Jonathan Guyer is a Program Associate with the New America Foundation/Middle East Task Force.
During President Obama’s brief presser with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak yesterday, one word was conspicuously absent: comprehensive.
While much of the two leaders’ remarks focused on the Israel-Palestine track, they only alluded to the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which holds out the opportunity of normalized relations with the Arab states as an incentive for Israel to end the occupation and solidify a two-state solution.
Thus far, President Obama has tried to break down this everything-for-everything scenario by turning the comprehensive aspect of the API into a sequential process. In letters President Obama reportedly sent to a handful of Gulf and Arab states, he urged them to take the lead in confidence-building measures toward Israel. Special Envoy Mitchell has also pursued this short-term goal.
Compare this to Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal’s view. While visiting Washington last month, FM al-Faisal maintained a strong line on the need for a comprehensive two-state solution while also asserting that a bits and pieces approach will not bring the parties closer to a deal:
Incrementalism and a step-by-step approach has not and – we believe – will not achieve peace. Temporary security, confidence- building measures will also not bring peace. What is required is a comprehensive approach that defines the final outcome at the outset and launches into negotiations over final status issues: borders, Jerusalem, water, refugees and security.
The United States Senate has taken a decidedly different approach. At the end of their legislative session, 77 senators signed onto the Bayh-Risch Letter which put the onus on Arab states to “do more to end their isolation of Israel.”
However, if Arab states were to upgrade relations with Israel based on minor policy changes coming out of Tel Aviv – such as the temporary construction freeze in the West Bank which Ha’aretz reported yesterday – what incentive would that leave for Israelis to clinch a comprehensive deal?
Early normalization gestures are just that – too early and merely gestures. True progress will be cultivated at the very moment of establishing a Palestinian state, and a tit for tat strategy will only sidetrack this big picture goal.
Shai Feldman and Gilead Sher echo this point in their op-ed, “The grand bargain that is the Mideast’s best hope,” published in today’s Financial Times:
The reluctance of Saudi Arabia’s Prince al-Faisal to reward a partial Israeli move such as a settlement construction freeze is understandable given the distrust between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The failure to end the conflict through interim stages has made all parties skeptical about such steps being more than temporary.
Instead, what is proposed here is that the Arab states engage Israel in an exercise in reverse engineering. The Arab states should announce that once Israel reaches an agreement with the Palestinians on a permanent resolution of the dispute, the Arab states would reward Israel for every step it takes towards implementing this vision.
To resolve the conflict, gestures have not and will not be enough. It’s not the incremental steps in and of themselves that are negative, but rather the fact that those baby steps will in turn be viewed as the objective.
Let’s go comprehensive.
— Jonathan Guyer