- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2009


One of the tragedies of Mideast politics is that a moderate Arab leader needs to weigh his personal safety against making a commitment to a peace plan with Israel.

This ultimate veto on policy is not made by the leader´s party, Cabinet or legislature, but by a mythical rule, a learned lesson born out of the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. This unspeakable decree clearly states that if a leader dares to come close to any understanding with Israel, then a fatwa, a religious opinion, could be issued by a radical scholar approving execution.

It is as if the modern history of the Mideast is a Shakespearean ghost constantly whispering into the ears of Arab leadership: Remember Anwar Sadat. Remember how he went to Jerusalem and later was assassinated.

If moderate Arab leaders are preoccupied with the incendiary combination of Mr. Sadat´s memory and the legitimacy of their governments, Israel´s leadership is constrained by a parliamentary system of government. In a nation that probably should be governed by a presidential system, the legitimacy of Israel’s leadership constantly is threatened by unruly or short-lived parliamentary coalitions.

Israeli leaders rarely have the time, political energy or political capital to educate their electorate in order to move the peace effort forward. Political survival is based on the smallest of incremental steps. But with its justified incursion into the Gaza, Israel now has the ability to partly break the Sadat curse and empower Arab leadership to act in the best long-term interest of their countries.

With the no-nonsense aggressiveness with which the Israeli centrist government has conducted the Gaza war, it has freed itself — for the moment — of criticism from the political parties on its right and from implied accusations that its aspirations for peace could jeopardize the survival of Israel.

The war politically has liberated Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government and thus has given it a historic opportunity to significantly change the Mideast landscape — allowing it to demonstrate to moderate Arab governments that Israel understands their political problems and will do what is necessary to enable these governments to negotiate with face.

The war has given Mr. Olmert the political space to announce that Israel immediately will dismantle the most aggressive settlements such as Maskiot, discontinue all new settlement activity and budget the $6 billion already proposed for homes of 20,000 West Bank settlers so they can build within Israel’s borders.

Of course, the Israeli right loudly will argue that such steps would amount to giving away assets without getting anything in return. But that argument is fallacious because such an announcement will begin to change the Mideastern dynamic.

First, it will demonstrate to the world that Israel truly wants a just peace settlement and that it has the political will both to make war and make the accommodations necessary for peace. As an aside, such an announcement immediately will relieve some of the pressure and problems Israel has with the European Union.

Second, a thawing of relations will give urgently needed credibility to the Egyptian, Jordanian and the other moderate Arab governments. It will help give the moderates the boost they need in their fight with Iran for regional leadership. Israel will be the one taking the Sadat risk - turning the rules upside down and, in doing so, restoring face to the leadership of the moderate Arab countries.

Partly because of the Sadat rule, partly out of tradition and culture, these countries probably never will be the public leaders in a grand peace bargain with Israel. But they are the gatekeepers whose quiet nods have moved the process forward. Their leaders see the horrors of a radicalized Mideast, but they know that they must demonstrate to their people that their quiet nods are not a betrayal of the Palestinian people.

Third, Israel´s most important and weakest ally against radicalization, Fatah and the current West Bank government, will gain strength and legitimacy. Israel needs Fatah not only because it is the nonradical Palestinian party and because it is the only logical negotiating party but because it also needs Fatah to govern Gaza after the war. But without credibility gained from receiving land on which some of the settlements have been built, Fatah’s legitimacy in a war-ravaged Gaza is questionable.

Of course, none of this is easy.

When a government is fighting a war, it is nearly impossible to concentrate on other strategies. And when a government such as Israel’s is made up of non-harmonious partners, it is even more difficult.

But as a citizen of the Mideast, Israel also knows the importance of power and face. It knows that in the Mideast, of all places, politics follows perception. And politically, what better time is there to offer possible friends face than when you are demonstrating massive strengths.

• Edward Goldberg, a consultant on international trade with Russia and Eastern Europe, teaches international Marketing at the Zickland Graduate School of Business, Baruch College of the City University of New York.

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