Uzi Benziman: Is Israel a Partner?

By Uzi Benziman

In the 1967 war, Jordan’s King Hussein was considered an enemy of the state of Israel. In the 1973 war, Hussein refrained from joining the combined assault of Egypt and Syria, and there are those who say that he even warned Israel about it. Twenty-one years later, Jordan signed a peace agreement with Israel: The enemy of 1967 and covert ally of 1973 became an overt friend.

When official Israel claims to have no partners with which to establish peace, the development of the relationship with King Hussein should be placed in the public eye. The "no partner" status is reversible, and Israel can have a significant influence on its expiration date. Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat was not considered a partner in ’73, and earned the status of very desired guest in ’77.

Government spokesmen in Jerusalem explain in retrospect why Sadat does not resemble Hafez or Bashar Assad, why Hussein does not resemble Yasser Arafat, why the hostile situation that Israel had with Egypt and with Jordan had the potential to change while the relationship with the Palestinians is fated to be eternally drenched in blood and Syria will remain an enemy forever. These explanations, however, ignore the Israeli side of the equation: The desire to hold onto the West Bank and the Golan Heights has a critical impact on the development of the conflict.

A state that seeks peace with its enemies must, before anything else, change its mental approach to them so that it views them as potential partners. If the enemy is a priori perceived as a devil whose hatred cannot be overcome, then the chances of reaching an understanding with him are null. If the Syrian government and the Palestinian Authority appear to be eternal enemies as a matter of principle, then any attempt to initiate a dialogue with them is a lost cause. In addition, the likelihood of the decision makers in Jerusalem launching such an initiative is slim; they have closed themselves off from such a possibility by virtue of the rigidity of their approach to the leaders in Damascus and Ramallah.

These are naive observations, however: Israel missed and continues to miss opportunities to normalize relations with the Palestinians and with the Syrians not because of mental blocks, but rather because of domestic political considerations. Mahmoud Abbas and Bashar Assad are defined as non-partners not because Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz have an emotional problem preventing them as partners in dialogue, but because they do not have the political power to do so. The real deterrent factor acting upon Israeli leaders, including Ehud Barak, Bejamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, has come from within the domestic political system: They feared the residents of the Golan Heights and the West Bank settlers more than they did the plotting of Arafat, Hafez Assad and his son. Olmert and Peretz suffer from the same weakness.

There is no way of knowing whether Israel’s willingness to withdraw from the West Bank and the Golan Heights would result in reliable, long-term peace agreements, but it can be confirmed that Israel is largely responsible for the fact that such moves have not been seriously considered or formulated. Israeli governments since 1967 have preferred domestic tranquility over the possibility of unrest on the foreign fronts. Defining the Palestinian and Syrian enemies as non-partners is a direct consequence of that order of priorities.

The automatic negative reactions to any Palestinian or Syrian signal of a willingness to end the conflict is based on persuasive evidence: the attitude of Hamas to Israel’s very existence; the limited degree of control that Abbas commands over the PA; the role of Assad in arming Hezbollah as well as its connection to Iran; and the like. This volley of reasons is aimed at concealing the strength of the opposite possibility: Conciliation will radically change the hostile relationship; peace agreements will include security arrangements whose purpose is to head off any potential threats; the experience with Egypt and Jordan proves that Israel can have peaceful relations with its Arab neighbors. The way things stand now, the right question is not whether Israel has a partner, but rather whether Israel itself is a partner.
© 2006 Haaretz (October 2, 2006) 

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