Israel- Arab Relations:How The U.S AND Europe Can Help / Panel Discussion,Gloria Center

Panel Discussion. *

On June 8-9, 2009, the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung jointly held a conference in Jerusalem entitled, "Israel and the Arab States: Parallel Interests, Relations, and Strategies." Brief biographies of the participants can be found at the end of the article.

Shimon Stein: Our topic is how third parties can play a crucial role in promoting efforts to improve relations between Israel and non-radical Arab states, given that these states share parallel interests as well as vital strategic relations with the United States and the European Union.

There is a feeling that a window of opportunity in the region may create new opportunities for interaction between Israel and non-radical Arab states. And the window of opportunity is, first and foremost, the result of the Iranian threat, which is of a multidimensional nature: nuclear, terror, ideological, psychological, and the attempt of Iran to undermine certain regimes in the region. Iran is not only a threat to Israel, but also to the so-called moderate Sunni and pro-Western regimes.

And the assumption is that a common threat could constitute a platform for cooperation in an effort to curb that threat. It is assumed that one major result could be a willingness on the part of non-radical Arab states to engage with Israel in confidence-building measures in the framework of renewed efforts to resume the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Based on my reading of the Arab reaction to the growing Iranian threat, I do not see any intention on the part of the non-radical Arab states to confront the Iranian threat together with Israel, at least not overtly. My answer will be that the chances are not great unless the United States and the European Union--together with Russia--are willing to change their traditional modes of operation.

The reason for the assumption, which shouldn't come as a surprise, is the non-Arab states’ attitude toward Israel. Since they believe that the only issue that matters to the Arabs is the Palestinian issue, there is no incentive for non-radical Arab states to change their behavior. After all, if the Obama administration creates some sort of a link between the Iranian nuclear issue and the Palestinian issue, while pressing Israel for an end to construction on settlements, why should Arab states do anything different or take any other issue into consideration? The same applies to EU policy.

What is required, then, is for Western states to broaden, rather than narrow, their approach. Consider an alternative example: the Madrid Process that took place during the early 1990s after the Kuwait war.

In the framework of this process, there was a multilateral track of talks with five working groups between Israel and the Arab world, which is still relevant for today. It is my belief that it can serve as an example as to how Arabs and Israelis can engage. The window at that time was the outcome of the Gulf War.

The Bush administration had articulated its goals, and was determined to implement them, pursued by a very determined and focused secretary of state, Jim Baker, who did not shy away from resorting to pressuring the parties that felt that they stood to lose by defying the United States. It took more than eight months of an active shuttle diplomacy to bring the parties to start the process.

The lessons to be derived from the success and failure of the Madrid Process were, first, that you need a window to serve as a catalyst; second, you need to have a superpower with a clear understanding as to how to use the event in order to transform the region; and third, you need personalities determined to implement the goals set forth.

You have to consider the project a high priority so that leaders in the region will realize you are serious. Fourth, don't shy away from putting pressure on the parties, otherwise they will always find a way to procrastinate and wear you out.

Bringing the parties to the table is one thing, but trying to change their mindsets is another. There is only so much a superpower and the international community can do to help the parties, but if the parties are unwilling to take tough decisions, there is no way to make them do it. I do not believe that an imposed solution is a realistic option.

So, do we find ourselves today in a similar situation to that in the months leading up to the Madrid conference? Well, we have the Iranian threat, which could serve as a trigger. The question remains about the other elements I have outlined: whether the United States--which is no longer a superpower--and the international community would be as determined, setting clear goals, trying to pursue them, and pressuring the parties. These are preconditions for a success.

Regarding the EU position, I believe that the EU shares the overall concern regarding the Iranian threat in its different manifestations. As to coping with the nuclear threat, the EU advocates the dialogue approach, accompanied by sanctions that so far haven't been successful. What makes us believe that sanctions will be successful in the future then is another question.

At this stage, I don't see an extra effort being taken by the EU to establish such a regional group bringing together Israel and the non-radical Arab states; I'd be happy to be proven wrong.

As to the Palestinian issue here, I would say that there is almost no difference between the EU attitude and the Arab attitude concerning the centrality of the Palestinian issue and as to the link between progress on the peace process and enhancing or upgrading relations with Israel. That doesn't mean, of course, that the EU would be against Arab states' gestures or even meaningful steps toward normalization. What I mean is that I haven't seen an EU effort to push to decouple the link.

Examples of the EU attitude could be found as early as when the European Community began in the European political process in the late 1960s and early 1970s. More recently, putting a real effort toward this rather ambitious goal was something said to be behind the launching of the Barcelona Process back in November 1995, which was not meant to substitute the peace process but to complement it.

The Europeans discovered that any progress on non-conflict related issues was taken hostage by the Palestinian issue, with the EU unable or unwilling to do something to stop the Arab states from undermining the process--which I found unfortunate, as did many Europeans. EU-Israel relations have also to a large extent been driven by progress in the political process and Israeli behavior. When Israel behaved on the Palestinian issue in a manner pleasing to the EU, it was rewarded; whenever the EU was frustrated by the Israel policies, it was reprimanded by an unbalanced megaphone diplomacy and by suspending previous decisions to upgrade EU-Israel relations.

The most recent example was statements made by unnamed EU foreign ministers and a public statement by Commissioner Frau Waldner, when following the Gaza operation she called for freezing relations with Israel--as if the EU were doing Israel a favor by upgrading the strategic dialogue with us. So, before turning to the Arabs and asking them to take steps that would enable us to reciprocate, it would be helpful if the EU would not subject political relations with Israel solely to its behavior on the Palestinian issue.

As a strategic partner, we are entitled to a balanced attitude. Before addressing the steps that the EU could take, let me say, that the Arab perception of the EU is of an entity lacking...


Zvi Rafiah is a consultant to major Israeli industries and a frequent commentator on Israeli radio and television on the U.S. domestic scene and U.S.-Israel relations.He served 21 years in the Israeli diplomatic service, ending his career as minister-counselor at the Israeli embassy in Washington (1973-1979).

Shimon Stein is the former Israeli ambassador to Germany. From October 2007, he has been on a leave of absence from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is working as an international consultant, as well as holding lectures and publishing articles in the German press.

Ruprecht Polenz is Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the German Bundestag (tbc).

MERIA Journal Staff
Publisher and Editor: Prof. Barry Rubin
Assistant Editors: Yeru Aharoni, Anna Melman.
MERIA is a project of the Global Research in International Affairs
(GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary University.
The Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center

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