As the Jasmine Revolution continues to sweep across the Arab world, realist pundits have proclaimed that now is the time for Israel to make significant traction on the peace process and resolve the Palestinian question. Their case is ostensibly reasonable: Only by creating a Palestinian state will Israel avoid the hostility of emerging Arab governments and gain acceptance in the Arab world. For the realists, it is Israel’s supposed refusal to give up the West Bank that will ultimately threaten its security in a new age of Arab democracy. Their guiding light is that Israel is not acting in its own interests and needs to be pressured by the international community and the current American administration no less to behave accordingly. The message here is clear: The realists apparently know what is in Israel’s interest more so then Israel itself – and it is this exact mindset that leads to their seemingly delusional conclusions.
The issue with the realists’ train of thought is that it solely stresses what Israel must do and concede, while instantaneously ignoring its legitimate needs. There is an implicit assumption that the onus for peacemaking rests squarely on the shoulders of Israel, and that it has been Israel’s reluctance to move forward and withdraw from the West Bank that explains the perpetuation of the conflict. In actuality, this is far fetched from reality, where Israel’s willingness to trade something tangible – land – for something intangible – peace – is constrained by the existential threats that it faces in the region, with none greater than that posed by Iran.
It is aggressive Iranian meddling that has made hasty land withdrawals anathema to Israel’s security. In 2000, when Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon, an Iranian-backed Hezbollah filled the vacuum left behind and perpetuated rocket attacks against Israeli civilians, which ultimately lead to the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Then in 2005, when Israel voluntarily withdrew all of its settlers and occupation from Gaza, another Iranian proxy that showered Israeli civilians with rockets filled the void - this time in the form of the violent Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. This obliged Israel to respond forcefully with Operation Cast Lead in 2008. In both of these instances, mistimed Israeli land withdrawals didn’t bring peace – on the contrary they brought war.
Today, upheavals in the Arab world have been a boon to Iranian power in the region. The Sunni and Western-backed alignment of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia that directly opposed Iranian influence is now in shambles, while Iran’s closest Arab ally – Syria – has remained unscathed. Meanwhile, in the midst of revolution, Iran has quietly strengthened its footing in Lebanon with the emergence of a new Hezbollah-backed government, while further flexing its power against Israel by sending two military vessels across the Suez Canal and up the Mediterranean – the first such instance since the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
Now, in the midst of the Jasmine Revolution, Israel is faced with another predicament. A West Bank withdrawal that would be a victory for the Palestinian Authority (PA) would be an equal victory for Israel's security. However, as the exasperated reactions of most Palestinians to the recent revelations of Al Jazeera’s Palestine Papers show, the PA does not have the respect or confidence of Palestinian society and simply cannot deliver on a final settlement. With uncertainty over the future of Israeli-Egyptian cooperation against Hamas, a weak Palestinian partner in peace, and a growing Iranian threat, what guarantee does Israel have that a third withdrawal from land would not inevitably lead to another Iranian-backed Hamas coup similar to Gaza? The end result in such a scenario would be that the entire land of Israel – from Eilat in the south to Tzafat in the north – would be vulnerable to terrorism from the sky. Ultimately it would be Israeli civilians – and not those of the international community – that would pay the price.
Thus, a pragmatic approach that both honors the legitimate national aspirations of the Palestinian people while preserving Israel’s security is necessary. Yes, now may be the time for Israel to move forward, but not by itself and not without Arab reciprocation. Both established and emerging Arab governments must accept that Israel exists as a right – and not just as a fact – and work with it to curb the influences of Iran and its proxies, while taking steps to integrate Israel into the regional community. Otherwise, in the upheaval of the Jasmine Revolution, Israel will be obliged to continue to uphold its principles of scrutiny and security – and rightfully so.
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