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Arab Peace Initiative: Opening the window of opportunity

05/11/2007

Walid Salem brings important and reassuring words about the Arab Peace Initiative. There is no doubt that both sides in the conflict must explore every avenue for peace. The Arab Peace Initiative might be the breakthrough that Israel has sought for 60 years, since the Arab states rejected the UN Partition Plan. Objective observers hail the Arab Peace Initiative, and it is somewhat embarrassing for me, as an Israeli, that the Olmert government has not greeted it with much more enthusiasm and activity.

It is true though, that Israel has good reason to be skeptical, given the vagueness of the wording of the peace initiative, and the unwillingness of the Arab side to negotiate. They are only willing to "explain." They are not willing or able to provide any formal guarantee in advance that if Israel really were to meet all of their conditions, they would actually make peace with Israel. The Arab League cannot formally commit its states. That commitment would have to be made in direct negotiations, and those negotiations won't happen apparently until Israel meets all the conditions of the Arab League Peace Initiative, according to the interpretation of those conditions by the most militant Arab state. Can the Arab League guarantee for example, that Muammar Gaddafi of Libya will sign peace with Israel as a Jewish state? If not, how do we know he, or others, will not stir up trouble and prevent all other countries from signing?

Walid Salem himself pointed out one of the greatest red flags flying over the Arab Peace Initiative:

Saudi Arabia, as the head of the last Arab Summit, will be responsible for activating the API and pursuing "…the necessary contacts to gain support for this initiative at all levels, particularly from the United Nations Security Council, the United States Of America, the Russian Federation, the Muslim states and the European Union," as stated in point number 7 of the API.

In other words, the Arab League will not negotiate with Israel, but rather will attempt to coerce Israel to accept its views by lobbying in the United Nations and elsewhere. That is not a constructive program for peace. It is, after all, the same strategy that has been adopted for 60 years. Only the goals seem to be different.

Salem is certainly right about this:

Whether there will be a real peace process in the coming months or not will depend on whether this 'activating' will include open/direct negotiations with Israel...

The "take or leave it" announcements of the Arab League and the Saudis are not negotiations, and they will not advance the peace process.

Likewise, how can the Arab Peace initiative, as Salem explains it, fit into the Palestinian national program, as enunciated in the Palestinian prisoners' letter, for example? The prisoners' letter calls for right of return. Salem himself, while seconding the Arab Peace Initiative, also urged support for a Palestinian unity government that does not accept the Arab peace initiative, led by the Hamas movement that vows that it will never live in peace until Israel is destroyed. If the Arab Peace Initiative is compatible with that, then it is not a peace initiative.

Marwan Mu’asher states his view of the Peace Initiative, quoted by Walid Salem. On the whole, it is extremely positive. But it is his view, not the view of all the Arab states. For example, Muasher says:

4. The last point, which I think is the most important, is about refugees. This is what Israel probably missed: for the first time we said “yes, the right of return is important to us Arabs, we are not going to give it up before a final peace treaty, but at the same time we want to assure Israel that no Arab state has in mind the return of four million Palestinians to Israel and the demographic change this would insinuate.”

If so, why were these Palestinian refugees forced to live in camps, rather than being resettled, for 58 years? Wasn't it precisely the intention of the Arab states to return the refugees to Israel? If Muashar's interpretation is correct, then why is it not stated at all in the Arab Peace Initative? Can someone have the illusion that Israel will withdraw from any territories based on Mu'asher's interpretion of the Arab Peace initiative, and ignore the fact that almost every Palestinian spokesman demands the right of return, implemented literally, as underlined at the Taba negotiations? When it was rumored that King Abdullah of Jordan had ceded the physical right of return, a great furor of angry protest rose from Palestinian spokespersons of all persuasions.

If there are Palestinians who are willing to cede right of return, other that a tiny few led by Sari Nusseibeh, why won't they stand up and be counted? Does Walid Salem give up the right of return? Can we get a statement from Mahmud Abbas and Ismail Hanniyeh, ratified by the Palestinian factions, agreeing that the refugees will not return to Israel en masse? For example, ratifying the above quote from Muasher might go a long way to dispel anxiety.

Every editorial I have read in the Israeli press, and they are legion, and every Israeli with whom I have argued in favor of the Arab Peace Initiative, has pointed out to me, again and again, that the initiative refers to UN General Assembly Resolution 194, and that the Arabs interpret this resolution as granting literal right of return to Palestinian refugees. Mahmud Abbas himself has never hidden the fact that the Camp David talks failed in large part because Israel would not give in to Palestinian demands for right of return. In 2000 he wrote:

"It is noteworthy in this matter, and this is also what we clarified to the Israelis, that the Right of Return means a return to Israel and not to the Palestinian State... When we talk about the Right of Return, we talk about the return of refugees to Israel, because Israel was the one who deported them and it is in Israel that their property is found..."

The detailed demands of the Palestinian side in the Taba negotiationsmade it clear that they mean that every single refugee who wants to do so must be admitted to Israel. Of course, this would mean the end of Jewish self-determination, and not just some vaguely described "demographic problems" for Israel. Have Fatah or PLO or the Hamas changed their stance? If so, then we must know that it is so, for the sake of peace. Not only we must know, but the entire Arabic Ouma and the Palestinian Sha'abiyeh must know: the words, like Abbas's words about Right of Return, must be broadcast and published in Arabic.

But surely, if it is just a matter of putting into words what all the Arab states and the Palestinians believe and support, this will not be a problem. The Arab League will be willing to grant written clarifications that ensure that Israel will not have to absorb the refugees, and that "full withdrawal" will not entail, for example, reinstating and ratifying the events of May 1948, when the Jews of the old city of Jerusalem were ethnically cleansed by the Jordan Legion. These undertakings too will be made in public, in Arabic as well as in other languages.

Muashar also makes a critical but well meaning error that is at the heart of the whole problem in my view:

Least important from our point of view were peace treaties with the Arab world, which we gave as a collective peace treaty.

Neither the peace treaty nor "guarantees" are important to Israel. The fact of public recognition in the Arab world, recognition of the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, executed in deed as well as on pronouncements, and publicized throughout the Arab world, is the important and cardinal point for Israel, and that is what it has been fighting for for sixty years.

Recognition of the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state is the most important security guarantee, and in the long run it is about the only security guarantee that is needed or wanted or useful. Pieces of paper do not make peace, as we learned from the Oslo Agreement. Israel does not need Arab security guarantees, which can last or not, depending on the longevity of the regimes that make them, as much as it needs to know that the Arab states recognize the right of a Jewish State to exist somewhere in the Middle East, even if it is only the size of a postage stamp, and that Arab states are willing to lead and educate their people to accept the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, to stop racist propaganda against the Jewish people and the Jewish religion, and to demonstrate by public gestures that the nightmare era of Arab hatred for the Jews is over. It does not entail diplomatic recognition, but something else. Almost alone among all states, Israel has been subject to an internationally sanctioned campaign to delegitimize its right to exist, and the Jewish people have been subject to a campaign that insists that their national movement is "racism" - an idea ratified by a majority of the member states of the UN in 1975 in UN General Assembly resolution 3379. Israelis will not quickly forget that Arab initiative, nor the Arab initiative of May 15, 1948, to destroy Israel, which was undertaken before there was any Israeli occupation. No other country has been subject to such a campaign: not Nazi Germany, not Turkey, which occupied Palestine for several centuries, nor China, which has occupied Tibet illegally since 1949. The right to exist is a fundamental right that is granted to all peoples, and it is prior to peace treaties and negotiations.

The most important event in the peace process between Israel and the Arab states is still a single gesture: Anwar Sadat came to the Knesset and spoke of peace. He did not make a single concession in his speech. He did not say that Egypt recognizes the right of a Jewish state to exist. He simply said "we accept you." He could have said nothing. The fact of his presence is what ultimately moved armies. As soon as he stepped off the airplane, peace between Egypt and Israel became inevitable.

If King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia were to step off the plane in Ben Gurion airport tomorrow, and if Baschir al Assad were to follow him, it would change the face of the Middle East, and would be a giant step on the road to peace. It is not a physical concession. It would cost not one Arab life or one millimeter of Arab land. It doesn't grant Israel diplomatic recognition. It would signal that these leaders have made an irrevocable commitment to peace. Israelis will then begin to believe that the long struggle can really be over, and will pressure their government to make peace, as they did in 1978.

None of this lets the Israeli government off the hook. It is not sufficient to sit with folded arms and say, "If they really mean it, they must come to Jerusalem." If the Arab Peace Initiative is just a device to pressure Israel, where is the Israeli peace initiative that will pressure the Arabs? If a gesture is required from the Arab side, isn't a gesture required from the Israeli side? Announcing a freeze on new settlements and dismantling the illegal outposts could be just the gesture that is needed. If the meaning of the terms of the Arab Peace Initiative are unclear or unacceptable, then shouldn't the Israeli government clarify what terms are acceptable?

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 5 comments

Very well written, and you finally got to the meat of the matter in the last paragraph. None of the above gives anyone the right to just wave it off with "let them come to us" cynicism. The question I'm waiting to see answered is how do any of the putative next-prime-ministers feel about the initiative, and what would a government under their leadership do?

... from all the Labor candidates, Likud, Kadima ... everyone. It's urgent for the voters. who will soon have the choice (please G!d), to know where they stand, without hyperbole.

Yeah, in my dreams, I know. Sigh.

Posted by Amy @ 05/15/2007 12:49 PM CST

Based on what we know about he three large parties (assuming that Kadima will remain), we can guess that:

A labor candidate should be welcoming to the initiative, although it does not mean he will accept it or be able to overcome its shortcomings. However, much depends on the personality of the candidate which might affect his or her reaction.

a Likud candidate is unlikely to welcome the initiative. At best he will try to seem -- if he's smart -- to not be too difficult about it, while actually doing everything to avoid it. At worst case he will also harm Israel diplomatically by seeming like he's obstructing things istead of just doing it. Of course, there's always the chance of a miraculous Likud conversion. It has happened before, but I doubt voters should rely on it.

Kadima seems closer to the Likud in wanting to avoid the initiative while seeming to not do so. But there is a greater chance of them surprising us. It also depends on who's is charge. Livni is more likely to make the extra step. Mofaz does not.

Posted by Micha @ 05/15/2007 03:43 PM CST

And the latest update has PM Olmert meeting King Abdullah of Jordan and saying (at least according to ynet) "anytime, anywhere."

Am putting aside cynicism to see rays of hope.

Posted by Amy @ 05/15/2007 04:28 PM CST

Amy, I feel that you and I will keep dreaming. It is clear that the only reason the Israeli government is talking about the arab initiative (which was rejected instantly before by Sharon) is to give the Israeli voters hope again. I hope the Israeli people will discover one day that the only way for peace in the middle east is the arab initiative. However, for now we will keep on dreaming.

Posted by Mike Jebara @ 05/19/2007 10:20 PM CST

If the Palestinians wanted a country within the borders of 1967 there would be peace by now. But they do not want peace. There aim is to destroy Israel.
Just have a look in the Schoolbooks and read there News papers or listen to there Poems..
There everything they want is said. Don't close your eyes!

Posted by Shimshon @ 05/26/2007 06:25 PM CST


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