A Half Full Cup
By Daniel Levy

The following is an edited and abridged transcript of the presentation delivered by Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the Century and New America Foundations, during our Advocacy Days training session. See bio.

I think there’s a story of a half full cup to be told, and I think it’s quite a useful way of framing things. The very existence of the Kadima Party – I think one shouldn’t underestimate how significant it is that a group of people with deep revisionist backgrounds, the princes and princesses of the Likud, who formed a party predicated on the need to get out of Gaza, the recognition that we can’t have an Israel which is in occupation, occupying in perpetuity.

People who have made that journey from the right quite often find that going that final few yards is the most difficult part of the journey – but that’s what’s going to be necessary to clinch the deal.

Also, the fact that the negotiations have been resumed on permanent status issues after such a long hiatus that what we did the Geneva Initiative... At the time, our hope and our belief was that when the day comes around that there would again be permanent status negotiations, Geneva would be on the table – and I say without hesitation that that is now the case.

A second piece of good news is that the basis on which Israel is currently negotiating with the Palestinians is far more realistic than it was under Barak...and the third piece of good news I think is the Gaza ceasefire, which is terribly fragile at the moment, but it’s a moment of realism from the Israeli side.

But Israel still hasn’t found the political courage to go the extra mile, to translate the realization that peace requires two states...an end to occupation...a viable Palestinian state neighboring Israel. In order for Israel to continue as a democratic and Jewish state, that realization has to be translated into: well, ok, you asked for this – tell the truth to your public and tell the truth to yourselves.

People who have made that journey from the right quite often find that going that final few yards is the most difficult part of the journey – but that’s what’s going to be necessary to clinch the deal. Unfortunately there’s still a deep contradiction in Israeli society, so even if you have leadership that talks the way these guys often do about settlements – the settlements are still being expanded. Even if you have leadership that talks about the need to strengthen Abbas – you still basically destroyed him and Fatah as a viable unique Palestinian leadership.

Part of why Israel is doing this the ceasefire with Hamas is that so when, inevitably, there is a military operation in Gaza that won’t look pretty, at least we can say to our public and to the international community: "We tried the ceasefire first." There are people in the Israeli side who want the “this can’t work.” Those people who believe that won’t want to be proven wrong.

Let’s be clear: Yes, Hamas will be preparing itself for the eventuality that there will be another round of violence, and I think it’s not a secret – so will Israel. On both sides they would be crazy not to be doing that.

For those of us who have been advocating for peace, the renewal of Israeli-Syrian talks is, I think, good news. There isn’t any Israeli-Syrian peace deal around the corner, I’m pretty sure of that, but I think it is doing two things, serving a Syrian need and an Israeli need, in addition to the hope that they will eventually set the basis for peace.

On the Israeli side, I think there’s recognition that calming the northern front by engaging with Syria is a valid and worthy exercise and goal. I think it’s designed to make things a bit more difficult for Hezbollah, and also add some more calculations onto Hamas’s thinking and obviously to have an effect vis-à-vis Iran. So I think those are signals being sent.

On the Syrian side, I think the main signal the Syrians are sending by engaging in these talks is not really the expectation that a deal will be delivered on the Golan in the near future, but to send a message to Washington – and to Washington in six months, not Washington now.

There are two sides to the leverage coin, and I think we focus exclusively and unintelligibly on one side of that coin.

I do think they have an interest in changing the nature of their relationship with the U.S... I do see a strong possibility for positive change, and I think it’s an important message to convey that a future President get on with these negotiations as well as those between Israel and the Palestinian. I would just be careful about being too reductionist or simplistic about it, about thinking that if we talk to Syria immediately they will settle all relations with Iran.

Number one, it changes the nature of Iran’s strategic equation in the region if Syria is at least hedging, if Syria is talking to Israel and the Americans are still maintaining relations with Iran.

Number two, I’m not sure it’s a bad thing if you have actors who are involved with a multiplicity of sides in the region. I’m not saying Syria would be an ideal channel to Iran, but look at the role the Turks are playing. The Turks are brokering Israel’s talks with Syria, but have also become closer to Iran in the last year, and were one of the first who invited the Hamas leadership after Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections – and yet Turkey has continued to be a staunch ally of the U.S. and a staunch ally of NATO and of course a great ally of Israel’s.

If Syria had a peace treaty with Israel and a density of relations with the U.S. – including economic and trade relations – and yet Iran maintained its current posture vis-à-vis the U.S., well, something would have to give. And if the Syrian interest would be in the new relationships that it was building... then I think that would be the way to change that whole relationship.

About Iran... I think there is an interesting point of departure in the things that Secretary of Defense Gates and General Petraeus have said. Gates gave a talk to retired diplomats where he discussed engagement. And in his speech what Gates said, and what Petraues echoed at his confirmation hearings was: “There is more chance of a constructive outcome to engagement if we increase our leverage vis-à-vis Iran in advance of that engagement.”

There are two sides to the leverage coin, and I think we focus exclusively and unintelligibly on one side of that coin. One  is the punitive – the sanctions that everyone is trying to move forward. These address how you begin to blunt and neutralize Iran’s own leverage. Iran has all kinds of instruments right now that it can try to deploy in the region.

We need to recognize that the moment of a unipolar world, and unchallenged and untrammeled American leadership isn’t going to last.

But if there were other things we could do to blunt that, then you also have a new element of leverage. The Hamas ceasefire is one. You know if Hamas is locked into a ceasefire and tomorrow Iran turns around and says “OK guys we don’t care that the people of Gaza are now eating more, launch some rockets” – I think if Hamas has an interest in not doing that, Hamas will act as an Iranian proxy.

Finally, in Israel and the U.S., I think there is a space being opened in the discourse that hasn’t been there in previous years and in part, it’s a result of your work and others’ work, and in part a result of the unfortunate circumstances in which we live, and the unfortunate developments in American policy in the Middle East.

Lately, we’ve had leading pro-Israeli commentators openly writing about their concerns that America is sometimes not a tough enough friend to Israel, and we’ve seen a presidential candidate of a major party go to AIPAC, and sure, threw some red meat, but also give something that would be considered very counterintuitive to where that organization was going last year – to go to that conference and explain why the Iraq war is not only bad for America and American national interests, but also why it’s bad for Israel and Israeli interests... and explain that this is something we need to be thinking about as friends of Israel.  And he further said that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has to be a priority at the beginning of an administration, not in year seven... I think this is demonstrative of a new narrative, a narrative that is far more mainstream than it was in the past. Which I think means there is a new receptivity to our message, to your message.

However, we need to recognize that the moment of a unipolar world, and unchallenged and untrammeled American leadership isn’t going to last. The decline was dramatically accelerated by the Bush administration, but it can be slowed. Israel has a tremendous, I would say essential, interest in getting its final borders defined, getting them... accepted by its neighbors and by the broader Arab and Muslim world, while we still have an America that is powerful enough to help drive that kind of thing to resolution.

Something we want to encourage then, is that the current administration continue its efforts, and hand them over to the in-coming President.

Daniel Levy is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative at The Century Foundation and a Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Initiative at the New America Foundation.

During the Barak Government, he worked in the Prime Minister's Office as special adviser and head of the Jerusalem Affairs unit under Minister Haim Ramon. He also worked as senior policy adviser to former Israeli Minister of Justice, Yossi Beilin. He was a member of the official Israeli delegation to the Taba negotiations with the Palestinians in January 2001, and previously served on the negotiating team to the “Oslo B” Agreement from May to September 1995, under Prime Minister Rabin. In 2003, he worked as an analyst for the International Crisis Group Middle East Program. Daniel was the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative and prior to joining The Century Foundation and New America Foundation was directing policy planning and international relations at the Geneva Campaign Headquarters in Tel Aviv.

Levy received a Bachelors and Masters with Honors from King’s College, Cambridge; he was awarded prizes in Social and Political Science and was Scholar of the College. He served as World Chairman of the World Union of Jewish Students in Jerusalem from 1991 to 1994 and as Projects Director for the Economic Co-operation Foundation, a policy planning think-tank in Tel Aviv. He has published extensively in a broad range of publications including Ha’aretz, The Jerusalem Post, The Boston Globe, United Press International, The American Prospect, The Washington Monthly, The International Herald Tribune, and more.

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