If the dramatic upheaval taking place throughout the Arab world is to have a constructive outcome, a critical necessity is peace between Arabs and Israelis. On this issue, the world is now at crunch time.
The choice is clear: New descent into the senseless antagonism and violence that has bedeviled the Arab- Israeli relationship for decades, or a two-state agreement providing security for Israel and a sovereign homeland for Palestinians.
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The prospects are not great. As one Arab nation after another is wrestling with the emergence from dictatorship into freedom, Israel, the most democratic country in the region, is confronted by an unenviable series of developments:
1. Egypt after Hosni Mubarak is seeing a surge of anti-Israel clamor, in which mobs have sacked the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and sent its diplomats fleeing.
2. Hamas, the extremist Palestinian organization that already holds sway in Gaza, has been making inroads in the West Bank, run by the more moderate Fatah.
3. The United States, Israel’s staunchest ally, risks Arab isolation because of its opposition to the Palestinian push for statehood at the United Nations. The US says it will veto any attempt for full recognition of Palestine through the UN Security Council. Washington also objects to a possible vote by the UN General Assembly, which would likely approve a nonvoting “observer” status for Palestine.
4. Syria, whose negotiation over the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights would be a critical part of any peace agreement, is in turmoil and its leadership is in question. It can hardly, at present, be seen as a responsible participant in discussions with Israel.
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5. Turkey, which has sought a more influential role in the Middle East, is taking a significantly more aggressive attitude toward Israel. It once brokered negotiations between Syria and Israel; now it threatens to use its warships to challenge Israel’s blockade of Gaza, with which Israel seeks to prevent arms reaching Hamas. The Turks have expelled the Israeli ambassador.
6. As if all this negative news for Israel were not enough, Iran seems on faster course to acquiring a nuclear weapon or weapons. Could Iran, which has blustered about “obliterating” Israel, be irrational enough to threaten Israel with a nuclear missile if it produces one?
The danger is that Israel, which has its own nuclear arsenal, might not wait long enough to find out. Although Iran is not an Arab nation, it is Islamic, and such a nuclear confrontation would wreak havoc in the Middle East as Arab friends and foes of Iran and Israel respectively took sides, even – especially in the case of Saudi Arabia – to the point of developing their own nuclear arsenals.
The most immediate of these problems demanding solution is the Palestinians’ determination to press for statehood recognition at the UN. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas claims this move stems from deep frustration over the lack of any positive negotiation on an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, and that statehood would put Palestine on equal footing with Israel for further talks.
The US argues that there is no shortcut to statehood, and a UN move by the Palestinians only complicates negotiations. The US Congress, largely pro-Israel, might well cut off aid to the Palestinians if the UN moves favorably on statehood.
As long as a festering Israeli-Palestinian relationship, in which the US appears to favor Israel, continues, it will undermine the Obama administration’s efforts to improve US relations with the Arab world.
The US has enormous stakes in seeing that an edgy Israel and the Palestinians, who have a legitimate claim to a homeland of their own, achieve the accord that has so far eluded them.
The crux of any agreement would be that Israel and Palestine should be independent states, living side by side with guarantees of security for each. There are difficult details to be worked out, political issues concerning borders, and immensely sensitive religious issues over the future of Jerusalem. Nobody suggests this is easy.
But the consequences of failure are unthinkable.
John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.
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