Analysis: Ball now in Israel's court

Arab Peace Initiative makes Israel the rejectionist, at least in Arab eyes.

By SHABTAI GOLD
April 4, 2007 00:01
4 minute read.
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While the Arab League has never been a particularly effective group, this year, at least when it comes to the Palestinian issue, many feel the League has managed to place the ball firmly in Israel's court. However this is of little solace to Palestinians, who know the ball can stay there indefinitely if Israel decides not to play. The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, relaunched at the Riyadh summit, has one major flaw visible to everyone from Marrakech to Muscat: It depends on an Israeli response. The Arabs cannot push anything forward alone. Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas wants a committee to follow up on the proposal, and for it to work with the international Quartet, a group with more teeth than the League. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did indeed break five years of Israeli silence on the matter, declaring there were positive aspects to the initiative. However, Israel says the right of return clause makes the proposal problematic. From an Arab perspective, Israel's rejection of the proposal is an attempt to stall the peace process. From this point of view, if Israel, for example, refuses to let east Jerusalem be the Palestinian capital, then the return issue is not the real deal-breaker. "Israel is using the right of return as part of its politics of fear," Dr. Sari Hanafi, a Palestinian sociologist at the American University of Beirut, told The Jerusalem Post from his office in Beirut. "But there is no reason for fear, as demographic issues - which is an ideologically driven enterprise - can be resolved through a gradual process." "Israel must show it is ready for peace," Saji Khalil, the former head of the refugee portfolio in the PLO and now an academic focusing on refugee issues, told the Post. "There is a serious Arab partner for peace. We think there is no serious leadership on the Israeli side." He mentioned the continued building of settlements and the security barrier as a sign of Israel's intentions. The Arab stance was made clear by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who said on Wednesday that an Israeli rejection of the proposal is a rejection of peace. Amr Mousa, secretary-general of the Arab League, said in Riyadh that Israel should first accept the proposal and use it as a basis for negotiation, instead of simply criticizing and trying to force changes. All this means, analysts say, that Arab states cannot change the section on the right of return, unless it is part of a negotiated process. Doing so would simply weaken their position. Also, Hamas has already countered from the other side, implying in various ways that the proposal is not to its liking. PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh made it clear he feels the right of return is being abandoned. So far, the Arab League has essentially ignored these complaints, but it cannot disregard Hamas entirely and give up the return clause. Recent reports disclosed a new plan to encourage Palestinian refugees to remain in host countries. Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Arab states, the reports say, would offer huge compensation packages, and any return would be limited to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The major problem with this is, of course, the simple matter of the host countries' wishes. Jalal Husseini, a Palestinian and an independent researcher based in Jordan, told the Post that tawtin (naturalization of Palestinians in Arab states) will simply "not happen. It would end up creating social problems in the host countries." For example, it would certainly destabilize an already volatile Lebanon, something Riyadh is not interested in. Meaning that for lasting regional peace, the Palestinians cannot stay there. Diana Butu, an Israeli who formerly served as a legal adviser to the PLO, says she understands but does not agree with Israeli concerns over maintaining a Jewish majority. She says preconditions, such as placing a cap on the number of refugees allowed to return, would take away their choice and thus not end the conflict. In the end, the reported plan for compensating the refugees, which is something of trial balloon, may end with the wealthy states donating money to improve living conditions in the camps, Husseini says. The PLO position says Israel must recognize the right of return and then negotiate its implementation. All options remain on the table, but there can be no final veto in Israel's hands. Similarly, a recent statement by 76 Palestinian organizations based in various countries says the right of return is inalienable, but that "the modalities of its implementation" can be negotiated. Recognizing the right of return is a key point for Palestinians. The lack of acknowledgement will lead to further radicalization and militarization of the Palestinians in the territories as well as in the diaspora, says Hanafi in Beirut. "It is in the interest of all parties to solve the problem," he said. When Israel fails to forward a clear initiative of its own, it is saying that the current situation, while maybe not good, is better than the alternatives. Had Olmert publicly said he wanted to address the Arab summit, "it would have been like Sadat [saying he would go to the Knesset], or like Rabin," said Khalil. "We know Olmert is weak, and the public in Israel is confused. [The issues] go from [President Moshe] Katsav down to the finance minister. These problems are not allowing them to focus on the future." This means, he worries, that "Israel may miss this rare opportunity."

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