The Camp David Conundrum

The Arab Sunni states came to the so-called Camp David summit, promised next to nothing, and came away with next to nothing. For the most part, it was a non-event. Except for one short but major detail, whose scope and meaning could be pregnant with promise, the less-than- ambiguous phrase adopted by the Gulf Arabs which reads: “A comprehensive, verifiable deal that fully addresses the regional and international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program is in the security interests of the G.C.C. member states”. In other words, a deal that is agreed to by all the region including Iran’s chief nemesis, Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel. Finally, in Arab eyes, Israel has become a bona fide member of the region. In the final analysis, Israel’s negotiated terms on Iran would now satisfy the Arab Sunni states. Israel’s concerns are also Arab concerns. An Israeli-Sunni Arab normalization could be a great opening. For the Sunni Arab states would like nothing better than to unite the region with a strong regional cooperative force, inclusive of Egypt and ready to defend itself from Iranian encirclement and further encroachment. Except, of course, there continues to be one major hitch, what to do about the Palestinians.

But before we get to the Palestinian issue, let’s examine the nuclear question a bit closer. To fully address regional concerns over the Iran nuclear program can only mean one thing: Stop the program in total. No stockpiling of nuclear materials, no enrichment capacity, the dismantling of underground facilities, a complete intrusive inspection regime, no plutonium reactors, a complete history of the nuclear military dimension, access to nuclear personnel, and a full redress of Iran’s ICBM program. Nothing short of this will suffice. But, of course, that is not what President Obama has in mind. He envisions something far short of stopping Iran’s program in total. And of course Iran would never agree to stopping its program in total without the gravest of international pressure. And what would inspire such pressure? Only an extremely well thought out nuclear-weapons-free zone structured within an internationally sanctioned regional architecture for peace. And that would require international cooperation inclusive of China, India, Russia, France and the US-English led alliance of nations.

Israel claims it is ready and willing to talk about such a zone. And the Arab Sunni states have used the nuclear-weapons-free concept as a continuous mantra to isolate Israel as some kind of nuclear pariah. But unless the issue of Israel’s conventional strategic depth is fully addressed, no agreement on anything can be achieved between the Arab Sunni states and Israel. Israel needed nuclear weapons in the 1973 war, at least as a threat of last resort. And that was without Jordan being involved in a theatre from the east. A non-nuclear Middle East would not be something that Israel would ever take lightly. In such a scenario, to retreat to the 1949 armistice lines would be impossible. Hence the conundrum at Camp David. Without a Palestinian state, there can never be a true Arab-Israeli détente. This puts the issue of the Palestinians at the forefront of any discussion on regional security as a structure for a non-nuclear Middle East. And a non-nuclear Middle East is the only alternative to the certainty of a regional nuclear arms race — i.e., once Obama’s ridiculous decade-long framework agreement (if it even lasts that long) becomes a reality.

The Saudis are demanding exactly the same industrial-level nuclear program that Obama has negotiated with the Iranians. Unless the American president holds firm on an intrusive inspection regime, or the Congress hold firm on it, a much watered-down inspection regime will go forward. Even so, a moth-balled nuclear program is hardly the same as its complete dismantlement. This can only mean that the agreement is a sham, because it’s only an intermediary step whose eventual consequence must lead to nuclear proliferation as its end product. Unless Israel and the Arab Sunni states come up with a dramatic alternative — even if the Iranians continue to balk at intrusive inspections — the international community will not act as a united force. The great powers need some great historic project to give themselves the incentive to alter the region in a coordinated manner. Without such a project the international pressure, needed to persuade Iran that regional peace is a far better option than complete isolation, will never happen.

So the Middle East is left with the same old Camp David conundrum that has beguiled it since the initial accords between Egypt and Israel–what to do about the Palestinians. When Begin and Sadat met at Camp David in the late 1970’s, statehood for the Palestinians was out of the question. They were merely offered autonomy under Israeli jurisdiction. Of course they rejected such a concept. The PLO had developed a strategy of “phased struggle”. First a Palestinian state on the West Bank with Jerusalem as its capital, and then a second uprising in Jordan (eastern Palestine as stated in the Charter of the PLO). This would encompass nearly all the territory of the original Mandate for Palestine as established by the precursor to the UN, the League of Nations. Such a strategy remained in force (only quietly, with much more diplomatic acumen and professions of “moderation”) at the second Camp David summit in July of 2000. There the PLO was offered upwards of ninety-seven percent of the West Bank with a capital in East Jerusalem, and it was rejected. Why?

Arafat knew that he would never be allowed to control the vital border areas on the Jordan River, and without such control the passage of military equipment necessary to implement his concept of “phased struggle” would be next to impossible. Abbas was offered a similar deal in 2008, and he too rejected it. By 2009, the Israeli public decided that it had no peace partner in the Palestinians, and the so-called two-state solution has gone exactly nowhere since. And that’s where we remain today. Only today we face a Middle East on the verge of a grave nuclear arms race, thanks to the indecisive leadership of a Pax Americana that has eroded over the failed war in Iraq and the lack of any kind of policy to deal with a myriad of Arab uprisings (especially Syria). Added to this vacuum is a tepid nuclear deal with Iran that not only allows a revolutionary Islamic regime an industrial level nuclear program, but also arrogantly claims to characterize such a dangerous project as a breakthrough of historic proportion.

Israel must either accept the status quo, or come up with an alternative that the Sunni Arab states and the international community could potentially agree to. That implies another outreach to the Palestinians. But this time within the package of a regional peace plan that would also include a nuclear-weapons-free zone. This is going to be very tough, maybe impossible. Because it will depend on a Palestinian community that is still hell-bent on Israel’s destruction (Hamas and Iran are allies). But the Sunni Arab states, and Israel too, are desperate for some alternative to Obama’s misguided nuclear deal. And unlike many of the war-hawks on the Republican side, Obama and the Democratic Party are not about to authorize a military strike anytime soon.

But the new Israeli government is as right-wing a coalition as ever configured in Israel’s proportional system of parliamentary democracy. So to expect Netanyahu to move forward without a national-unity government is impossible. But Herzog and the Labor Party are also certainly not above deeply divided partisan politics. In fact, they seem to be committed to remain the opposition to a Netanyahu-led government that (they believe) could fall at any moment. But what if it doesn’t? Meanwhile, the two-state solution — even if it was negotiated again — would probably fail to materialize. Is there anything that could be offered to the Palestinians that could at least pave the way for formal Arab-Israeli discussions on a nuclear-weapons-free zone within a regional security architecture? Is there any way around the Camp David conundrum? Stay tuned.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).