Jacob Heilbrunn

Israel and the Mythical Peace Process

A big event is often seen as the precursor to a breakthrough in the Middle East peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Saddam Hussein has been defeated? Time for peace. Now the latest ructions in Egypt are reigniting the call for peace. German chancellor Angela Merkel told Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday that it's time for--what else?--new talks with the Palestinians, citing the "troubled times" in Egypt and Tunisia as rendering it "even more important to get on with the peace process."

Here at the National Interest the same plea has been made by Bruce Riedel and Paul Pillar. The argument seems to be something along the lines that there's never been a more urgent time to try and tamp down Islamic radicalism. The peace process can play an integral role.

To which one can only wonder, what peace process? There is a lot of toing and froing between the Israelis and Palestinians. So it has gone for decade after decade. Israel continues to build settlements. The Palestinians wallow in their plight. And the Arab world remains blind to the fact that it threw away most of its crediblity by rejecting the 1947 UN Partition plan, which was far more advantageous than anything it would get in negotiations today. It may well figure that time is on its side. The longer the Arabs and Palestinians hold out, the weaker Israel's strategic position becomes, both because of the Arabs living inside it and its longterm inability to digest the West Bank.

The truth is that renewed negotiations could actually inflame the Arab world, which might see them as a sellout to the Israelis. Radical Muslims probably figure they've never had it so good. Egypt and Jordan could fall under the sway of Islamic radicals. What's the incentive for the Arab world to endorse negotiations?

For Israel to embark upon serious negotiations would be tantamount to negotiating with a loaded revolver to its head. It doesn't know how Egypt is going to play out, either. Might Egypt turn into an actively hostile foe after decades of a cold peace? Is Israel's "strategic space" about to shrink further? The odds are that Israel will turn even further to the right should Egypt devolve back into nationalism, or some syncretic form of "isms" that includes radical Islam.

If Egypt turns out well, and some form of tender democratic shoots take hold, then the pressure on Israel would mount considerably to reach some kind of deal with the Palestinians. But the situation is far too murky to expect more than bluff and bombast to emanate from both the Israelis and Palestinians about the peace process for weeks to come.

Anyway, the problem in the Middle East right now isn't Israel. It's radical Islam. Pakistan, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia could all face internal turmoil should the Tunisian revolt continue to spread. Perhaps this really will be 1989 all over again. But there is plenty of room to wonder.