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The Arab Peace Initiative versus the culture of confrontation

04/10/2007

The Arab peace initiative, renewed at the recent Arab summit, has created the expected confusion in Israel. The doves, predictably, insist that Israel must seize the opportunity. The Arab side has come a long way since the "three nos" of the Khartoum conference, and offers peace, as hardnosed Zeev Schiff notes. The offer cannot be dismissed easily. Even if it is a bad offer, the admission that Israel has the right to exist and that there could be peace in principle establishes a precedent, a change in the culture of the conflict, and it must not be ignored. From Israel's point of view, it is a giant step forward that should be amplified and bolstered in any way possible.


The Israeli government, for its part, sniffs and pokes at the peace initiative like a dog who is not too hungry and has been offered some strange food.

Denis Ross is probably right that neither Olmert nor Abbas are strong enough to make peace, and that, in itself tells us something about the current mentality of Israelis and Palestinians. If there was a proposal by the Saudi Arabians to grant each Palestinian and each Israeli and every Arab $100,000 each, neither Olmert nor Abbas nor Abdullah of Jordan would need to be "strong" to pass that motion. Money is desirable. Peace is better than money. It is life as well as prosperity. It is more important than holy rocks in Jerusalem and a PalestinianstatewithitscapitalinJerusalem or settlements in Ariel and in Kiriat Kanaim and Maaleh Mitnahlim.* It is more important then the right to "return" to where you have never been. However, among Israelis and Palestinians "Peace" is a dirty word. Peace initiatives are a foreign imposition to be dealt with by evasion and parrying, and by putting on a show of peace initiative for visiting dignitaries like Condoleezza Rice.

The antipathy to peace is due to cultural and geopolitical realities that cannot be dismissed. No peace plan can succeed as long as people do not really want peace, because the demands and requirements that they make are designed to prevent peace, and if those are met, they will find new ones. It is absolutely necessary to have a settlement in Ariel, because having the settlement in Ariel will prevent the possibility of a viable Palestinian state. It is essential to get return of the Palestinian refugees to Israel, because return of the refugees to Israel will destroy the Jewish state. The geopolitical realities are such that at any given time there are a number of Middle East states, political groups and terrorist groups who compete for leadership in the Arab or Muslim world by exploiting the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nasser, Syria, PLO, Iraq under Saddam and now Iran, Syria, Hezbullah and Al-Qaeda have all played the game. A miniature version of this game is played in Israeli politics. They all have a vested interest in preventing the peace, in instilling the idea that peace is treachery and concessions are disastrous. The recent warning of Israeli MK Bishara to the Hamas, not to make any concessions is typical of this mentality. The political reality influences the hearts of the people and molds the culture of confrontation, and the culture of confrontation molds the politics of confrontation.

The novelty of the Saudi peace plan is that a major Middle East player has made a bid for leadership based on peace, and not on the politics of confrontation. This fact stands by itself, like Anwar Sadat's dramatic campaign, but the result must be judged in the context of the Middle East. Egypt did not become the leader of the Arab World by making peace with Israel. It was isolated, Sadat was assassinated and Egypt withdrew into a cold peace. Peace cannot succeed until this reality is changed, because the spoilers can always blow up the peace process, as the Hamas did in 1996 and has been doing ever since.

Many Israelis join Azmi Bishara in the refusal camp, continuing the politics of confrontation. They ask if the initiative is a Peace Plan or a Political Ploy. They believe that the Arab Peace Initiative is dangerous, because accepting with it would imply that Israel accepts full withdrawal and return of the Palestinian refugees, and it is therefore designed to destroy Israel rather than to make peace.

Probably they are right, and those who argue that the peace initiative is a golden opportunity for Israel are also right, and those who argue that it neither dangerous nor wonderful, but just empty words, may also be right. Everyone can be right about the Arab peace initiative, because it is a "consensus" document, a bit of constructive ambiguity. Like the manna that the Israelites ate in the Exodus, each person can taste what they want when eating it.

The Arab League is a conglomeration of states. The Saudis may propose the plan for one reason, while others may accept it for other reasons. The consensus was reached because all the Arab states benefit from this initiative, whether or not Israel accepts it. The Saudis get to lead the Arab world. The Arabs look good for the benefit of the Americans. The Syrians can use it to exert pressure to get back the Golan heights. The Arabs also benefit from putting Iran on the spot regarding peace with Israel, and trying to isolate Hamas from Iran. Everyone gets something and nobody loses anything.

The precise meaning of the initiative is deliberately obscured, so that all the Arab states could agree to it, each with their very own interpretation. Some may believe that it implies that all Palestinian Arab refugees will return to Israel. All certainly believe that it demands Arab sovereignty over East Jerusalem. In some ways it is quite like the "peace offers" of 1949 that also demanded territorial concessions and return of large numbers of refugees, and were rejected by Israel.

For Israel, the danger of the Arab peace initiative is not what detractors insist that it is. The Arab peace initiative creates a diplomatic problem for Israel. It is a public peace offer - a "peace offensive" in all senses of the phrase. It is being given momentum and importance by the publicity attached to it by the Arab states, and by its strategic timing. The United States State Department believes that the key to its salvation in Iraq is solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This belief is encouraged by wording inserted in the Iraq Study Group (ISG) proposal. According to knowledgeable Washington sources, this wording was a last minute addition, added at the insistence of one individual, retired CIA analyst Ray Close, who was an ISG advisor. Such beliefs, whatever their truth value, can quickly become entrenched in Washington or in any other government, and form the basis of far-reaching policy decisions.

For over half a century, the Israeli-Arab conflict has been immune to solution. Now, at precisely the moment when the United States believes it is most urgent to resolve the problem, the Arabs offer a "philosophers' stone" that will ostensibly convert lead to gold, a solution to an impossible problem. Of course, the Americans must grasp this opportunity, however illusory it might be.

Even if it is completely meaningless, this new "peace offensive" can isolate Israel as the party that is an "obstacle to peace." If it is not met appropriately, Israel will become public enemy number one in Washington and in European capitals as well. Israel will be viewed as blocking American salvation in Iraq, and endangering the price of oil as well. The Arabs have opened an important new front on the diplomatic battle field, that attempts to flank Israeli positions. Our flanks are undefended.

There are indications indeed that the plan is just a device, a gimmick, that is not intended to be pursued seriously. Secretary Rice came to the Middle East full of naive American enthusiasm. She took the Arabs at their word, and wanted to set up a mini-conference to begin negotiating peace. This rosy exuberance was quickly cooled by King Abdullah of Jordan. After her visit to Jordan, there was no more talk of summits by Dr. Rice. This is the same Abdullah who had so recently toured the US pleading for peace.

In a news conference following the Arab League Summit, Prince Saud declared that there was nothing in effect, for Israel to negotiate with most Arab countries. Israel should first meet all the terms of the Syrians, Palestinians and Lebanese, and then the Arab countries would make peace, at an unspecified date. Perhaps they would, and perhaps they would not. However, it is clear that Prince Saud is not stupid, and that he understands that Israel would not make sweeping concessions of the type demanded in the initiative unless there was absolute certainty that Israel will get peace from the Arabs in return. Moreover, the Arabs rejected PM Olmert's offer to meet and did not make a counter offer, so apparently they are not as anxious to make peace as to talk about making peace.

The terms of the initiative in their worst interpretation are certainly unacceptable to Israel, but Israel cannot afford to stand by and do nothing. Gimmick or not, the initiative is a very effective weapon in the diplomatic war that Arab countries have been waging against Israel. Whining that the initiative is not serious and ignoring it will not suffice.

It would be inappropriate for Israel to respond to this initiative with a simple "no" or with a half-hearted "let's talk" as PM Olmert has done. Vague talk of "political horizons" is not enough either. Israel must craft a public peace plan of its own and put it on the table to compete with the Arab Peace Initiative. This plan should reflect national consensus, and must be generous enough to get the backing of the European Union and the United States. For the Palestinians, it can be modeled on the Clinton Bridging Proposals or the Geneva Initiative or the Ayalon Nusseibeh plan. These are the plans that all the experts point to as the only possible shape of a peace solution: "two states for two peoples" and territorial compromise. None of these plans contemplate full withdrawal or massive return of Palestinian Arab refugees. All of them would give both sides peace with security, if they are carried out as agreed. All of them would safeguard Israeli rights in Jerusalem and other holy places to a greater or lesser extent, as well as allowing for Arab rights. Therefore, these plans can have a greater appeal to the international community than the Arab peace plan.

The Arab peace initiative also demands that Israel negotiate peace with Syria. Israel should be asking loudly of the USA, or threatening to ask in public, if their support for the initiative means that the US wants Israel to begin negotiations with Syria. Apparently the USA does not want to say this, but if so, they should get Israel off the hook. Very likely, Mr. Bush doesn't want to say it, but Dr. Condoleezza Rice does want to say it. The Arab League is not the only forum with divergences of opinion.

Any public Israeli peace plan is better than no plan at all. There is not much to the Arab peace plan. Like any good military strategy, it is simple but deadly. The plan does not have to be complex. It might suffice for Israel to say that it accepts the principle of land for peace, and will make peace with all Arab countries based on UN Security Council Resolution 242 and the Bridging Proposals of President Clinton.

The Arab peace initiative is indeed dangerous. Israel must recognize that, in a sense, it is under attack, and that the attack must be met with a concrete public plan to match the Arab plan. This diplomatic attack is more dangerous and urgent than the helter-skelter Qassam rocket fire, and it can be more dangerous than the rockets of the Hezbollah. If not met, it can cut off Israeli supply lines from the USA and Europe and our diplomatic support from those countries, and that could really mean the end of Israel. If the "attack" is met it becomes an opportunity. Even if no peace agreement is reached immediately, it helps to legitimize two very important ideas that must be the basis of any future peace. On the Arab side, there must be an understanding that Israel is here to stay and that recognizing Israel and the rights of Jews is no longer a cultural taboo. On the Israeli side, there must be a realization that it is, after all, possible to make peace and desirable to do so. Once both sides agree on both points, most of the solution is in hand.

Ami Isseroff

* There are no such places. The names mean "city of fanatics" and "settlers' hill."

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Replies: 4 comments

Ami : It should be compulsory for any politician acting in or about Middle East to read your analisis each morning. Never the cause of true peace have been served by a more clever or thorough servant.

Posted by Aleph @ 04/10/2007 09:11 PM CST

I think that the reason why we didn’t find any complete Arabic text for this declaration in the Internet and the reason why the speech of the King of Arabia itself had not the chance to be completely re run in any Arabic media is this paragraph:
"The conference also reiterated the call for the Israeli government and Israelis to seize the opportunity to accept the Arab peace initiative to resume (direct negotiations) and show seriousness on all tracks."
It seems that a comprehensive conference about the peace in the Middle East (Madrid 2) is more preferable than the direct negotiations.

Posted by Abdul Rahman Al Alwani @ 04/12/2007 08:02 AM CST

"It is more important then the right to "return" to where you have never been."

Does this refer to the Palestinan "right of return" to their family homes or the Jewish "right of return" to Israel, or both?

Posted by Spike @ 04/12/2007 04:40 PM CST

The Arab initiative is a little like Barak's generous offer in Camp David. It is a very positive step. It sure makes the ones making the offer feel generous. But even the more moderate cannot accept it as it is. And the current leadership is not the most moderate. So, it could be a stepping stone for peace or, if presented as an ultimatum, could be a stumbling stone.

Posted by Micha @ 04/12/2007 07:35 PM CST


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