Press reports have described that Isaac Herzog and Bibi Netanyahu have come to some sort of agreement on a regional peace conference within a national unity government. But what would be the framework for such a regional peace conference? It couldn’t possibly succeed if it relied solely upon the worn-out ideas of Oslo and the so-called two-state solution. No Israeli government could possibly stand on a plank that would withdraw Israel’s security line of defense from the Jordan River Valley. But this is precisely what the Arab Peace Initiative and the PLO demand.
So, how could a regional peace conference succeed? If it addressed only the Palestinian issue, it simply wouldn’t succeed. However Netanyahu needs the cover of a national unity government for other reasons. The Palestinians have decided to take their case to the UN Security Council. Netanyahu needs the inclusion of the Labor Party into his government in order to forestall the prospect of a great Palestinian diplomatic victory sometime in the near future. But without an agreement on the nature of a regional peace conference (or the road forward toward peace with the Palestinians) a national unity government risks being perceived as nothing more than a shallow institution merely for the benefit of two politicians who have lost their way.
Israel and the Arab Sunni states, however, need a regional peace conference in order to cement a budding alliance of sorts which would allow them to cooperate on issues of vital national defense. The hegemonic ambitions of Iran being the central issue facing the Middle East today. The Sunni Arab states need Israel and Israel certainly needs Arab recognition and cooperation. But to retreat to the 1949 armistice line in order to achieve such a prospect is simply “beyond the pale” for the Israeli general public.
For a regional peace conference to succeed, it must address the issues of nuclear weapons and enhanced conventional security. While the Palestinian issue must somehow be addressed, it need not take a central position within a conference whose goals are more far-reaching. The future of nuclear weaponry within the region offers just such a far-reaching goal. A nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East within the context of a region committed to the principle of non-hegemony remains the only hope to outflank Palestinian rejection. A national unity government would possess the essential political capital necessary to trade nuclear weapons for conventional strategic depth. That is, Israel’s support for a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone in exchange for permanent conventional security lines on the Golan Heights and the Jordan River Valley.
Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians must be kept separate from the main body of work of such a peace conference. These negotiations might be enshrined within a prospective conference plank, but they must be defined to be strictly bilateral in nature. The Arab Peace Initiative and the demands of the PLO for an Israeli return to the armistice lines of 1949 are simply impossible within the context of conventional security. Israel simply cannot be expected to disarm its nuclear arsenal without a significant alteration to its conventional geo-strategic capability. If, however, this old Arab Peace Initiative was the basis upon which a new national unity government was to be created, the prospect for either its success or a regional conference would be suspect from its inception.
Make no mistake, Israel and the Sunni Arab states must formalize their relationship soon. Already the Obama nuclear deal with Iran appears shaky. For one, its duration is short and the likelihood of a regional nuclear arms race has been enhanced by its limited timeline. Within a decade or so, the Iranian nuclear breakout time could diminish to a matter of weeks. This means that within the context of regional religious, sectarian and ethnic strife, nuclear timelines could be added to a mix of war and anarchy. Unless all of these issues are addressed, including the future of the great powers within the region, the prospect of economic recovery and peace are indeed dim.
For a regional peace conference to succeed, it must encompass the following planks: 1) A Zone of Peace shall be established among the states of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, so that trade and navigation shall move uninterrupted. 2) All foreign navies shall be denied basing rights within the Zone of Peace. 3) All foreign air forces shall equally be denied basing rights within the Zone of Peace. 4) No state within the Zone of Peace may attack another state. 5) If such an attack should occur, the permanent members of the UN Security Council would automatically come to the aid of the aggrieved state, and points 2 and 3 would become temporarily suspended. 6) If such an attack should occur, the states within the Zone of Peace would come to the aid of the aggrieved state. 7) Only sovereign states would be allowed to possess military equipment. Extra-territorial militias would be outlawed. 8) Nuclear enrichment would not be allowed, and its enforcement by the strictest verification regime of the IAEA would become the norm. The reprocessing of plutonium would be prohibited. 9) All states within the Zone of Peace must recognize and have diplomatic relations with all other states. 10) All states in the Zone of Peace must sign the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty), and negotiations for a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone must begin no later than 24 months after all states have finalized mutual recognition. 11) All states in the Zone of Peace must respect the human rights of their citizens, and states whose use of force against their own people violates international standards shall be suspended from the Zone of Peace. 12) All states in the Zone of Peace shall pledge their allegiance to a non-hegemonic regional structure, and states within the Zone of Peace will also pledge not to conspire with other states for the purpose of such hegemony. 13) All states within the Zone of Peace must abide by the rules (to be established) for the equitable dispensation of all regional hydraulic resources. 14) The Zone of Peace is NOT dependent on a conclusion to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Furthermore, this conflict shall be decided through negotiations among the parties themselves without coercion or outside interference. Genuine compromise and goodwill must become the principles upon which these negotiations rest.
If an Israeli national unity government were to adopt such a peace plan within the context of a regional peace conference, the Jewish state’s international isolation would end immediately. But without such far reaching criteria there simply is no basis for such a conference. The same is true for a national unity government. Israel must be bold in its approach. Its politicians cannot call for unity without a strong platform for unity. For without a strong platform, the unity will be hollow and its temporary political expediency will be transparent.
The world and the Middle East in particular have become seriously unstable. It is time for a new beginning. Humanity needs a sense of hope in these dire times. Against all odds, let the Jews and the Arabs point the way forward for the entire planet to become a Zone of Peace. If not now, when?