The Iraq Study Group report reached a series of obvious conclusions. Everything is linked. The United States cannot remain in the Iraqi swamp much longer nor can it abandon Iraq and leave it in its current chaotic state. In order to leave Iraq gradually there is a need for a pragmatic Arab coalition that assists the shaky Iraqi government.
The cooperation of the pragmatic Arab states can be ensured if they can justify themselves in the eyes of their publics, and for this to happen the US must make a major effort to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Baker and Hamilton are the answer to six years of an American foreign policy march of folly, particularly in the Middle East. For President George W. Bush to accept their recommendations he must admit serious mistakes. Hence, he almost certainly will not accept them unless American public opinion forces him to.
The ISG’s co-chairmen, James Baker and Lee Hamilton, understand the extent of the damage caused by the American boycott of Syria, Hamas and other actors in the Middle East and beyond. They are right to propose holding talks with those actors and trying to develop genuine dialogue with them. Personally, I doubt whether talks with Iran would bear fruit; in contrast, I believe that talks with Syria could contribute to a change in the regional map. Syrian President Bashar Assad has proposed negotiations with Israel. The latter, for the second time in its history, has set preconditions (the first time was about two years ago, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon turned down the Syrian offer).
Assad is apparently doing so because his country’s economic situation is becoming increasingly difficult – in four or five years its oil reserves will run out- and because Syria’s talks with the European Union have been frozen and he feels isolated. Peace with Israel would offer him an opening to the world. Assad holds “negative cards in his hand: a war option with Israel, patronage of terrorist organizations as the host of their headquarters, and the ability to transfer weapons from Iran to Hezbollah. He won’t forego those cards if Israel sticks to its conditions for opening negotiations (particularly as long as Israel’s prime minister declares up front that as long as he’s in office we won’t give up the Golan Heights).
Yet there can be no doubt that he will have to give up those cards in order for negotiations to conclude successfully. An Israeli-Syrian peace, which would of course comprise an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, would deprive the extremist Palestinian organizations of Syrian backing, just as it would neutralize Hezbollah’s power. And it would constitute a setback for the Syrian-Iranian alliance–a pact of convenience between two very different actors: Baathist secular Syria and Shiite Islamist Iran.
An Israeli-Palestinian peace signed by the government of Israel and the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization and backed by a Palestinian referendum, together with an Israeli-Syrian peace, would pave the way for Israel and Lebanon to make peace and facilitate realization of the Arab initiative- ushering in normalization of relations between all the Arab countries and Israel. This would leave Iran all alone facing an unprecedented coalition, and would render it very difficult for Tehran to pursue its current policies. Granted, these are not easy steps. Yet I am convinced they are doable. It will not be easy to reach agreement with the Palestinians when Hamas is so significant and so opposed to peace. Nor will it be easy to persuade Israelis to concede the Golan Heights and the West Bank. But it is possible. The alternative is as obvious to us all as the Day of Judgment: the dangers for the Middle East are far greater than the internal controversies over the extent of the price to be paid for peace. The message of the Baker-Hamilton report is another opportunity to create an alliance of the sane against the lunatics of our region.
The report’s publication reverberated widely, yet this does not guarantee its implementation. Politicians in the US and the region can render it a mere passing event, just as they can cite it as justification for change. They bear a huge responsibility, one that in recent years they have not proven worthy of. Now they have a second chance. For the peoples of the region this is a fateful opportunity.
Yossi Beilin is a member of Israel’s Knesset and chair of the Meretz-Yahad party. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons.org, an online newsletter that provides different views of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.