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The Last Arab-Israeli Regional Peace Conference Was a Fiasco. Let’s Not Repeat Its Mistakes.

While Mahmoud Abbas continues to rebuff invitations to bilateral talks, the tantalizing prospect on the lips of many Israeli politicians is of a regional peace conference. In the absence of one-on-one negotiations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative as a “good foundation” for talks, provided that the “non-negotiable” 2002 offer can be revised. His defense minister, Avigdor Liberman, and the leaders of the opposition parties Yesh Atid and Zionist Union support a similar paradigm shift.

But before we celebrate peace breaking out, let’s take a salutary lesson from history.

The last Arab-Israeli regional peace conference was a failure and a farce. In 1949, the United Nations convened a regional summit in Lausanne, Switzerland, to follow up on the armistice agreements at the end of Israel’s War of Independence. The UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine decided to place the four Arab parties—Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, and Lebanon—on one side of the table, and Israel on the other. Or rather, the Arab negotiators sat in one room and Israelis in another for indirect talks: the Arab bloc refused to negotiate face-to-face. Since none of the Arab states wished to be seen as the side willing to make concessions, the diplomats ended up collectively reinforcing each other’s intransigence, raising the conditions for a deal impossibly high and obviating any agreement.

Farcically, each of the four Arab delegations agreed to meet with the Israeli delegation at Lausanne in secret, on condition that none of the other Arab parties—each of which was also meeting the Israelis in secret, and almost certainly knew that the others were meeting the Israelis in secret, and moreover knew that everybody knew this—know about the existence of these secret talks. Walter Eytan, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s first director-general, recalled how he would slip out of his hotel at night for undercover rendezvous with his Arab counterparts in cafes on the outskirts of town. Unfortunately, the side-talks could not circumvent the rejectionism encouraged in the formal talks.

This was in stark contrast to the success on the Greek island of Rhodes only months earlier in 1949. There, Israel successfully negotiated four separate armistice agreements with its Arab neighbors. UN mediator Ralph Bunche understood, according to Eytan, that “separate negotiations between Israel and each of the Arab states were a condition for success.” By the end, not only did negotiators receive special commemorative plates from Bunche—he threatened to smash the plates over their heads if talks failed—but Israeli and Egyptian diplomats found themselves passing around photographs of their sons in uniform over drinks in the hotel lobby.

(One might object that the 1991 Madrid Conference, not Lausanne, was the last regional peace effort. Madrid, however, was really an occasion for four separate bilateral tracks [which ended up leading to a permanent agreement with Jordan], with the multilateral stage addressing less contentious regional issues.)

Fast-forward nearly seventy years, and a window of opportunity is certainly ajar for a geopolitical overhaul.

As Iran accelerates its drive for regional hegemony, there is clearly an evolving alignment of interests between Israel and the Gulf states, opening a window of opportunity for geopolitical overhaul. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have a pressing interest in resolving the Palestinian issue in order to consolidate the Sunni bloc—with Israel’s support—against the Iranian advance. Riyadh does not intend to sacrifice its own national security on the altar of Palestinian nationalism, and it makes sense to effect a dramatic paradigm shift. A regional peace deal offers that.

But the forgotten spirit of Lausanne hovers above these efforts. Now, unlike then, there is a compelling geopolitical rationale for a historic deal. But now, just like then, certain structural negotiating dynamics may make this too good to be true.

Crucially, a regional peace conference establishes one side as diplomatic cartel, so to speak. By foreclosing the option of separate agreements, where Israel could bargain for favorable terms, the Arab states can club together to raise the price of peace, in order to demand the maximal price. This cartel, however, is really a consortium of states. Negotiations, therefore, would have two stages: among the Arabs, to agree on a common position, and then with Israel. In the first stage, the Arab states would suffer a collective action problem, which could paralyze them: even though they might all prefer that concessions be made so that a deal be palatable to Israel, none would want to be the party that urges accommodation with Israel on such flammable topics as Jerusalem, settlements or refugees.

Aware of the possibility that talks could collapse, none would want to be “outed” as the side that made the collective Arab bloc “blink first” on an ostensibly non-negotiable deal, thereby weakening its hand.

As such, the Arab states are liable to find themselves in a prisoner’s dilemma, whereby they make the price impossibly high. Netanyahu has said that if the Arab states define their initiative as “‘take it or leave it’—we’ll choose to leave it”: if the Arab states coalesce as one negotiating bloc against Israel, then they will find themselves in practice unlikely to budge because of their own internal negotiating dynamics.

This is bound to happen, unless Egypt and Saudi Arabia are able to compel the other twenty members of the Arab League—including the Palestinians—to accept watered-down terms. But since Iran has every interest in pressuring the Arab capitals under its suzerainty to reject a rapprochement, an Egyptian-Saudi axis would likely lack the legitimacy to impose a deal on the rest of the Arab League, or speak on its behalf, and would be easily presented as sell-outs.

Indeed, peace ultimately broke out with Egypt and Jordan when their geopolitical interests rendering them willing and able to go it alone, and to push the Palestinian issue onto the backburner. In 1949, Egypt was a Soviet client, seeking to shake off the Western imperial powers; thirty years later, it was desperately spinning into the American orbit, even at the cost of its ultimate expulsion from the Arab League.

Many argue that the Arab states cannot normalize ties with Israel until the Palestinian issue is resolved, but that did not stop Egypt or Jordan when they conceived of peace as a strategic necessity, not a mere preference: neither treaty even mentions Palestinian self-governance.

If the Gulf states really conceive of peace as a geostrategic interest—and only this will make the agreement worth the paper it is written on—there is no reason that they should not make peace while delaying a comprehensive resolution of the Palestinian issue. Egypt and Jordan already did that, with much less to lose than, say, Qatar or Yemen.

A regional peace arrangement, in which the entire Arab world agrees to—and successfully implements—a deal to irrevocably terminate the Arab-Israeli conflict, is a prize towards which any responsible leader should strive. Even a photograph of an Israeli prime minister with the assorted heads of the Arab states would be an achievement in itself, and break a major taboo, even without a final-status treaty. But the lesson of history is not to keep our hopes up: circumstances have changed dramatically in seventy years, but some structural dynamics remain the same.

Eylon Aslan-Levy is an Israeli news anchor and political commentator. He is a graduate of Oxford, Cambridge and the IDF.

[Photo: Odrade123 / Wikimedia]