Hope for the Arab Initiative

Although a political process based on the Arab Initiative will be challenging, Israel should view the prospect not only in terms of progress vis-à-vis the Arabs, but as an opportunity to contain the multidimensional threat Iran presents to Israel’s identity and national security.

John Davis, ynet

The announcement that Israel is prepared to meet with the Arab League's committee for advancing the Saudi Initiative is a positive sign. Although the road to a political process based on the Arab Peace Initiative will be challenging, Israel should view the prospect not only in terms of progress vis-à-vis the Arabs, but as an opportunity to contain the multidimensional threat Iran presents to Israel's identity and national security.

The idea of a political process among Israel and the Arab states, led by a newly vigorous Saudi Arabia and supported by the US, has recently been revived. This alignment is based on the common threat that Iranian expansionism presented for Israel, the US, and pro-Western Sunni Arab regimes.

It is increasingly understood that Iran is trying to establish regional hegemony, based on military capacity, economic fortune and regime stability, as well as global power status, regional influence and Muslim world leadership. Iran's nuclear project - its express ticket to all of the aforementioned desired destinations - and Iran's Shiite/fundamentalist axis of states and organizations are of particular concern to Arab states.

For Israel, Iran not only constitutes a physical threat through conventional military power, non-conventional nuclear potential, and sub-conventional terrorist sponsorship. Iran also leads the attack on Israel's identity and legitimacy as a Jewish and democratic state by denying the Holocaust and calling for a unitary bi-national state, which would lead to an Arab Muslim state in place of a Jewish one.

Hidden opportunities

Sunni Arab governments' pursuit of their own nuclear programs and involvement in Palestinian, Lebanese and Iraqi politics demonstrate their efforts to contain Iran. Although Saudi Arabia has led the recent flurry of diplomatic activity concerning the Palestinians and the Lebanese aimed at containing Iran's expanding influence, the ultimate blow to Iranian hegemony just might be a renewed political process with Israel.

The renewal of the political process features hidden opportunities to contain the Iranian threat. A process that includes Lebanon, Syria and the newly united Palestinians provides those actors with a means to withdraw their membership from Iran's network of resistance actors. A successful process involving those same actors would diminish the geographic scope of Iran's emerging Shiite Crescent from Iraq to the Mediterranean.

In addition, a regional process among Israel and Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia and excluding Iran, will damage Iran's ability to assume a leadership role of the region or claim to represent the interests of the Islamic world. Most significantly, this would de-legitimize Iranian-led attacks on Israel's identity as a Jewish and democratic state.

Behind-the-scenes activity

Deep-seated resistance to Israel among their peoples significantly hinders Arab leaders from overt expression of common interests with Israel. Hence, hope for a political process that could reduce Iran's influence lies in the ability of both Israel and the Arabs to transform the Arab Peace Initiative from a position to a proposal.

Arab League working groups that will market the initiative in the West give Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan the means to quietly repackage the initiative by softening its stance on the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel proper. In order to facilitate this, Israel should emphasize its agreement in principle with the palatable aspects of the initiative and accept the initiative as a framework for negotiations.

Despite its potential for containing Iranian influence, many factors could trip up a potential political process based on the Arab Initiative. Given the number of actors that make up the Arab world, the range of positions they represent and the fracture within several key governments (including both the Lebanese and the Palestinians,) the chance of getting a unified Arab stance that is acceptable to Israel seems slim.

Israel may be faced with an all-or-nothing policy, similar to Mahmoud Abbas' current stance and pressure from international actors to sustain diplomatic momentum. Finally, the prospect of a political process and the threats to their interests inherent in it will inspire rejectionists sponsored by Iran to disrupt the process with terror.

However, despite these challenges, Israel should see a political process based on the Arab Initiative as an opportunity not only to progress vis-à-vis the Palestinians and other Arab states, but as an opportunity to contain the physical Iranian threats of a global nuclear menace and active state-sponsorship of resistance terror and de-legitimize the Iranian threats on Israel's identity.