Avi Berkowitz
Avi Berkowitz

Is Netanyahu Treading in Begin’s Golden Footsteps?

Does any diplomacy have a more sordid history than the peace process? From its inception at Madrid, through its endless reincarnations – the Oslo Accords, Oslo II,  the Hebron Agreement, the Wye River Memorandum, the Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum,  the Camp David 2000 Summit, the Taba Summit, the Quartet, the Road Map, the Annapolis Conference, and the list goes on – no initiative in international relations  has ever been more loudly ballyhooed or proven so bereft of positive results and replete with disappointment, terror, and bloodshed,  than the Middle East peace process. And this despite a history of unilateral concessions by Israel to the Palestinians, both implemented and offered, that would have shocked and awed earlier paragons of “peace with the Arabs” in Israeli political history.

The peace process is truly the famous snake of Gnostic symbolism – “My end is my beginning” – which grows by devouring itself. No matter how humiliating or grotesque the actual outcome of each of its initiatives in terms of crashed hopes and escalated terrorism and violence, it simply refuses to die the death it so richly earns.  It always returns, somehow strengthened and renewed by each new debacle.  That’s why so many wonder if this “magical” rebirth masks a hidden agenda that has more to do with compromising basic Zionist values – the unity of Jerusalem, the territorial sanctity of the Land of Israel – than with its ostensible goal of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

There is a certain paranoid charm to this dismal suspicion. There may even be a measure of truth in it. But it is not the case that the ultimate “secret” to the peace process snake’s many lives is a diplomatic conspiracy to undermine Israel. The real explanation is more mundane and political.

The peace process endures because most Israelis continue to believe that there is no viable alternative to it. Public opinion polling shows a consistent majority in support of this proposition, even though the same polls also reveal deep pessimism on the part of this same majority that peace is actually attainable.

The reason for this apparent paradox lies in the transformed nature of the Middle East conflict. Israel’s main security threat no longer comes from massed Arab armies. The Camp David accords – the only “peace process” that actually worked – put an end to that threat by yanking Egypt out of the Arab military front against Israel.  The nation no longer faced the mortal danger of a two-front war; no viable Arab military coalition against Israel could be assembled without the participation of the Egyptian army.

When this reality sank in on the Arabs, they abandoned pan-Arab nationalism in favor of Palestinian nationalism and Islamic fascism. Against these new threats, the prowess of the IDF proved to be less of a bulwark. In some ways, it even became a liability, as the “David vs. Goliath” image slipped away from Israel and more and more became the (spurious) possession of stone-throwing Palestinian youth.

The stark reality was that a military solution to Israel’s security problems ceased to be viable. Palestinian nationalism and Islamic fascism do not pose a military threat to Israel. Terror, however monstrous in its effects, will never defeat the IDF or drive the Jewish people from their land. The threat is political – less tangible, but no less sinister, than the previous military threat.

The people of Israel grasp this. They sense that no military solution to the Palestinian problem exists, that the ball has bounced into a different court, the court of politics and diplomacy. And in this court, the peace process appears to be the only game in play. As such, no matter how fruitless that process has been, the people conclude that the only conceivable alternative to it – direct military action – is no alternative at all, but merely a rationalization for endless bloody stalemate, punctuated by periodic asymmetric warfare yielding little except casualties and recriminations.

Critics of the peace process have not accommodated themselves to this political fact of life. They continue to play in the court of military challenges and solutions, and ignore the essentially political character of the current threat. As a result, they have nothing to say about the peace process other than it should die and be buried. But it has died and been buried, many times over – and it always comes back!

The peace process is fundamentally flawed.  It is premised on the assumption that direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will lead to some sort of permanent accommodation. A corollary of this assumption is that since Israel already has a state, accommodation implies that the Palestinians ought to emerge from the process with a state as well. A state implies territorial sovereignty, recognized borders, a capitol, and other generally acknowledged attributes of national independence. The details of all these attributes constitute the stumbling blocks of the peace process. Inability to agree on them has led to the string of failures which mark each phase in the history of the process.

The peace process always fails because it has been structured from the ground-up, rather than from the sky-down. A top-down view emphasizes the regional and global factors necessary for an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation, rather than beginning with the actual facts and players on the ground in the conflict area.  In other words, a correct approach to making the peace process actually work to produce peace would focus on how to realign regional, international and transnational forces so that negotiations between the actual parties “on the ground” have a chance of yielding practical results.

The only peace process that ever actually worked – the Camp David Accords – proceeded in exactly this fashion – from the sky-down. The daunting task of actually implementing peace between Egypt and Israel came after the two nation’s leaders had taken daring and courageous steps to reach out to one another, astounding not only all the region’s other nations, but the entire world, most especially their own native populations.

Each leader made compromises with the other in order to achieve success at Camp David.  And these compromises remain controversial in their national communities to this day. In some quarters of Israel, Menachem Begin is still reviled as a traitor for returning the Sinai to Egypt. Anwar Sadat paid with his life for his dedication to ending the conflict. Nevertheless, the Accord has held, and no Arab war against Israel has occurred (or can occur) since Egypt opted out of the Arab anti-Israel military front. This was a tremendous victory for peace and for the national security of both nations.

If the politics of “sky-down” was the key to the success of the Camp David Accords, why do the promoters of the peace process keep mindlessly insisting on attempting to restore the process from the ground up? Road maps, shelf agreements and other “blueprints” for progress toward peace that have emphasized “confidence building measures” and “interim steps” ad infinitum, have all failed miserably, which means that the time has come to reformulate the peace process in terms of the Begin-Sadat model.  And first and foremost, this reformulation requires taking into account the tremendous change in the character of the Arab-Israel conflict that occurred in the wake of the success of that model.

As described above the Camp Davis Accords shifted the conflict from the military arena to the political arena. When this shift occurred, the leader of the anti-Israel cause, whether acknowledged or not, became Saudi Arabia, the Arab nation with the most political power.   Its custodianship of Islam’s two holy sites, Mecca and Medina, and its parallel dominion over the world’s most powerful wealth machine, the Oil Cartel, makes Saudi Arabia into a vastly powerful political engine.

For the peace process to work in the post-Camp David Accords Mid-East environment, the Saudi leadership must play the same vanguard role vis-à-vis Israel that Egypt’s Sadat did in 1977. This requirement is based not just on the analogy to the success of the Camp David Accords, compelling though that analogy is. It derives even more powerfully from the political realities on the ground.  The Palestinian movement, in both its P.A. and Hamas incarnations, is deeply indebted to and profoundly influenced by Saudi economic largesse and Wahabi religious influence.  As such, a dramatic Saudi overture to Israel would have an enormous effect on Palestinian opinion.

But not just on Palestinian opinion.  It would engender a corresponding sea change in Israeli opinion as well, even among religious Zionists.  Matters now considered non-negotiable would inevitably come to be seen in a new light, the light of civil relations between Israelis and Palestinians, between Jews and Muslims. Settlers might feel obliged to make painful compromises – but no more painful than those they would ask of their Palestinian and Saudi neighbors.  We can imagine this sea change as being foreshadowed by the startling embrace between the primarily Orthodox settler community and their loyal Christian evangelical friends who are best defined by their unbounded dedication and endless devotion to the divinity of the Jesus of Nazareth

The actual details of how this unwinding of the Mid-East conflict might work itself out are beyond the scope of this article. Indeed, according to its thesis, this article contends that such details ought to properly come after, not before, the leadership breakthrough that is their prerequisite.

A viable peace process in the Mid-East is contingent on just one issue:  the state of Saudi diplomacy.  In this regard things are not terribly encouraging.  But they are not altogether discouraging either.  Diplomatic taboos have recently been broken, albeit not for the first time.  Already in 2007 – nine years ago – these same taboos were violated when   Saud al-Faisal, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia attended the peace process conference at Annapolis, Maryland.

Be that as it may, the essential desideratum of peace in the Middle East is that the ground-up approach has failed miserably and only the sky-down approach has any chance of success.  That means that it is time for Saudi Arabia to show the statesmanship and courage that its tremendous religious and economic weight in the world requires of it.

The demand for such a role should become both the cardinal element in the critique of the peace process in its present form, and the keystone of a new peace process that could actually work.

Only when Israel and Saudi Arabia join hands in taking the necessary risks will peace in our region be possible.

Note:  I wrote this essay in May of 2008 together with my friend and mentor Tom Milstein.  It was never published, although not for lack of trying.  Tom died in 2010.  You can read the original version on his blog site which has not been altered since his death.  After you do that, try and answer the question which serves as the title of this post.

About the Author
Avi Berkowitz teaches history at the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University, and serves as the Rabbi of the Minyan HaVatikim in the Rimon section of Efrat. He holds a PhD from Columbia University in International Relations, with a specialty in Middle East studies and received his Rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchick. Prior to coming on aliyah, he served as the rabbi of the Community Synagogue in Manhattan's East Village, taught history at the Ramaz Upper School, and was an adjunct Assistant Professor of political science and Middle East studies at CUNY