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Return to negotiations now

Smadar Perry

Now, especially now, when the intifada in Egypt projects out to streets and rulers' palaces throughout the Arab world and the virus of demonstrations could land at any moment in another country--this is precisely the right time to return to the negotiating table with the Palestinians. Yes, we have demonstrated maturity and political loyalty to President Hosni Mubarak. Nor do we miss an opportunity to explain how volatile and worrisome the situation is. But this is not enough. As the ring of isolation surrounding us grows tighter, we must not forget our nearest neighbors, with whom we have a peace process.

Articles in this edition
Why we are closing - Yossi Alpher
The arc of the pendulum - Ghassan Khatib
In the near future, the government in Egypt will be busy with internal affairs. Whoever the ruler is, he must first stabilize his rule, learn lessons and rebuild governing institutions. Egypt played a significant role in our negotiations with the Palestinians, even though (of course, that's the mediator's job) we were not always content with that role. We also reached unprecedented strategic understandings with the Egyptians in dealing with Gaza-related security issues. Now we must assume that this Egyptian role will disappear in the coming months, at least until summer, as the regime changes.

What is currently happening in Egypt proves, not for the first time, that the administration in Washington does not understand our region and could surprise us negatively as well. It is precisely in such a situation that we must not sit back and do nothing. No one will do the job for us; we must not rely on our allies to come to our aid, and we must not assume that time is on our side. Under the new circumstances the status quo--marching in place with a stagnant peace process--is particularly dangerous.

I have little praise for the American role in the Egyptian turmoil--the same Americans that mediate between us and the Palestinians. That role is crude and arrogant, as if an elephant had been sent to stamp on the Mubarak regime without any preparation. I'm shocked by Washington's public stance, with the president and the secretary of state presiding over an anti-Mubarak agenda almost as bad as al-Jazeera's raucous incitement. They seem to want to remove Mubarak, replace him with his new vice-president, Omar Suleiman, and dictate conditions relating to democracy and human rights, all while ignoring the code of regime tradition in our part of the world.

While the region's dictatorial regimes of course must be criticized, Washington's behavior is worrisome. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton look like elementary school teachers disciplining the naughty pupil Mubarak. They don't care if they're leading 85 million Egyptians toward anarchy. They're not thinking about the domino effect in additional countries where the young generation has the same reasons to take to the streets as do the youth of Tunisia and Egypt. Kick Ben Ali out of Tunis and Mubarak out of Cairo, and don't give any thought to how things will look afterwards: unemployment, street violence, Islamists seizing power, huge status gaps, a deep economic crisis--and all this, without a reasonable plan for emergency measures.

We must not underestimate the role played behind the scenes by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It has branches in every Arab country, including in the Palestinian Authority. Suppose, for example, that we continue to do nothing regarding peace with the Palestinians. Suppose we rely on the other side's understandable preoccupation, so we can gain time and evade a peace process. The next phase is already tapping on our window: the Islamist movement gains strength, leveraging the slap on the cheek that the US administration has delivered to Mubarak and his supporters. PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is also concerned about this course of events. The streets of West Bank cities are liable to fill with angry demonstrators--their young generation is no less frustrated than in Egypt--with the Islamists conniving to drive the demonstrations out of control.

Israel must take the initiative immediately. It should seize the moment and renew talks with the PLO. It should be determined to send the message that Israel is serious about moving forward rather than looking for excuses to blame the other side. There is nothing easier than blaming the Palestinians; after all, we're the stronger side.

I suggest we be not only strong, but also smart, realistic and generous. Open the negotiating file and get to work. Stop blaming the other side. This is our opportunity to engage the Palestinians. Whoever thinks the problem will just disappear if we continue postponing negotiations is deluded. We are here, they are here, and the conflict hovers over our heads. The more we evade and postpone, the more we are liable to be surprised. And no one promises us happy surprises.-Published 7/2/2011 © bitterlemons.org

Smadar Perry is Middle East editor at Yediot Aharonot daily newspaper.
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