2007: Israeli-Arab Peace,
or Another Israeli-Arab War?
By Marcia Freedman, President

The Middle East is a gloomy place as we move into 2007, and threatening, too. The possible flash points for military conflict are numerous, even leaving aside Iraq, and Israel is the focal point of several.

The Israeli military warns of war on the northern front, not only with Hezbollah, but possibly with Syria as well. Ehud Olmert has made threatening speeches about the danger of a nuclear Iran, all but endorsing military action in the future. The increasing violence inside the occupied territories is already weakening the Hamas/Fatah ceasefire with Israel, and both the U.S. and Israel have approved a large shipment of arms to Fatah from Egypt. None of this bodes well for peace on Israel's seam lines with the occupied territories.

The threat of a possible conflagration between Israel and Iran, Syria, or Hezbollah is serious, and real. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is regrouping and rearming, as well as flexing its political muscle in an attempt to overthrow the pro-Western Siniora government. In Syria, President Assad is promising a stick along with his recently proffered carrot: he has said repeatedly that he prefers to negotiate the future of the Golan Heights -- but that if necessary, he will resort to the military option. Iran, or at least its President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's, has declared Israel to be Iran's enemy. Though it remains unclear just how much President Ahmadinejad's sentiments reflect those of the rest of his country's leadership, or how long he is likely to remain in power, Israel must of course treat any such comments coming out of Iran with great seriousness.

Heretofore, the prevailing Israeli reaction to each of these threats has been entirely in line with current neoconservative U.S. foreign policy in the region. Syria and Iran are still the Axis of Evil; Hezbollah is a threat to Western interests, not just Israel's security, and must be dealt with militarily; likewise, Hamas is a threat, if of a lesser order, and should be destroyed.

From all indications, both the Israeli Prime Minister's office and the military high command are of one mind with the Cheney-Bush-Rice policies in the Middle East. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert embarrassed both himself and the nation recently when he justified his unwillingness to so much as ascertain the sincerity of Assad's peace overtures with the astonishing assertion that to do so would be counter to the foreign policy of our good ally, the United States. It was an odd example of speaking truth to power.

The December meeting between Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was no exception to the Prime Minister's policy of acquiescence to the White House in formulating Israeli foreign policy. The Bush Administration's stated policy ever since Hamas' electoral victory in Palestinian elections a year ago has been to try to bring down the democratically elected Palestinian government by starving and isolating it, and by encouraging Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah leadership to call for new elections. The Israeli government has played a key role in executing this policy, keeping the Gaza Strip all but hermetically sealed off from the outside world, and failing to remit to the Palestinian Authority the tax monies Israel owes it, thus cutting the Palestinian government off from its most important source of revenue.

As severe economic privation and civic chaos overtake the West Bank as well as Gaza, Abbas appears to have given in to the U.S. strategy -- he has declared that he will dissolve the current Hamas government and call for new elections, though he did not say when. His "reward" was the recent high-profile meeting with Olmert. The meeting was cordial, and Israeli concessions were promised. But no concrete action has been taken to ease the Palestinians' dire plight, and if past experience is a guide, it is unlikely that all or even any of these promises will be implemented in full.

The futility of war in resolving conflict in the 21st century, indeed the changes in the nature of warfare, do not seem to have sunk in yet for either the Bush Administration or Olmert's government. Indeed, one can't help but compare the President's new 'surge' policy in Iraq to Olmert's last ditch effort to send in tens of thousands of reserves during the last days of the Lebanon war, in order to try to achieve what was at best an ill-defined "victory" over Hezbollah at the last minute. The sorry result was that half the total casualties of that war occurred during these last few days. The belligerent strategies adopted by both countries vis-à-vis Iran and Syria, and the apparent effort to encourage an all-out Palestinian civil war all seem doomed to failure, if by nothing else than the weight of historical precedent.

The one bright light in all this doom and gloom is, improbably, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Livni and Olmert share a background as first-generation Israeli-born offspring of right wing leaders in Israel's founding generation. Both are products of a staunchly ideological background focused on establishing a state in the Greater Land of Israel, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River -- but in recent months, Livni has indicated quite clearly that she has moved on from that narrow vision.

Livni unexpectedly and without fanfare or much press broke from Olmert for the first time during the early days of the Lebanon War. She argued (unsuccessfully) that the government needed to have a political strategy along with a military one; her defiance and the Prime Minister's displeasure surfaced in leaks from the cabinet. Soon after, he forced her to cancel plans to attend the cease-fire negotiating sessions at the U.N. by publicly forbidding her to go.

More recently, she has openly disagreed with the Prime Minister's policy of rejecting out-of-hand any possibility of talks with Syria. Indeed, Livni has been a leading voice advocating for careful consideration of Assad's overtures in order to assess their viability before responding, and she has ordered her staff to study the Syrian offer closely, in spite of Olmert's reticence.

And most recently, at the same time that Olmert was meeting with Abbas, Livni held a parallel meeting, unbeknownst to Olmert, with other high-ranking Fatah officials, including Yassir Abed Rabbo, with whom Yossi Beilin successfully negotiated the Geneva Accord. The tension between Olmert and Livni is not new, but this meeting, in which she presented her vision of a two-state solution and listened to the Palestinian response, may be the first time she has taken such an independent path.

In several recent interviews Livni has made clear that her mission in politics is to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a two-state solution. She is committed to getting as much of the Greater Land of Israel as possible, but she is clear that a mutually agreed upon peace with the Palestinians needs to be Israel's #1 priority.

We can hope that Tzipi Livni will inspire the Israeli government to reasonable behavior while there is still time. And we can hope further that, in the U.S., Nancy Pelosi as the newly elected Speaker of the House can do the same. Whether or not there is war or peace in the Middle East in 2007 may depend on the leadership of these two women.

Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
11 E. Adams Street, Suite 707
Chicago, IL 60603
Phone: (312) 341-1205
Fax: (312) 341-1206


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