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APN EXCLUSIVE: Forward to the Basics by Naomi Chazan

Former Knesset Member Naomi Chazan identifies two distinct "root causes" of the current crisis...


July 28, 2006

There is an emerging consensus today that any ceasefire on the Lebanese front must be accompanied by steps to prevent a return to the status quo ante. To halt the escalating violence and prevent its recurrence--as has been stated repeatedly by Kofi Anan, Condoleezza Rice, and European leaders-it is essential to address the root causes of the present crisis.

There are, however, two quite distinct approaches to defining the nature of the current conundrum. The first, and by far the most prevalent, sees the danger in the expansion and entrenchment of a militant Islamic crescent centering on the Hezbollah in Lebanon, via Syria and the Shiite rebels in Iraq, to Iran and beyond. The activities of this coalition are coordinated. The timing of Hezbollah's provocation against Israel for the eve of the G8 gathering slated to discuss the Iranian nuclear program is suggestive.

This "extremist axis" school, promoted by the United States, is insistent that any truce in Lebanon not only contain the imminent threat posed by the Hezbollah and its deadly arsenal, but also significantly disrupt the consolidation of the militant Shiite regional network of which it is a part. In real terms this means placing an international force in Lebanon capable of implementing UNSC resolution 1559, as well as orchestrating a massive rehabilitation effort aimed at fortifying the capacity and the authority of the Lebanese state. It also implies the continued isolation (diplomatically and otherwise) of Hezbollah allies, with special emphasis on Syria as a weigh station and Iran as the ideological and military source.

These measures, while designed as a response to the growing power of Islamic extremism (of which the regionalization of the Arab-Israel conflict is only a sub-theme), cannot be divorced from the conceptual mind frame that has informed US policy in the Middle East since 9/11. From an Israeli perspective, acquiescence to this interpretation harbors two potential dangers. First, it subsumes Israeli interests to American concerns, pushing it into a more active-and potentially entangling-regional role. Second, it diverts attention, once again, away from the Palestinian question, which lies at the heart of the Arab-Israel conflict.

The second approach to tackling the root causes of the present crisis, in fact, advocates capitalizing on the opportunities inherent in the cessation of hostilities in Lebanon to try to resolve the most important and protracted issue on Israel's agenda. This "Palestinian-Israeli" school does see a linkage between the lack of movement in the peace process, the deteriorating situation in the occupied territories, the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections, the escalating spiral of violence in Gaza, the near breakdown of the Palestinian Authority, and the Hezbollah invasion that ignited the second Lebanese war. But it is careful to shun Nasrallah's cynical and uncomfortable embrace of the Palestinian cause and to differentiate between Hamas (a homegrown Palestinian nationalist Islamic organization) and the Iran-directed militant Shiite movement he heads. In this view, the stabilization of the situation in the north might, if handled properly, afford a chance to strike an agreement closer to home.

From this perspective a monitored truce in Lebanon, accompanied by an exchange of prisoners (perhaps even preceded by the return of the kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit by his Gaza-based captors), must be utilized to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The groundwork for such a process has already been prepared. The National Reconciliation Agreement (better known as the Prisoners' Document) between the Hamas and the various factions of the PLO sets the stage for the creation of a national unity government. It designates Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people in future negotiations. In recent days, the Hamas government has issued a call for a ceasefire, echoed by all factions (with the notable exception of the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad movement). Egypt and Jordan are actively involved in urging its acceptance.

The resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks within the framework of the Roadmap was being seriously explored on the eve of the Lebanese conflagration. Discussions have focused on moving directly to the second phase of the plan, which calls for the convening of an international conference (or a regional variant thereof), the establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional boundaries, and the commencement of negotiations on a permanent settlement. The Lebanese situation might allow for speeding up this timetable and move more directly to final status issues.

Several arguments can be mustered to support a Palestinian-centered post-crisis strategy. First, the vast majority of the Israeli and Palestinian publics consistently favor such an option. Second, for Israel, the significance of internationally recognized boundaries has proven to be an immense asset in garnering support for its military action against the Hezbollah. The right of self-defense of one's sovereign territory is not open to question, even when the means employed to do so are disputed. Israel's actions in Gaza and the West Bank do not enjoy similar backing. Third, the present morass may be attributed, in part, to Israel's preference for unilateral steps as opposed to negotiated agreements in Lebanon as well as in Gaza. And fourth, it is now apparent that viable states able to exercise power and subdue armed militias are a key to achieving human security in the region.

An Israeli-Palestinian accord will not eradicate Islamic extremists. But by removing the main excuse for their heightened popularity, providing hope for a better future, and furnishing an attractive alternative to their retrogressive worldview, it can go a long way towards weakening their appeal and marginalizing their activities. Such an agreement is the linchpin for a more comprehensive arrangement along the lines suggested by the Arab League initiative.

These two schools of thought are not inherently contradictory. At critical points-especially around the need to support a workable state system guided by recognized rules-they are complementary. Nevertheless, some priorities must be set at this juncture. It is much more realistic to pursue the Palestinian-Israeli course than to be lured exclusively into the regional trap suggested by the Islamic axis strategy. Indeed, any attempt to deal with armed religious extremists without addressing the essential Israeli-Palestinian question is a sure prescription for the perpetuation of violence and disorder.

It is broadly understood that the enforcement of a truce, however uneasy, is only the first step in confronting the ever-growing Middle East imbroglio. To give such a ceasefire meaning, Israel, the Palestinians, and moderate Arab states should not be tempted into another regional escapade if they have the opportunity, now, to consolidate their relationship through a negotiated, comprehensive settlement.

Professor Naomi Chazan, a former Meretz Member of Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, is Professor of Political Science (emerita) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and currently heads the School of Government and Society at the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo. She is a veteran peace activist.

Naomi Chazan's views do not necessarily reflect those of Americans for Peace Now or Peace Now.