November 26, 2007
Annapolis Equals de facto Recognition of IsraelBy James Lewis
Expectations are generally low on the Annapolis Middle East Peace summit starting this week. Yet a strong case can be made that the mere fact of this meeting between the Arab countries, the Palestinians and Israel is the biggest breakthrough in Israel-Arab relations since the 1979 Peace Treaty with Egypt.
Nothing else needs to happen for this conference to be an historic landmark. Why? Because in diplomacy, sitting down with an enemy in public is equivalent to official recognition. The rest is just words -- especially when any country's leader can pick up the phone and talk privately to any other.
The first peace conference with wide Arab participation therefore partially resolves the long denial of Israel's existence, one of the great stumbling blocks of the past sixty years.
Egypt's Anwar Sadat created the first breakthrough in 1978 by traveling to Israel and literally kissing Golda Meir's cheek in public. President Sadat was an extraordinary leader, who paid for his breakthrough with his life. Egypt recovered the Sinai Desert in that peace treaty, but the Sadat model found no imitators, because nobody else was willing to risk assassination. Instead, there have been de facto peace arrangements with Jordan, Lebanon, and perhaps even Syria. The long Jordan-Israel border has not seen war since 1974. Step by quiet step, the biggest flashpoints of the past have gone quiet.
We have not taken much note of that because the Palestinian conflict has seized all the headlines. But we cannot fail to notice that nation-to-nation warfare has lessened dramatically over time.
Behind-the-scenes contacts between Israel and Jordan have been going on for decades. The Saudis have apparently been having serious discussions with Israel for a few years. Yet nobody has been willing to make those meetings public. Every Arab government at Annapolis is taking the risk of domestic outrage (or worse) from the mere fact of its attendance -- which is why they are doing it together, to diffuse opposition and avoid the fate of Saddat.
So this conference is already an history landmark, which should go to the credit of SecState Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush. It is already a diplomatic coup, but Rice and Bush won't get the credit in the media. This administration cares more about substance than being fawned upon, and that is the adult thing to do. As Ronald Reagan put it, it's amazing how much you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit.
So the media have it wrong, as usual. All the buzz is about the results of this conference, and everybody is pessimistic about that.
But that's not the real story. The real story is why it is happening. A tectonic shift has taken place in the Middle East, because suddenly the Arabs and Israel have a common enemy, Khomeinist Iran. The danger posed by Ahmadi-Nejad has eclipsed all the old antagonisms. Ahmadi-Nejad has publicly threatened all the Arab participants -- along with France, Germany, the United States and of course Israel. He's a scary guy, leading a scary regime, which is going to get a scarier very soon. Iran was deliberately excluded from Annapolis.
The Iranian threat is responsible for the long secret talks that have already taken place among the participants. The Saudis, for example, may be sharing intelligence about the Khomeinist regime with the US and Israel. It is virtually certain that Turkey, Egypt and Jordan are doing so. The fact that Syria is going to the Annapolis conference in spite of Israel's bombing of its secret nuclear facility ten weeks ago is remarkable: It suggests that Syria, an Arab regime, is not entirely comfortable in the clutches of the Khomeini regime either.
Those concerned about the survival of Israel are skeptical about Annapolis, pointing to the failure of the Gaza withdrawal and other peace moves. Others are cautiously positive. Nobody expects a big breakthrough. Cautious, step-by-step confidence building seem a lot more sensible.
We may see some symbolic concessions, along with a willingness to keep talking. The most significant symbol would be extraterritoriality for part of Jerusalem, to give the Palestinians a giant symbolic presence in Jerusalem with minimal security risks. Since the top of the Temple Mount is already controlled by the Muslim Waqf, extraterritorial status there might make little practical difference.
Palestinian control of some Arab neighborhoods might be dangled as the next carrot. That could serve as an incentive for further progress.
The real kicker comes from ceding Israeli territory that has real strategic value. This is a tough one. Arguably, in the nuclear age, a checkerboard population of Arabs and Jews would help protect the Holy Land from nuclear assault. Even the Iranians might think twice about destroying tens of thousands of Muslim Arabs.
As strategist Anthony Cordesman has just made clear, a nuclear exchange would be the end of Iran and Syria, and of part of Israel. Cordesman's report makes for very grim reading. That is the worst-case scenario everybody is trying to avoid.
The irony is therefore that the regime in Tehran is actually driving the Arab world to make peace. In doing so, the Arab League may also be clearing the way for a conventional air attack on Iran's known nuclear facilities, presumably by Israel with the tacit consent and help from both the Arabs and Americans. Nobody wants these suicidal ideologues to have nukes -- certainly not their Arab neighbors. So they will voice outrage in public and privately thank Allah if the strike succeeds. A successful strike may set Iran's nuclear program back by half a dozen years. A rigorous sanctions regime could help weaken the regime further.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. This is just one. If Annapolis comes off reasonably well, we should all count ourselves lucky.
James Lewis blogs at dangeroustimes.wordpress.com