samaria), and provide for the defense of the State of Israel along its borders with Jordan (utilizing the Jordan Rift Valley and the Dead Sea) and with Egypt (in the southern Gaza sector).

Such a framework should also be based on the provision of strategic depth for the borders of Israel, based on the interdependence between Israel’s self-defense capability and security arrangements (political military, and economic) on the bilateral and multilateral levels, which would have at its core an “Organization for Security and Cooperation in the Middle East.”
Organization for Security and Cooperation in the Middle East

Only by re-fashioning the Arab-Israeli peace process to take a more comprehensive approach can a secure and lasting peace be achieved. This means the creation of a new paradigm for Arab-Israeli peace-making, one that seeks to develop enduring peace and security within a multilateral framework of security and cooperation, as has occurred in other regions such as Western Europe (European Union) or Southeast Asia (ASEAN), where regional arrangements have been used to prevent old inter-state armed conflicts from returning or new conflicts from erupting. Indeed, this more regional approach to peace-making is precisely the way Israel had originally defined its preferred strategy for reaching peace back in 1975 when the peace process was just beginning.

With the change of administration in Washington in early 2001, and the possible emergence of a new Israeli government as well, if elections are advanced, a new peace strategy may be conceivable that would allow for the completion of a comprehensive peace agreement. For completing peace treaties with Syria (and Lebanon) and with a Palestinian state, and implementing past treaties in spirit and practice, the best solution is through the establishment of a regional organization for security and cooperation.

The Birth of the Peace Process in 1974

The process for terminating the Arab-Israeli conflict and creating a durable peace between Israel and the Arab states began in 1974 on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 242 (approved on 2 November 1967, after the Six-Day War). This process was also launched under the auspices of the international conference which emerged from UN Security Resolution 338 of 28 October 1973, after the Yom Kippur War.

From the start, the peace process required an understanding of the interdependence between bilateral peace treaties between Israel and the states that it borders, and multilateral agreements between Israel and the Arab states. Bilateral peace agreements were intended to establish agreed-upon borders. They were to be anchored in security arrangements (diplomatic, military and economic) that would remove the risks of war and terrorism which might emanate from these states, including their potential strategic ties to other states as well as to terrorist organizations. Additionally, bilateral agreements were intended to promote the development of normalization of relations by means of diplomatic and economic ties.

Beyond this, however, multilateral peace agreements were intended to bring about a termination of the Arab-Israeli conflict, whose origins date back to the beginning of the twentieth century, by means of durable agreements that reflected a regional system for peace and cooperation.

Ultimately, Israel needs a peace process that is based on the combination of both bilateral and multilateral approaches for a number of reasons: The first involves the relationship between Israel’s need to establish permanent boundaries, and the depth of its national security concerns prior to the achievement of permanent borders. For example, Israel’s security needs with respect to certain boundaries are often a function of threats that emanate from states beyond the immediate circle of countries with which Israel is engaged in a bilateral process.

Israel also seeks the removal of risks to its national existence that are derived from the threat of a conventional military attack by a broad Arab coalition along all of Israel’s fronts and theaters of operation. This consideration includes states that do not actually border Israel but nonetheless have historically dispatched significant expeditionary forces as part of a coalition attack, such as Iraq. In fact, Israel has had to defend itself against such coalitions repeatedly, in 1948, 1967, and in 1973. The risks to Israeli security that need to be addressed in a peace process also include weapons of mass destruction that have been deployed across large expanses extending over a number of Arab states.

Two international conferences opened with great fanfare for the purpose of achieving Arab-Israeli peace. The first, held in Geneva in 1974, never even reached the threshold of multilateral diplomacy, producing only three partial agreements–two with Egypt and one with Syria. The second, held in Madrid in 1991, did not produce any bilateral agreements and began a multilateral process that quickly froze.

Why the Peace Process Developed Bilaterally

The course of the peace process that emerged from both international conferences was influenced by a number of interdependent factors. First of all, the U.S. administration preferred bilateral processes, under American mediation, over a comprehensive peace process that would have required incorporating the Soviet Union, in accordance with the requirements of Moscow’s client states including Syria, Iraq, and even Egypt, until the beginning of the Israeli-Egyptian peace process.

Another factor involved the policies of past Israeli governments that preferred a bilateral peace process, with American mediation, in order to avoid highly controversial decisions that could split the Israeli people and endanger the survival of the government in the Knesset. This reluctance to tackle tough issues particularly applied to the status of Jerusalem, final borders, and settlements.

Furthermore, past Syrian policies promoted inter-Arab unity, or at least coordination, by means of a joint Arab delegation to the Geneva Peace Conference. This policy eventually led to the establishment of the Rejectionist Front that opposed the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty.

Finally, there was the rising political weight of the PLO which became the paramount national movement of the Palestinians. The implications of its growth led to increasing concerns by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan for its own integrity. The rise of the PLO also led to a political clash between Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, each of which sought to become the chief patron of the PLO as part of their regional struggle for strategic hegemony over Arab states.

Despite these developments, the bilateral peace process that began in 1974 did produce a separate peace with Egypt, because of that country’s determination to move toward peace even without Syrian agreement. Furthermore, the bilateral process also produced the 1994 Peace Treaty with Jordan in the aftermath of the Oslo Agreements because of Jordanian aspirations to protect its national rights in the framework of an independent Palestinian state expected to emerge in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The motivating force behind these agreements was a preference for an ideological/territorial compromise over a war that would only yield intolerable losses and in which neither side would be able to impose its conditions on the other side (by political, military, and economic measures).

Limitations of the Bilateral Peace Process

Yet, the bilateral peace agreements that were achieved with Egypt and Jordan did not bring a halt to threats against Israel that emanated from Arab parties that were not yet a part of the peace process. These agreements also did not lead to a cessation of threats from Iran that potentially endangered the existence of Israel. The red lines that became the common basis for the Arab approach to peace did not change: an Israeli withdrawal to the lines of 4 June 1967, the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital, and Israeli recognition of the right of return of Palestinian refugees to the territory within its pre-1967 borders.

In a peace process based on bilateral agreements alone, there was to be no real normalization of relations, as was originally expected from the separate peace treaties that were signed. This was a result of the connection that the Arab regimes made between normalization and the need to achieve a comprehensive peace.

No real enduring security was produced by these separate agreements. This was a direct consequence of the connection that each Arab regime made between Israeli security and its own security on the basis of mutuality in security arrangements. Additionally, there was an insistence that Israel dismantle its purported nuclear capability. Some Arab regimes even insisted that Israel give up its technological superiority that might have military applications; they thus opposed Israel retaining a qualitative military edge in conventional forces against their quantitative superiority.

Threats to Israeli security from beyond the immediate ring of Arab states bordering Israel were not even addressed in the bilateral peace process. This became a far more acute problem in the early 1980s, as the greater Persian Gulf area (Iran, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula) became the focal point of a military buildup in the Middle East, instead of the Arab-Israeli sector. The shift of location for the arms race in the region emanated from both the increase in oil revenues from the late 1970s and the two Gulf Wars, which accelerated the pace of military modernization in the Gulf region. It also led to a rush to acquire or develop weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile delivery systems. As a result, the bilateral peace process now entails Israel assuming greater territorial risks, without any corresponding threat-reduction in the zone that has increasingly emerged as the main military challenge for Israeli security in the future.

If the bilateral approach was workable in 1979, when Israel made peace with Egypt, it has become untenable with respect to Israel’s eastern neighbors. Along Israel’s western front, Egypt is the main source of military strength; other western front states like Libya and Sudan do not significantly add to the considerable military strength of the Egyptian armed forces. Thus, Israel could safely withdraw from Sinai with only bilateral security arrangements.

However, along Israel’s eastern front the situation is entirely different. The Palestinians and Jordan are not the main military threat to Israel. The main potential threats from the east are now from Syria–from both conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction; Iraq–despite the results of the Gulf War with respect to its weapons of mass destruction; and Iran–which is very near to achieving nuclear capability and delivery systems that cover all of Israel. Thus, a bilateral peace process along Israel’s eastern front, based on bilateral security arrangements with bordering states alone, would simply be inadequate.

These threats are not just directed against Israel but rather against all states in the region, and create several dangerous scenarios. There is the threat of the use of weapons of mass destruction by miscalculation or by extremist regimes. They may be used, as well, in connection with international terrorism. Equally, weapons of mass destruction may be used as a counter-deterrent that raises the prospect of new conventional wars. Finally, these weapons and their delivery systems may be deployed in the territory of third parties. In the past, Iraq, for example, has used the territory of Jordan and Syria as a platform of attack against Israel, but this principle could apply in other cases.

The bilateral process, moreover, created a situation in which the major threats to Israel’s security, those that directly affected the calculus of the risks that it could take upon itself, were less noted by public opinion. As a result, Israel underwent a total reversal in the eyes of world opinion. From a state which Arab regimes sought to destroy or at least diminish to narrower borders, it became a state accused of preferring the use of force in order to maintain its territorial conquests.

Under such conditions, it was not surprising that some Arab parties felt they had the freedom of action to conduct a peace process that involved using the threat to resort to war and terrorism every time Israel refused to accept Arab terms for peace. This was particularly true of Syria as it supported Hizballah and Palestinian terrorist groups in Lebanon as a form of leverage against Israel as it sought to regain the Golan Heights. This was also true of the Palestinian Authority, which gave freedom of action for hostile activities (from the Hamas, other Palestinian extreme organizations, Fatah-Tanzim, and also Palestinian police forces) as a form of pressure on Israel to make further concessions. There were no commonly accepted regional rules of behavior that precluded this kind of activity. Thus, rather than begin negotiations only after the achievement of a cease-fire, which was the original concept of the peace process, the main parts of the negotiations with the Palestinians and the Syrians were actually conducted under the threat of fire that emanated from areas under the military control of Israel’s negotiating partners.

Approaches to a Regional Security System

There have been a number of inter-state frameworks for strategic cooperation established in the Middle East since World War II. The Arab League was formed under British auspices in the 1940s in order to protect British interests in the region. Under this framework, its members have joined together over a struggle against “imperialism,” war against Israel, Syrian involvement in Lebanon, and fruitless efforts to resolve inter-Arab differences.

The regimes of key Arab states–such as Egypt, Syria, and Iraq–erected frameworks for strategic cooperation in order to protect their hegemony in parts of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, with American backing, established the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to protect Saudi hegemony among the Arab Gulf states. The common ground for much of this inter-Arab cooperation was the war against Israel, the struggle against “imperialism,” and the resolution of inter-Arab conflicts in accordance with the interests of the regime seeking hegemony.

U.S. administrations created various frameworks for strategic cooperation that included Arab and Muslim states in addition to Western allies, in order to secure Western oil resources and sea lanes from interdiction. During the Cold War, regional security systems for strategic cooperation, under U.S. leadership, were intended to contain the spread of Soviet power in the Middle East. In the course of the Iran-Iraq War, this cooperation was aimed at protecting freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf, particularly from the threat of Iran, which sought to cut off Iraq’s oil trade. After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, strategic cooperation under U.S. leadership not only sought to liberate Kuwait, but also to neutralize threats to pro-Western oil producing states from Iraq and Iran (a policy known as “dual containment”).

Israel also has a framework for strategic cooperation with the U.S., but it is only intended for the Eastern Mediterranean and not for the rest of the Middle East. Even the U.S. command structure kept Israel within the jurisdiction of the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) and not under the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), whose primary responsibility is the defense of the Gulf region. The reason for this distinction is the U.S. preference to not link its strategic cooperation with the process of resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. One direct ramification of this policy was the decision not to integrate Israel into the 1991 Gulf War effort.

Soviet governments sought to develop frameworks for strategic cooperation with the Arab states, until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, in order to accumulate strategic positions along the coasts of the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the eastern Indian Ocean. These strategic relationships led to the equipping of these states with Soviet weaponry. Even today, when the U.S. remains the sole superpower for resolving regional conflicts, there still remains a potential risk that a new regime will emerge in the Russian Federation that will return the Middle East to the Cold War period.

While most of these initiatives arose from military-strategic considerations that may not be as relevant today, still, it is not surprising that Middle Eastern states seek to integrate themselves into diplomatic initiatives for the resolution of conflicts by means of peace treaties and security arrangements. Indeed, many of these conflicts still could potentially erupt into full-scale wars between the Arab states and Israel, between the Arab states themselves, or between Arab states and other Muslim countries, such as Iran and Turkey.

But the preferred way to solve military conflicts, over the long term, is by integrating states into multilateral frameworks that allow new peace processes to stabilize and endure in a world of great geo-political uncertainty, especially with the ongoing efforts to accumulate military capabilities on both the conventional and non-conventional levels. The possible linking of these efforts with extremist ideologies represents a real threat to the national existence and security of many states.

An Analysis of the Options

There are a number of optional multilateral frameworks for regional security and cooperation. One would involve the Arab states and Israel, while another could encompass the entire Middle East region including Muslim states like Iran and Turkey that influence the security of the region. Additionally, great powers outside the Middle East that could influence its geo-politics could be included, especially the U.S., Russia, and the European Union.

An exclusively Arab-Israeli organization would not have the capacity to remove the existential threats that emanate from outside of the borders of the member-states, and would not be able to develop the mechanisms for cooperation to solve international disputes through political means and confidence-building measures. Furthermore, without the incorporation of the U.S., the Russian Federation, and the leadership of the European Union, it will be impossible to erect a regional security system for conventional disarmament and for a zone free of weapons of mass destruction or their delivery systems.

A regional organization for the Middle East that will include Turkey and Iran as well as concerned great powers is preferable, even though it would involve a wide framework containing a number of contradictory national, cultural, and strategic interests. This is because of the interdependence of potential dangers emanating from several regional conflicts that have yet to be resolved: between the Arab states and Israel, between the states of the Persian Gulf, between the states along the Red Sea, and between the Arab states and Muslim non-Arab states–like Syria versus Turkey, or Iraq and the Gulf states versus Iran.

Furthermore, such a wider arrangement would enjoy much greater economic resources and could serve as a means to help alleviate conflicts through economic cooperation, as well as to mobilize the massive economic aid that will be needed for removing economic deprivation that has provided fertile soil for the rise of extremist regimes in the region.

It would also help to remove the dangers from the conventional and non-conventional arms race that emanated chiefly from outside the Middle East, because of the linkage between regional hegemonial ambitions from inside the Middle East to national ambitions of states outside the region seeking to improve their strategic position.

The Growing Utility of Regional Groupings

The growing utility of regional groupings stems from the declining importance of strategically-based alliances in influencing both sides of a military/ideological/boundary dispute. This development has been influenced by a number of factors, including the collapse of colonialism (Western and Eastern) in the second half of the twentieth century; the rise of Third World states on the geo-political map which enjoy political freedom of action to decide in which international strategic framework they wish to belong; the end of the Cold War which endangered the world with nuclear weapons; and the emergence of a common denominator by which most states prefer peace and security over war–despite continuing national-ideological disputes over ethnicity, religion, and culture. International cooperation on an exclusively global basis (the UN Security Council) would not be able to remove existential threats to the security of states.

There are three main threats to the security of states in the twenty-first century:

  • The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
  • Intensified struggles for self-determination leading to movements for secession in multinational and multi-tribal states, such as in the former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union, Indonesia, and in all parts of the world.
  • Economic deprivation, including resource deprivation (such as water), that provides fertile soil for the rise of extremist regimes.

In many cases, these challenges can best be met by regional initiatives. In fact, the relative importance of regional organizations for the purpose of dealing jointly with security and cooperation has increased. Perhaps many states hope to imitate the Western European model by which former adversaries from World War II achieved a stable, long-term peace by creating a strong regional framework.

These organizations have evolved in somewhat similar ways. They began with a “founding charter” that establishes the rights and obligations of all member states on the basis of equality. Clear, agreed norms of international behavior are defined. Moreover, these charters usually require that decisions of the organization be taken on the basis of consensus in order to prevent one party from seeking a superior position in deciding the objectives of the organization.

Some examples of such initiatives over the last number of decades include:

  • The “Helsinki Conference,” which in 1975 created a common framework for all the states of Europe–both pro-Western members of NATO and pro-Eastern members of the Warsaw Pact. Later, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) became the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
  • The “Bangkok Conference,” which was held in 1967 and became the foundation for the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
  • The “Barcelona Conference,” on the basis of the initiative of the European Union, which was initiated in 1995 to create an organization for the Mediterranean countries.

An organization for security and cooperation in the Middle East can be erected on the basis of the 1991 “Madrid Conference.” The establishment of such an organization should be integrated into the stages of the implementation of peace agreements between Israel and Syria (and Lebanon) as well as between Israel and a future Palestinian state. This linkage between final status agreements and a regional organization for the Middle East is needed in order to provide solutions to international conflicts by political means, confidence-building measures, opening borders for cooperation (political, economic, and security), and ending existential threats that emanate from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as well as from conventional arms races. The organization will also be a means for cooperating in the world of the twenty-first century facing challenges of globalization and technological change as well as uncertainties about future threats (both human and natural).

The establishment of a regional organization for the Middle East is not a substitute for U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation, the strategic coordination of the states belonging to the Gulf Cooperation Council, inter-Arab cooperation in the Arab League, or the cooperation of member states with other global and regional organizations, as long as this cooperation does not contradict the obligations and principles of the new Middle East regional organization.

This new organization, together with other organizations established for regional security and cooperation, can become the building blocks for a new world order of global security based on reciprocal relations between them and international security arrangements under the United Nations. These relationships can help fill the vacuum created by the lack of any ordering principle for the international community since the end of the Cold War. As a result, no reliable global security system has been created, whether it be based on the UN Security Council, as presently constituted (or even in expanded form), or based on a non-UN framework.

An “Organization for Security and Cooperation in the Middle East,” as a voluntary organization arising out of common challenges instead of from a mutual threat, could become a critical instrument for assuring the security of the entire region, especially as new peace agreements come to be signed that may not have completely taken root.

*     *     *

Major-General (res.) Abraham “Abrasha” Tamir filled senior command, staff, and training positions in the Israel Defense Forces from 1948 through 1983. He participated in all of Israel’s wars and was wounded in action three times. In 1974 he established the Strategic and Policy Planning Branch which was under both the Minister of Defense and the Chief of Staff. In this capacity he played a central role in the peace process, attending the 1978 Camp David Summit as part of the Israeli delegation. He headed the Security Committee that negotiated bilateral security arrangements between Israel and Egypt and with respect to Palestinian autonomy, in accordance with the Camp David Accords. After leaving the IDF he became Director-General of the Prime Minister’s Office and National Security Advisor under Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and afterward became the Director-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He headed the negotiations with the United States over Israel’s first strategic cooperation memorandum in 1981. From 1990 he was Special Assistant to President Ezer Weizman for research on a project on “Israel in a Changing World,” which was conducted with the Center for Technological Forecasting at Tel Aviv University. He also served as an external advisor on strategic planning to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has published books and articles on military affairs, the peace process, and national security. A graduate of Tel Aviv University, he has also been a research fellow at the RAND Corporation.