Do a Mideast deal soon or risk peace later

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — As protests increase in several Mideast countries, it is becoming more obvious that a final agreement between Israelis and Palestinians is one of the most critical issues facing policymakers in the region. For the United States, which is steadily losing control of events, it is also the time to help Israel define its real strategic interests in the area.

If one lesson can be learned from the tumultuous events in Egypt, it is that people cannot be held submissive forever while their most basic rights are denied. Ignoring this lesson can bring harsh consequences, as former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak discovered.

The Mubarak regime had played a stabilizing role in the region and had been a key player in mediating negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). It is yet not clear what role Egypt will have now in this process, particularly after the September elections that the military junta has promised to hold.

Events in Cairo have thrown the Israeli leadership into turmoil. The greatest fear is that Egypt’s new government will terminate the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel signed in 1979.

“The Israeli government is freaking out,” remarked Shmuel Bachar of the Israel Institute for Policy and Strategy.

That sentiment is echoed in the U.S. “Things are about to go from bad to worse in the Middle East,” warned Richard Cohen in The Washington Post.

Those responses are obviously based on the concern that if the Muslim Brotherhood took power, it would develop a more confrontational attitude toward Israel. Those concerns ignore the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood consists of a mosaic of different positions that have changed over time. Although nobody can predict how the movement will evolve, many of its members remain committed to a position of gradual reform.

There is a gap between the older, more radical generation and the younger one, which is more open to the world and eager to follow the Turkish example of democratic participation in their country’s political life. In addition, the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood decided to support Mohamed ElBaradei’s position in the recent upheaval demonstrates a new, more flexible leadership.

Israel’s fear of Egypt’s adopting an aggressive attitude ignores Egypt’s need, particularly after recent events, for even more billions of dollars from the U.S. and the international community. Violating the peace agreement with Israel would work against its most basic interests.

Still, it is possible to imagine a scenario in which new authorities in Egypt become more assertive in demanding respect for Palestinian rights. Continual denial of those rights will do more to stimulate the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood than the political situation in Egypt itself. Unless an agreement is reached in the near future, Israel — although it may continue to expand its settlements — runs the risk of losing the peace.

Speaking recently at the Herzliya Conference in Israel, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s secretary general said: “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict may no longer be perceived as the only problem in the region, but it still constitutes a major impediment in addressing other issues that threaten regional stability. The lack of a solution continues to undermine the stability of the region.”

Uri Avnery, Israeli leader of the peace movement Gush Shalom, recently stated: “Peace with the Palestinians is no longer a luxury. It is an absolute necessity. Peace now, peace quickly. Peace with the Palestinians, and then peace with the democratic masses all over the Arab world, peace with the reasonable Islamic forces (like Hamas and the Muslim Brothers, who are quite different from al-Qaida), peace with the leaders who are about to emerge in Egypt and everywhere.”

Cesar Chelala, M.D., is a cowinner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.