(photo credit: )
At the Arab summit in Riyadh on Wednesday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reportedly said, "The Arab peace initiative is one of the pillars for the peace process... This initiative sends a signal that the Arabs are serious about achieving peace."
Well, not exactly. Not yet.
The Arab states seem serious about looking like they are serious about achieving peace.
If the Arab states were serious about achieving peace, they would not be putting forward an ultimatum, complete with threats of war if it is not accepted, to which no Israeli government could possibly agree. Indeed, this would seem to be the objective of the summit: an Israeli rejection that would enable the Arab states to once again say that it is Israel that is the obstacle to peace.
Israel should not fall into this trap. The government should say that it is obvious that peace cannot be achieved by ultimatums, but only by negotiation, and that Israel remains committed to negotiating over all the final-status issues - such as refugees, borders and Jerusalem - and is ready to meet at any time in Jerusalem or any Arab capital.
The problem is that the Arab side continues to insist on coming to the table with a demand that clearly negates the objective of the entire exercise: two states living side-by-side in peace.
It is assumed that Israel would not even demand that Israelis living in what would become a Palestinian state be allowed to stay, let alone that Jews or Israelis would have a right to move to Palestine. Yet Palestinians, and the Arab states in their revived plan, not alone assume that a million Arabs who are already full citizens of Israel would stay, but that millions of Palestinians would have a right to move to Israel.
Back before the 1993 Oslo Accords, it was obvious that so long as Israelis widely considered a Palestinian state to be an anathema, a two-state approach to peace would go nowhere. Now the consensus has flipped: it is about as politically unacceptable for an Israeli leader to categorically reject a Palestinian state as it was to accept one just a decade and a half ago.
For a two-state plan to be viable, the parallel evolution that needed to happen on the Palestinian side was to abandon the notion of "return" to Israel, rather than to a Palestinian state. Yet suggesting this remains as near-universally taboo in the Arab world as it did in 1993.
A memorandum sent to the Arab summit by 76
Palestinian civil organizations, for example, stated, "The right of return of refugees to their homes and properties is an inalienable individual and collective right... this right is not up for negotiations... negotiations can only address the modalities of its implementation."
To Israelis, this is like saying, "Your suicide is not up for negotiations, only its implementation."
To this, the Arab side has two responses. First, that the Arab peace plan does not force a solution on Israel, since it refers to an "agreed" solution to the refugee problem. Second, most Palestinians won't exercise their "right," they just want it to be recognized, and Israel will have veto power over any Palestinian movement to Israel.
Why then, was Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in his our interview on this page, so quick to rule out "any refugee coming to Israel. Full stop. Out of the question?"
Because, as Olmert explained, "I will not agree to accept any kind of Israeli responsibility for the refugees.... It's a moral issue of the highest order. I don't think that we should accept any kind of responsibility for the creation of this problem."
Olmert is right about this. It is impossible for Palestinians to pretend they recognize Israel's sovereign rights while simultaneously demanding a right to move here that both depicts Israel's establishment as illegitimate and negates Israel's very existence.
If Israel's sovereignty is to mean anything, then Palestinians can have no more right to move to Israel than Israelis would to a future Palestine. The Arab states, if they want peace, need to be saying this. If they cannot, it shows that they may be serious about making Israel look obstructionist, but not about achieving peace.