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With Arab Spring, will Israel be left in the cold?

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Idan Ofer, a leading Israeli businessman, speaking at the unveiling of an unofficial peace plan launched by a group of influential Israelis including Yaakov Perry, right, former head of the Shin Bet, and seated next to him Yuval Rabin, son of the slain Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin, April 6, 2011. (Gilad Kavalerchik)

Idan Ofer, a leading Israeli businessman, speaking at the unveiling of an unofficial peace plan launched by a group of influential Israelis including Yaakov Perry, right, former head of the Shin Bet, and seated next to him Yuval Rabin, son of the slain Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin, April 6, 2011. (Gilad Kavalerchik)

TEL AVIV (JTA) — Unless Israel acts fast, when the Arab Spring comes to full bloom, the Jewish state will be left out in the cold.

That was the essence of the dire warnings issued last week by the high-profile backers of a new Israeli peace push who say they seek to propel the country along the peacemaking path before it’s too late.

With Israel’s diplomatic position sinking and the Palestinians on the cusp of taking a unilateral path to statehood at the U.N. General Assembly in September, a group of ex-military men, business leaders, former security chiefs and diplomats say now’s the time for action — and they’re trying to do something about it.

“Our ongoing presence in the territories is a danger to Zionism,” a stern-faced Yaakov Perry, former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, told a crowded news conference April 6. “Every minute that passes makes things worse. “

Urging Israel to make bold decisions or risk becoming an international pariah, he said that “Israel cannot disconnect from the world and become Syria or North Korea.”

Hinting at U.S. backing for Israel, Perry said that “All of us have felt this isolation, and the power of others to back up Israel is diminishing.”

Perry is one of about 50 prominent Israelis behind the new Israeli Peace Initiative, a plan that spins off the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. The latter initiative, to which Israel never issued a formal response, offered the principle of full normalization of ties between Israel and the Arab world in exchange for Israel ceding all territories captured in the 1967 Six-Day War: the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and eastern Jerusalem. Israel ceded Gaza to the Palestinians in 2005.

The new Israeli initiative differs little from other nongovernmental plans proposed over the last decade or so. It envisions the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with some limited land swaps, Jerusalem as a shared capital, and peace deals with Syria and Lebanon.

It foresees a demilitarized Palestinian state with control of its own internal security, and resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue — historically one of the main sticking points in negotiations — with financial compensation and a resettlement of refugees and their descendants to Palestinian areas only with "symbolic and agreed-upon exceptions.”

The idea, its proponents say, is to get the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to act. Netanyahu’s office has declined to comment on the initiative; members of the group said he has received a copy.

The dovish Israeli figures who comprise the group say the pro-democracy demonstrations sweeping the Arab world, which have toppled Israel’s main regional ally, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, are game changers for Israel, and the Israeli government needs to respond with decisive action.

“There is a new wind blowing,” Perry said. “It’s time to change the paradigm we have had for years about the Arab world.”

Idan Ofer, a leading Israeli businessman, said he already has begun to feel a change in his business dealings abroad.

“It was made clear to me more than once that if the situation here does not improve, Israeli companies that employ thousands of people will be hurt,” he said.

Echoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s recent warnings that a U.N.-recognized Palestinian state could usher in a “diplomatic tsunami,” Ofer offered his own stark assessment, saying that possible economic sanctions could hit Israel once a Palestinian state becomes a U.N. member.

“The tangible effects will change everything,” Ofer said. “I’m trying to wave a red flag.”

While this group of critics believes Netanyahu is waffling, Netanyahu has said that the revolutions transforming the Arab world require that Israel move more cautiously.

Among the new threats Israeli officials are considering are what would happen if the Jordanian regime fell and was replaced by a hostile government along Israel’s eastern border, and how to deal with an Egypt that is a less reliable ally. If the Syrian regime falls to the protests roiling that country, Israel’s strategic calculus in the North could change, too.

On the diplomatic front, circumstances already are rapidly changing. The new regime in Egypt has taken a harsher line on Israel, although Amos Gilad, the head of the Defense Ministry’s diplomatic-security bureau, said this week that he was impressed by the stability and achievements of the new Egyptian leadership.

Perhaps most significantl the Palestinian Authority is moving ever closer to a unilateral declaration of statehood. Last week, both the International Monetary Fund and World Bank said that the Palestinian economy is ready for statehood.

Citing the 9 percent growth among Palestinians last year, the World Bank commended the state-building initiatives spearheaded by P.A. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and warned of the dangers of foreign aid overdependence and Israeli restrictions on movement in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, considered to be one of the more moderate members of Netanyahu’s government, spoke out last week against the unilateral Palestinian push for statehood.

“Borders need to be agreed on by two parties, not decided unilaterally,” he said. “Of course, there are political problems on both sides. But as long as people don’t come to talk, it’s difficult. We have to say our goals up front.”

Once a Palestinian state is accepted by the United Nations, it will be virtually impossible for Israel to influence what kind of state it might become, the organizers of the new Israeli Peace Initiative said. They stressed the need for Israel to take initiative now.

“We hope that brave leaders will be found in Israel, the region and in the international community who will translate the Arab and Israeli vision for peace into reality instead of waiting in vain for magic to take place,” they said in their founding document.

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