You never know when a crisis may unexpectedly open doors. The current turmoil in Egypt may present three national leaders with a unique opportunity to take bold steps to help stabilize the Middle East. President Obama should announce that he would like to visit Jerusalem and Ramallah in a month or so. As President, he has been to Egypt and Turkey but not Israel. A visit now would send a powerful message to the Egyptian people that any new government must honor its peace treaty with the Jewish State if it is to remain on friendly (and receiving) terms with the United States. A visit to Ramallah would send an equally powerful message that any effort by Egypt to undermine the Palestinian Authority in favor of Hamas (an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood) will not be tolerated.
Prime Minister Netanyahu should announce that in honor of Obama's visit, he will implement an immediate freeze on all West Bank construction. And President Abbas should announce that he immediately begin negotiations with Israel regarding realistic permanent borders. A welcome visit by the President of the United States may well provide sufficient cover for Netanyahu and Abbas to justify actions that they have had difficulty selling to their domestic constituencies. Both Netanyahu and Abbas would like to sit down and try to negotiate a resolution to this seemingly intractable conflict. But both leaders are somewhat beholding to more resistant elements in their governments.
Great efforts should be made toward reaching sufficient agreement by the time of the Obama visit so that the freeze—gradually modified by a realistic assessment of which areas Israel is virtually certain to retain--can continue.
Some experts are arguing that until the Egyptian situation is resolved—and who knows how long that will take--anything relating to Israel should be kept on the back burner. Indeed that seems to be the policy of the three leaders at this point in time. Obama has said little publicly about Israel. Netanyahu has ordered everyone in his government to say nothing about Egypt. And Abbas has made only vague statements. This approach apparently reflects the perception that the Egyptian uprising has nothing to do with Israel or the Palestinians. While that may be true, any potential Egyptian leader seeking the support of the masses could choose to play the Israel Palestine card at any point. Unless the Egyptian public fully understands, and understands now, that playing that card against the Egyptian Israeli peace treaty will cost the Egyptians dearly, it is likely to be played by populist politicians because it appears to be a cheap card—at least domestically.
The Obama Administration would be well advised to continue to say little about internal Egyptian politics, but it must try to set limits on how such politics play out internationally, especially with regard to Israel and the Palestinians.
The bold move described above is not without risks, but the potential upside is enormous. It could produce a "threefer": a kick start to the moribund Israel Palestine peace process; a visible assurance to Israel that America stands behind the peace treaty; and a dramatic show of support for the Palestinian Authority in its constant conflict with Hamas.
The major risk, as it always is with any attempt to resolve the Israel Palestine conflict, is failure, but failure has been a constant. This proposal holds out at least some possibility of success.
On a broader level, the events in Egypt demonstrate to the entire world, what many in Israel have long understood: namely that the Israel Palestine conflict is only a part of the broader Arab-Israeli conflict. That broader conflict has been fogged by the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. Although there is every reason to hope that those peace treaties will survive the current turmoil, there is no guarantee that relations between Israel and its neighboring states will not suffer.
Israelis are of two minds about this reality: some believe that it should serve as a stimulus to make a compromised peace with the Palestinians, while others believe that it should deter Israel from offering any more land for peace. Both arguments have merit, but in the current world in which we live, the argument in favor of taking territorial risks for peace seems more persuasive.
So why don't these leaders follows Rahm Emanuel sage advice, "Never let a crisis go to waste." The crisis in Egypt may be exactly what is needed to stimulate the three leaders to take this bold step. It will require coordination, a willingness to confront domestic opposition and the possibility of failure, but the potential benefits considerably outweigh the potential risks. So let's hope these leaders don't miss the opportunity.