MADRID/WASHINGTON, DC – As revolutionary change sweeps across the Arab world, it is easy to think that now is not the time to push for peace between Israel and Palestine. Until the dust settles on the new Middle East, the old roadmaps seem dated, and conventional wisdom holds that progress toward a peace agreement in the face of regional upheaval is wishful thinking.
But the opposite is true. Even with so many failed efforts in the past, there is a clear window of opportunity for the United States and Israel to urgently push for a lasting settlement.
Everyone needs to start thinking differently about the Middle East. The international community’s old approach was to prioritize stability over democracy and pursue Israeli-Arab peace on a completely separate diplomatic track. This policy proved to be a failure – placing stability ahead of democracy brought neither, and isolated peace efforts went nowhere.
If the US and other world powers want to make headway on their three key objectives – stability, political reform, and peace – they need to understand how they are linked and pursue all three simultaneously and holistically. Picking and choosing which challenges to care about only increases the risk that they will become intractable problems instead.
The US has been behind the curve from the moment the turmoil sparked, trying to play catch up as two authoritarian governments were toppled by popular protest and more regimes try to cling to power as long as they can. The US needs to get out in front. And, as the US and the broader international community attempt to address the unfolding events, it would be a mistake to leave the peace process off the agenda.
Whereas the demands of Arab demonstrators concern governance at home, the current turmoil can be used to help end a conflict that has confounded the world for decades. Delaying the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be a costly blunder. As we know from bitter experience, waiting only makes a peace settlement harder to achieve.
For the US, sympathy for Arab publics yearning for freedom cannot exclude compassion for Palestinians dreaming of lives of dignity, which for them includes ending the occupation. The US should not be selective in its support for freedom and democracy. This has never been more true than today, and if America is not seen as an avid supporter of a two-state solution, it will stay well behind the curve and damage its own interests in the Middle East.
Israel also needs to revisit its policies. As political reform achieves results, Israel will no longer be able to claim that it is the only democracy in the Middle East; with conditions changing on the ground, it will be increasingly difficult to ignore Palestinians’ demand for independence. Israel’s concern that the region will grow more hostile will become a self-fulfilling prophecy if new democracies see the Israeli government impeding steps toward a viable and just solution. At the same time, a peace process backed by elected and more legitimate Arab governments will actually help solidify long-term peace and stability.
With time for a two-state solution quickly running out, a speedy settlement is in everyone's best interest. Waiting and hoping for more favorable conditions could easily backfire. If there is no movement toward peace as new Arab democracies take shape, negative views of Israel and the US will be hardened.
And, as we have all witnessed in recent months, Arab public opinion clearly matters. Bad perceptions only complicate future peace efforts, making a breakthrough even less likely. And the US could have less of a role in a new Middle East with new governments less forgiving than their predecessors about the continuation of the occupation.
To argue that peacemaking can’t be successful when governments and regimes are in flux ignores the fact that it is precisely in such circumstances that outsiders can help shape the process. Instead of operating in an environment with little influence or room for maneuver, pushing the peace process now could help endear the Arab public to the West and give the US more sway in the new Middle East. We don’t need never-ending bilateral negotiations between Israel and Palestine; there needs to be a regional solution.
Tomorrow’s Middle East will not be the same as it was a mere two months ago, but the shape the region will ultimately take is unknown. The US has a chance to get on the right side of history and help shape its direction by supporting real reform and advancing a deadlocked peace process. In the end, an uprising against poor governance presents an opening to achieve not only democracy, but also stability and peace. This crisis, like so many others, would be a terrible thing to waste.