Peace initiative is in trouble

BY ALON BEN-MEIR

Even before it begins the Arab summit scheduled for the latter part of March in Damascus, is in serious trouble; there are several political discords among Arab states as well as the region’s continuing violent conflicts. Whereas a resolution to the crisis in Lebanon over the selection of a new president seems a prerequisite to holding the summit, no one expects its leaders to even attempt to resolve the many other crises that have plagued the Arab world. The one critical issue that will resurface in Damascus is what to do about the languishing Arab peace initiative with Israel to prevent it from becoming another relic in the annals of the unending Arab-Israeli conflict.

This is not the time to threaten to withdraw the Initiative or to present Israel with an ultimatum to either accept or face the consequences, as some Arab leaders have suggested. Both sides have failed to do enough and both share equal blame for the lack of progress. The Initiative represents the most important position the Arab states have taken collectively, and it must remain the bedrock on which to base the peace process until a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace is achieved. The current negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will lead nowhere and the bloody conflict with Hamas will persist unless the collective Arab will and weight, especially Syria’s, are positively engaged in the process. All previous peace plans — including the Road Map, the ClintonBarak parameters, and the Oslo accords — have failed because they lacked the comprehensiveness of the Arab Initiative and excluded Syria from the peace process.

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Although Israel has certain reservations about the Initiative, it must fully embrace it and publicly state its willingness, in order to achieve peace, to exchange territories captured in the 1967 war, participate in the search for a humanitarian solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, and seek a mutually accepted solution to the future of Jerusalem, all of which represent the Initative’s principle requirements. Taking this position should not preclude Israel from clearly stating its basic four requirements for peace, which are reconcilable with the principles of the Initiative: (1) ensuring Israel’s national security and territorial integrity, (2) sustaining Israel’s Jewish national identity, (3) securing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, (this should not preclude the Palestinians from establishing their own capital in the same city), and (4) establishing normal relations with the entire Arab world. Israeli leaders must understand that for the Arab states to offer this Initiative represents a monumental leap forward. They are bewildered as to why Israel does not grasp this historic opportunity to secure the peace it has been presumably seeking for sixty years. The Initiative offers Israel peace with security; an acceptance into the Arab folds; can the Israeli leaders imagine the implications of raising the Israeli flag in 22 Arab capitals? Can they imagine the transformation that will engulf the entire region?

Meanwhile, although the Initiative is a momentous document, the Arab states cannot simply wait for Israel to act. They must make clear and open overtures toward Israel to demonstrate to their own masses that their leaders have made a strategic choice for peace while simultaneously assuring the Israeli public of their commitment to peace. This is what the Israeli public wants to see. They remember very well the late Anwar Al-Sadat’s offer of peace with Egypt in exchange for the territories captured in 1967. Sadat traveled to Jerusalem before receiving any assurance that Israel would concede even a single inch of territory. He journeyed there because he wanted by his action to demonstrate his commitment to peace. This, more than anything else, persuaded the Israeli public to fully support the Camp David negotiations in 1979, which led to peace between the two nations and Israel’s total withdrawal from Egyptian territories.

Imagine the effect on Israelis if Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah traveled to Jerusalem to worship at the Muslim’s third holiest shrines and while there address the Israeli Parliament on the merits of the Initiative. Imagine the dramatic shift in Israeli public opinion if the public sees Arab officials other than Jordanians or Egyptians (as designated by the Arab League to pursue the Initiative with Israel) meeting with their Israeli counterparts inside or outside of Israel. Imagine the effect of these encounters on Arab extremists who seek the destruction of Israel, as they face the collective Arab will. Such overtures do not suggest acceptance of the Israeli position or the endorsement of its policies. That is, they do not signify that the Arab world recognizes Israel’s borders or Jerusalem as its capital or the settlements as legitimate. What they mean is that the Arab world simply accepts Israel as a state, and is thus willing to translate a declaration of principles into a peace process. When President Sadat addressed the Israeli Parliament he made absolutely clear the price Israel had to pay for peace. He was cheered and hailed by the vast majority of Israelis as the most courageous, visionary, and trustworthy leader.

Now, nearly 30 years later, Egypt remains at peace with Israel. The Arab League courageously put forth the Arab Initiative, a document that would have been unthinkable without Sadat’s historic journey.

How do the Saudis expect their Initiative to provide the basis for Arab-Israeli peace making if they continue to refuse even a handshake with an Israeli official? Although a host of issues separate Israel from the Arab states, Israel’s distrust remains the underlining factor as long as there are radical Arab groups and Islamic states such as Iran that openly avow and actively seek its destruction. Israel may be accused of paranoia regarding its national security, but then how do the Arab states intend to address this paranoia when Israelis measure their national security in existential terms? Efforts to persuade Israel to embrace the Initiative must include concrete and transparent steps that clearly demonstrate a real change in the conflict’s dynamic, as the Israeli public sees it. “Public,” is the key word here. The Arab states seeking peace must be unequivocal in their readiness to interact with Israel. They must appeal directly to the Israeli public, which despite its factional nature, agrees on the terms for real peace. If the Arab states do not want this Initiative to meet the fate of the earlier version in Lebanon, in 2002, then they must change strategy.

Israel is open to persuasion but it must recognize this historic chance and publicly embrace the Initiative. Considering, however, the long and bitter history of the conflict it will take more than a declaration by the Arab states for Israel to be persuaded.

Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. Email him at [email protected]

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