Why not investigate opportunities, too?
Roberta Fahn Schoffman
JERUSALEM - Here in Israel, this year so far is most
remarkable for the number of commissions of inquiry that have been
established. Clearly the crowded line-up is a humiliating reminder of how
far this country has slipped into disarray. On the other hand, it is
testimony to our thriving democracy and the ability of the rule of law --
even as it is directly undermined by those responsible for maintaining it --
One is struck by the multiple layers of authority and decision-making that
come into play when the normal channels of governance go off the rails.
Former judges and generals are being recruited one after the other to try to
keep this country honest. Or at least to keep us from confirming what Judge
Vardi Zeiler, who headed up the committee examining police and prosecutorial
malfeasance, bluntly warned at the close of his inquiry: "If the phenomenon
I saw at this one narrow point has spread throughout the Israel Police --
One wonders, with all of this talent deployed to clean up the mess made by
public officials, what would happen if these same skills were directed
forward, to yank us out of the diplomatic and political mire. In recent
months, numerous commissions have been investigating the war in Lebanon, the
Tax Authority, the police relationship with organized crime, the use of
wiretapping and many other issues critical to a vibrant democracy.
Meanwhile, rare opportunities for negotiations with our neighbours have
surfaced, but have either been greeted with outright rejection or shoved to
the back burner, or the back pages, as juicy scandals capture the attention
of the public and politicians alike. This is not to say that official bodies
responsible for strategic and security assessment aren't doing their job or
taking a serious look at current developments. Just this week, the Cabinet
was given an intelligence assessment for 2007 by Director of Military
Intelligence Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, Mossad Director Meir Dagan and Head of
General Security Services Yuval Diskin, who offered a worrying overview but
claimed that the chances of war this year are low. This is reassuring; but
as we've learned from the various inquiries into military and government
performance in the last Lebanon war, the professionals may not always have
all of the answers.
Understandably, the Olmert government is hesitant to embark on any
controversial moves at this time, constrained by its need to maintain a
stable coalition, at least until the Winograd commission presents its
Lebanon findings in March and Labour holds its primaries in May. But as
significant as these political considerations are, many Israelis feel that
they should not come at the expense of embracing any opportunity to explore
avenues that could lead to peace, or at least peace of mind. As Moshe Dayan
said, and Yitzhak Rabin after him: If you want to make peace, you don't talk
to your friends. You talk to your enemies.
In that spirit, here are three ways that the current Israeli leadership can
turn its talent for establishing commissions to truly productive use, namely
the examination of three specific peace initiatives:
(1) A Committee on the Saudi Initiative: Not too many years ago, the notion
that Saudi Arabia would seek active involvement in mediating a peace
arrangement in the region, with the approval of the Arab League, would have
been considered ludicrous. But today, moderate Arab countries fearful of
Shi'ite extremism and an ascendant Iran are attempting to broker a new
paradigm in the Middle East, which also includes a Palestinian-Israeli
Dubbed the "Arab Quartet" by Ma'ariv journalist Ben Caspit, Egypt, Jordan,
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, "are secretly setting up," in
Caspit's words, "a strategic-security-intelligence axis to block the Iranian
danger and the 'Shi'ite revolution'". Caspit adds that they are "being
joined by many other Islamic countries, some outside the region, such as
Indonesia, who oppose the Iranian nuclear effort and also have serious
concerns about the continued spread of Shi'ite Islam". For many Israelis,
sceptics included, this seems like one of those rare windows of opportunity
that it would be foolish to dismiss out of hand. The Committee on the Saudi
Initiative would be charged with assessing the growing openness of the Arab
Quartet to the West, and the role it might play in advancing a
(2) A Commission on the Syrian Option: Several prominent Israelis --
including Alon Liel, former Director-General of the Foreign Ministry and
Ambassador to Turkey; Yaacov Perry, former head of the Mossad; and the
distinguished author Sami Michael -- have already begun to lobby for a
rethinking of our Syria policy, so why not appoint them in an official
capacity? These experienced individuals can build on the assessment of the
intelligence community that Syria is indeed signalling its desire for a
diplomatic process, but is not willing to make any significant gestures as
yet, or give up its ties with Iran. According to this view, the probability
of full-scale war provoked by the Syrians is low.
A Syria commission would quietly try to verify the intent of Syria to
negotiate in good faith, examine its range of flexibility, and find out what
it would take to reorient Syria away from the Iranian-Hizbullah axis and
toward the moderate Arab camp. The commission could also try to mediate the
dispute between the Mossad, which opposes talking to the Syrians, and
Military Intelligence, which is open to the possibility. The bigger
question, however, is whether Israel should automatically accede to a U.S.
veto on entering talks with Syria. A supple and subtle Commission on Syria,
working just outside the official boundaries of state diplomacy, might be
the right place for a deep examination of the pros and cons -- based solely
on Israeli strategic interests -- of conducting such talks.
(3) Finally, a Commission on the Mecca Agreement: Problematic as it may be
in terms of the Quartet's three conditions -- recognizing Israel, renouncing
violence, adhering to past agreements -- the fragile Hamas-Fatah
rapprochement not only succeeds in including Saudi Arabia in as a major
player, but is a welcome attempt to resolve the fierce intra-Palestinian
conflict. For Israel, there is no value in the current stalemate vis-à-vis
the Palestinians, nor can we benefit from a worsening humanitarian crisis or
rising internecine violence.
Creative strategies are urgently required to bolster our less-than-ideal
partner for peace, a weakened Abbas who must work with the democratically
elected Hamas government, even if it refuses to recognize Israel. An Israeli
Commission on Mecca would seek to outline a political horizon that would
clarify parameters of statehood and the contours of a permanent agreement,
and thus sweeten the vision that Abbas will be able to sell to his own
public. The commission would also try to decipher the Mecca Agreement's
implicit recognition of Oslo, and determine whether it conceivably signals a
tilt by Hamas toward a two-state solution.
While it's true that governments are elected to lead the people, in these
trying times the people may need to take the lead themselves. Everyone sees
how this complex pot is being stirred. When we neglected to deal with the
PLO, we got Hamas. As we neglect to deal with Hamas, we may get something
even more extreme. But there may be simpler solutions stored in our pantry.
Maybe we should look at the bright side of Zeiler's Sicilian analogy,
focusing this time on pasta. A good chef can do wonders with wheat and
water, a few tomatoes and a little garlic. We too may not have much to work
with, but with patience and ingenuity we just might cook up some fresh
ideas, a healthy platter of prospects to set on the national table.
* Roberta Fahn Shoffman, representing Israel Policy Forum
in Jerusalem, heads Mindset Media and Strategic Consulting.
Source: Israel Policy Forum Focus, 28 February 2007,
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