With the continuous deterioration of Palestinian-Israeli civil society relations, it is not often the case that two professors considering themselves to be in the mainstream of both sides co-author an article, or rather an appeal to their respective presidents. Step by step, we want to make the case that a sustainable Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is the best guarantee toward the reduction of nuclear threats and, eventually, the creation of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. Hence, we hope it will come to their personal attention.
After two decades of failed attempts, it seems now that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's proactive initial steps are opening a new but small window of opportunity, although in more adverse circumstances than the one that triggered the Oslo process. But if the Israeli government declares publicly its support for the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, it may secure diplomatic relations with the 22 members of the Arab League and even lead to normal ties with all 57 Muslim countries that have endorsed the Initiative.
Needed: Strong Leadership for "Out-of-the-Box" Ideas
However, at this political juncture of fateful decisions, we can unfortunately sense among both the Israeli and Palestinian decision-makers the lack of strong leadership that is needed to move forward with "out-of-the-box" and necessarily "painful" ideas. The spoilers of peace are ready to disrupt progress toward political re-engagement. Enough threats come from the domestic front. We are not talking about the religious fanaticism of one person who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and with it, the chances of a breakthrough. In the West Bank, the "price tag" terrorist activities of the divinely inspired settlers can trigger at any moment a major calamity; in the Hamas-controlled Gaza, a barrage of Kassam missiles or even longer-range targeting of Israeli cities, are a challenge to any Israeli government to show who has the upper hand, in times of overkilling retaliations and destruction. As affirmed in "Managing Spoilers during Conflict Resolution,"1 our religiously inspired fundamentalists and militant Arab and Jewish chauvinists are not going to be idle and allow the re-engagement to reach fruition, particularly during the negotiations.
We are convinced that xenophobic threats emanating from home have been often exacerbated from the outside. Long-distance nationalism from the "hard core" Diasporas, as well as ambitious regional actors, can all try to play a trump card as well. While Iran was notably among those who endorsed the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, the worrying signs have been consistently present since the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in addition to weaponry and financial support to their proxies in Lebanon, Gaza and Syria. Six years later Iran protested a Middle East peace advertisement in the Guardian and other newspapers featuring an Israeli flag.2
The Logical Way to Deal with Iran
Iran has angrily disassociated itself from Arab and Islamic attempts to publicize a groundbreaking initiative offering to make peace with and recognize Israel. Officials in Tehran were furious that the Iranian flag appeared on a full-page advertisement in the British Guardian and other newspapers, objecting "to any move taken by some Arab countries to push the recognition of the occupying Zionist regime in any manner, including in Islamic conferences." It describes Israel as "the illegitimate and fabricated regime" and condemns the "abuse" of the Iranian flag. And now, two days before his inauguration, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was reported to have said, "The Zionist regime has been a wound on the body of the Islamic world for years and the wound should be removed." A correction soon came from the Iranians that the exact words were "After all, in our region there's been a wound for years on the body of the Muslim world under the shadow of the occupation of the holy land of Palestine and the beloved al-Qods (Jerusalem)," which is really not that different. With Iran's increasing nuclear capability, this is perceived by most Israelis as an "existential threat" which haunts them. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whether he was aware of the clarification or not, went on U.S. television to remind the world that the threat from Iran remains very much alive and vibrant. Speaking on "Face the Nation," he warned that the Islamic Republic is once again approaching a nuclear redline, and hinted that if the United States doesn't take action soon, he will. Israeli leaders have been issuing such alarms for almost a decade now. He recently further cautioned: "I know that some place their hopes in Iran's new president. He knows how to exploit this and yesterday he called for more talks. Of course he wants more talks. He wants to talk and talk and talk. And while everybody is busy talking to him, he'll be busy enriching uranium. The centrifuges will keep on spinning."3
The logical question for Israelis is: How does the Iranian regime plan to eradicate the "Zionist regime"? The absence of a specific answer on their side can easily be interpreted with the worst possible scenario, which is the nuclear destruction of not only the regime but the entire country. And yet, according to a recent poll conducted by the Israeli Dahaf and Prof. Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, despite all the talk of an "existential threat," less than half of Israelis support a strike on Iran. Interestingly enough, 65% of Israelis also prefer that neither Israel nor Iran should have a bomb. And a remarkable 64% favored the idea of a nuclear weapons-free zone, even when it was explained that this would mean Israel giving up its nuclear capability.4
Whether a paper tiger or a real imminent threat, in any case it has been expediently used by Netanyahu to threaten retaliation, and to add another injection of fear to the Israeli public. In addition to the threat and fear of chemical weapons from Syria, the declarations and actions of Hizbullah from Lebanon, Hamas and other extremist groups such as Islamic Jihad from Gaza and, consequently, the formula to vote for a hardliner is always potentially there. Of course, the prime minister conveniently refrains from reminding the Israeli public that, since peace with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, not one soldier has ever been killed on either side of the borders. Namely, even the signing of a "cold peace" agreement with Arab countries works. Peace with the Palestinians can also transform and normalize relations this time with close and far-away Muslim states.
Which Comes First - Peace or Iran?
Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States who is close to governing circles said that "the Obama administration felt that progress on the peace process would set the stage for an effective regional coalition against Tehran. The Israeli approach was the exact opposite, stressing that if Iran's nuclear program was neutralized, then that would set the stage for a real peace process, since that would weaken the most radicalized elements in the Arab world who sought to actively undermine any prospects for peace."
This linkage is further complicating the situation. Most of Netanyahu's coalition partners, and even members of his own Likud party, view this linkage as a double nightmare. Strong indications that Israel is preparing unilateral surgical air strikes against multiple Iranian nuclear facilities darken this bleak picture. Not only would such an operation be militarily difficult to carry out, it cannot achieve Israel's ultimate objective of eliminating the Iranian threat, even for years afterward. Many military and security highranking officers in Israel and the U.S. have warned against such unilateral preemptive strikes, stressing that at best, it will postpone the development of a nuclear strategic capability and become even more inevitable.
By and large, we need to scrutinize carefully how to minimize the nuclear threat by addressing the security relevance of the current negotiations towards an Israeli-Palestinian peace. In a previous short article we contrived to address this intricate issue.5
We humbly believe this is the way out of this tangle. As the risks grow, so do the benefits of bold thinking. We have been teaching our students at the University of Maryland for nearly two decades that "[t]he Israelis and Palestinians are doomed to live together." A couple of summers ago, we added to it this formulation: "… or are doomed to die together."
Appeal to President Abbas
With a peace agreement in hand, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas could then address his Iranian counterpart and ask: "President Rouhani, has Iran been developing a nuclear weapons capability to stand against Israel in solidarity with the Palestinian people?" - and then add, "I am the president of Palestine and say to you now, 'No thanks.' We have made peace with our neighbors and need to move on to a new constructive era. And we want to be secure and safe." Even at this time, President Abbas should remind the world and the Israeli public in particular his strong belief, shared with the late Prime Minister Rabin, that there is no military solution to our conflict, and that the ongoing nuclear issue need not preclude efforts to negotiate peace. If President Abbas can clearly offer a credible security alternative, it would be the opportunity to trump the rejectionists' appeal. His government and the majority of the Palestinians have come to appreciate that a militarized uprising cannot guarantee their independence or put an end to their own traumatic experience of occupation. The PA has sluggishly but progressively supported the concept and practice of nonviolent action. In the West Bank areas that are under Palestinian control, police now provide credible security through close coordination, even though Israel has not fully reciprocated by removing checkpoints, ending nightly army incursions and halting settlements construction.
Appeal to President Peres
At this stage, all decision-makers need to make sure that the nuclear threat does not interfere with the already difficult negotiation process. They should concentrate on controlling and overcoming the pressure of the domestic spoilers. We should primarily appeal to President Shimon Peres, who could have more authority on the nuclear issue in Israel? In 1953, at the age of 30, Peres was appointed by Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to become director-general of the Ministry of Defense. Within three years, Peres had laid the foundation for Israel's nuclear weapons program. He carefully chose France as the major supplier, arranged the sale of a nuclear reactor, and spent the next decade overseeing the construction of the Dimona nuclear plant. And now, showing incredible lucidity at his 90th birthday to externalize what he most probably understands is the last chance for an Israeli-Palestinian peace in his and our lifetimes.
Hence, President Peres, we have collected from your own vision, very relevant quotes: First, we should remark that you have repeatedly said you are "hopeful" that peace talks with the Palestinians will lead to a two-state solution and bring prosperity to the Middle East. You said the talks had "a clear purpose" to have "a Jewish state by the name of Israel and an Arab state by the name of Palestine not fighting each other but living together in friendship and cooperation." You said "there is no alternative to peace, there is no sense to go to war." You said "terror doesn't have a message, terror cannot bake bread and cannot offer fresh air to breathe. It's costly, it's useless, it doesn't produce anything," You said "the Middle East may change if terror and crisis and hunger and unemployment and oppression will make place for a new age of economics and social affairs."6
Second, and not less importantly, you added: "We want to make peace not only with the Palestinians but with all the Arab countries." As just mentioned, President Peres, you have coined the vision of a new Middle East, stressing in your own understanding that "a long-stalled Arab peace initiative could bring peace to the Middle East that is still driven by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In tandem with the bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians, we need to promote the Arab peace initiative." You said that the Saudi plan "needs to be negotiated" further, but that it was "correct" in spirit.
And thirdly, let us all remind ourselves that on many occasions and as early as in December 1955, President Peres, you have been on record as saying: "Give me peace and we will give up the nuclear program, this is the whole story." Though the media heralded this announcement, it reflected nothing more than longstanding policy. For years, Israel has said that it would negotiate the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East after the establishment of lasting peace. Peres has told former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that Israel would be willing to negotiate the signing of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty within two years after the establishment of "regional peace."7
One only need to connect the dots between peacemaking and defusing the nuclear escalation. President Peres: You have the domestic, regional and international prestige to stand up and say it out loud, particularly to Prime Minister Netanyahu and to the Israeli public at large. This is perhaps your unique personal chance as a builder of the Jewish state, the architect of Israel's nuclear capability and a Nobel Peace Prize winner to say it loud and clear, time and time again. You said in an interview that you may have to live 200 years to see peace coming, but you know that the maximal wish among Jews is only 120. So we beg you to be forceful now in your quest for peace; we are all waiting for you to use your magic wand. You know that Israel can no longer sustain itself as a pariah state with a siege mentality; it has to make the historic choice of being a full-fledged nation-state to fit into a new Middle East, and that a just peace and reconciliation is the key for lasting and enduring security.
Creating a "Win-Win" Situation with a Striking Paradigm Shift
This state of affairs demands a striking paradigm shift, through which an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement could actually neutralize the Iranian nuclear peril. This kind of linkage may be the only way to achieve a result in which all the parties - Israelis, Palestinians, Americans and Iranians - can see themselves in a "win-win" situation.
Concluding a regional peace with Israel would at least allow the longterm possibility of making the Middle East a nuclear weapons-free zone, Israel included. We believe this approach is congruent with U.S. President Barack Obama's, as set forth when he won the Nobel Peace Prize, and can deliver its expected fruit. Perhaps, then, we could coin a new phrase for our class: "Israelis and Palestinians are not doomed but blessed to be together." We think that peace and security in the Middle East are long overdue. All it takes is a draconian shift in the mindset of the Middle East leaders.
1 Edward Newman and Oliver Richmond (eds.), Challenges to Peacebuilding - Managing SPOILERS during Conflict Resolution (Tokyo-New York-Paris: United Nations University Press, 2006); see chapter by Magnus Ranstorp, "The Israeli-Palestinian peace process: the strategic art of deception," pp. 242-261.
2 Ian Black, Middle East editor, guardian.co.uk, November 27, 2008.
3 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting on Wednesday (August 7, 2013) with a delegation of pro-Israel activists headed by U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Jerusalem, Press Room, Aug. 7, 2013.
4 Shibley Telhami and Steven Kull, "Preventing a Nuclear Iran, Peacefully," New York Times, January 15, 2012.
5 Manuel Hassassian and Edward Edy Kaufman, "The Tehran tangle in Middle East peace," guardian. co.uk, September 20, 2010.
6 The Nation, August 1, 2013.
7 "Israeli Nuclear Program Pioneered by Shimon Peres," The Risk Report, Vol. 2, No. 4 (July- August 1996).