How regional powers can fill the US credibility gap
There was a tragic sense of déjà vu in witnessing another cycle of bloodshed between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It is not only the manner in which these outbreaks begin and are conducted, but equally how they come to a temporary halt, with a realistic expectation that another outbreak is just around the corner.
Under these circumstances, it is hard to find any silver lining in the aftermath of a further round of hostilities that has resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives, with many more badly injured and societies traumatized. However, there is one cause for optimism; it is that, as in previous wars between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, it was a regional power, Egypt, with the support of other neighboring countries, that brokered the ceasefire. In light of the Abraham Accords, the normalization of Israel’s relations with Morocco, Sudan and some Gulf states, there should be a realization that instead of waiting for powers beyond the region to broker a further de-escalation on the way to a comprehensive peace agreement, there is an opportunity for such an initiative to emerge organically from within the Middle East, supported by others in the international community.
It took 11 days of fighting for a ceasefire to be agreed, avoiding a repeat of the seven-week war 2014, and in spite of the fact that on this occasion the linkage established between what happens in Gaza with events in Jerusalem and Jewish–Arab relations inside Israel meant that a prolonged and even more deadly conflict was very much on the cards. However, now that the sides have agreed to hold their fire, it is paramount that strong diplomatic efforts be made to prevent what looks like the inevitable next round of bloodshed.
From the very beginning of the clashes in Jerusalem this month that spread to Gaza and into Israel’s Jewish-Arab cities, it became apparent that the international community was in no hurry to stop the fighting, for reasons ranging from not seeing it as a high priority issue to not believing they could make a difference, while the rest at least tacitly hoped that the Israeli military machine’s pounding of Gaza, regardless of the price paid by innocent civilians, would crush Hamas’smilitary and political leadership.
However, Hamas scored some important points in the psychological battle with Israel by establishing a new and dangerous equation between the different segments of Palestinian society living between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea, and by demonstrating the improved range and power of its rockets to devastating effect, and in the process distinguishing itself from the Palestinian Authority as being the ones ready to carry on the armed struggle against Israel.
From the very beginning of the clashes in Jerusalem this month that spread to Gaza and into Israel’s Jewish-Arab cities, it became apparent that the international community was in no hurry to stop the fighting.
This should be of concern not only to Israel but also to those in the region who perceive Iran-supported Hamas and Islamic Jihad as a danger to regional stability. To make the situation increasingly volatile, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced that his country’s new policy on rockets despatched from Hamas-controlled Gaza means that it will respond with full force to every single rocket fired and no longer tolerate a steady drip of rockets with no response. If Israel adheres to this threat and the tensions in Jerusalem persist, as they appear to be doing, it will mean that both sides have committed themselves to a shaky ceasefire.
For now, a genuine peace process that could lead to an agreement based on a two-state solution that can unlock the impasse over borders, Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, and Jewish settlers is not within reach. Nevertheless, a de-escalation that could lay the foundations of such a process is by all accounts possible, and to achieve this regional powers can make a significant difference. For instance, a recent survey by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Researchin Ramallah reveals that the top priorities among Palestinians are “the unification of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, improving economic conditions, combating corruption, and the removal of the siege and blockade over the Gaza Strip.” It is possible for countries from within the region to use their influence over both sides to advance these priorities and initiate the rebooting of relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which will reduce the likelihood of further escalation and inject some hope of a long-term solution.
Despite the doom and gloom attaching to the prospect of any sort of improvement in Israeli–Palestinian relations, these findings of ordinary Palestinians’ priorities, and the fact that Israel also needs to rethink its strategy after being caught unawares by the Palestinian eruption inside Israel, in Gaza, in Jerusalem and to some extent the West Bank, have created an opportunity to move from a brokered ceasefire to addressing both sides’ broader, long-term concerns. In light of the half-hearted interest shown by powers outside the region, including the US, this could be best addressed by concerted regional efforts to keep up the momentum created by the Egypt-brokered ceasefire.
Here also lies a rare opportunity for those in the Middle East who have already established diplomatic relations with Israel, and those who are delaying such a move until a peace agreement, to work together and step up a gear, to advance what the Saudi Foreign Ministry described in the aftermath of the present truce as a “concerted effort to find a just settlement of the Palestinian issue in a way that achieves the aspirations of the Palestinian people to establish their independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.” The benchmark for these negotiations should be previous UN resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. Moreover, the commitment made by Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, in a telephone call with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, announcing the UAE’s readiness to facilitate peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians, could play a significant part in such a regional-led initiative.
With the leadership of these, and hopefully additional, countries, the paradigm that assumes it is only the US, with European support, that could broker such a peace, or at least manage the conflict while seeking Middle East powers to support them, could be reversed, probably producing better results. For regional powers, the conflict has an immediate impact on their interests. They do not suffer from the credibility deficit or political pressure faced by an initiative brokered by Washington and to some extent Europe, and could provide support and guarantees to both sides from closer to home.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg