Now is the time for Europe to come up with a major new initiative to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There is no point in waiting until after the U.S. presidential election. Whether Barack Obama is re-elected or Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, wins there is no time to lose.
The Middle East has become so unstable that Israel and the Palestinians may regret it bitterly if they continue to put off making peace.
Look at what is happening in the neighborhood.
No one knows whether President Bashar al-Assad in Syria will relinquish power or who will replace him. Yet one thing is certain: The fighting in Syria has provided Al-Qaeda and its offshoots with a wonderful opportunity to create even more chaos.
That is in addition to the growing sectarian tensions that are causing bloodshed in Lebanon. The recent violence between Alawites and Sunni Muslims in the city of Tripoli shows just how combustible the situation has become.
And then, of course, there is Iran.
Just now, the International Atomic Energy Agency is preparing another quarterly report that shows that the Islamic Republic is moving ever more quickly towards the break-out point when its nuclear ambitions can no longer be stopped from the outside.
This same Iran is supporting Assad in Syria and Hizbollah in Lebanon. After months of intensive fighting in Syria, the interdependence of all three has become more dangerous than ever.
Israeli analysts are well aware of the growing instability in the region. Members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government are again rolling the drums of war against Iran.
But even a successful bombing raid against Iran (and is that really likely?) would not solve Israel’s security concerns. One has no idea how Iran or Hizbollah would react. That aside, Israel’s real worries are in fact much closer to home.
There is the Lebanese border that is vulnerable to Hizbollah attacks at any time. And there is the Syrian border along the Golan Heights that Israel has occupied since 1967. Things have long been very quiet there but that might change quickly with the tides of the Syrian civil war and the outcome.
Similarly, there is the Sinai border under the Mubarak regime, long a place of stability (but also smuggling). Last month, armed Islamists attacked an Egyptian border post there and killed 16 Egyptian soldiers, sending shivers of fear across neighboring Israel.
And no one can afford to ignore the unease in Jordan, where King Abdullah is holding back on reforms. That is not a recipe for stability.
A major conflict on any of these fronts could quickly embroil Israel’s most important, ambiguous relationship, the one with the Palestinians.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has done almost nothing to introduce democracy and accountability in the West Bank.
Of course, he can use the excuse that Palestine is still under Israeli occupation. Or he can explain that giving the people more say would play into the hands of Hamas, the Islamist organization that runs the Gaza Strip.
I remember the Palestinian Authority postponed local government elections as far back as the 1990s because it feared the rise of Hamas. That became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The longer the Palestinian Authority delayed, the more Hamas could feed on the frustrations of young and old Palestinians by providing public services that the Palestinian Authority neglected.
Indeed, it is a wonder that the West Bank has remained as stable as it has and that for the moment, Al-Qaeda has not gained ground there. Yet that may just be a matter of time, providing yet another reason why making peace is urgent.
Israel has also been adept at finding excuses not to begin serious talks.
It can claim that the region is too unstable and that Iran, given its nuclear ambitions, is the bigger threat right now.
Also, Israeli voters are much more preoccupied with economic and social issues. Peace with the Palestinians, a difficult and painful process, just doesn’t seem as urgent as it used to.
No doubt Netanyahu is also hoping that Romney will beat Obama. Romney’s unflinching support for Netanyahu, his friend, and Israel is well known.
In truth, that may not help the Israeli prime minister as much as he thinks. In the foreseeable future, no American president, neither a Republican nor a Democrat, will have much of a chance to broker a peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
The reason is that the dynamics have changed irreversibly with the Arab Spring. Arabs all over the region have become more self-confident at making their demands known. With the Arab democracy movement, those demands also have gained an enormous amount of legitimacy in the eyes of the world.
Obama, after raising the hope of the Arab peoples initially, has lost credibility. And Romney, given his stridently pro-Israeli positions, will find it very difficult to be accepted as a peacemaker by the Palestinians. The region, having become so unstable and unpredictable, needs a new and different push.
Why not, then the Europeans, perhaps together with Egypt’s new president Mohamed Morsi?
Such an initiative would be very much in the European interest as an unstable Middle East is a major security risk for Europe. And unless the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved and soon, long term (or even short term) stability in the region will remain elusive.
Nothing about this would be easy. Not only is the conflict deeply entrenched; the Europeans would first have to convince Israel that they are honest brokers. That’s where Morsi could play a big role. Its worth trying.