The Arab Peace Initiative in its 2002 and 2007 incarnations has met with two categories of responses in Israel.
The Right has denounced and rejected it for several reasons.
It is opposed to the notion of withdrawal to the 1967 lines, it is opposed to withdrawal from the Golan Heights that is implied thereby and it is skeptical and critical of the fashion in which the issue of the “right of return” is dealt with by the API.
To Israeli skeptics, the API represents yet another, more sophisticated attempt to push Israel into a settlement that would entail an Israeli commitment for full withdrawal while keeping open the issues of the Palestinian refugees and the demand for a full “return” as well as the question of full recognition of Israel and its legitimacy.
Israeli policy-makers and analysts who do believe in Israel-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian peace take a more complex view of the API. They recognize the value of the Arab consensus endorsing the settlement and its Israeli-Palestinian component in particular, and feel that a full reconciliation with the Arab world would help the Israeli public and political system deal with the agonizing concessions that such an agreement would entail.
But those Israelis who see the sunny side of the API cannot ignore either the problems posed by its text or the other issues and questions that it raises.
In this regard, the main problem raised by the text is its open-ended approach to the refugee issue. The 2002 Beirut summit final communiqué (though not the actual summit resolution as then published) was quite explicit and disappointing in this regard. It demanded full implementation of “the right of return of the Palestinian refugees based on the resolutions of international legitimacy and international law including General Assembly Resolution 194” and rejected “any solution that includes their settlement away from their homes.”
This clearly was unacceptable to Israel and to a significant portion of the international community, and was superseded in 2007 by a reaffirmation of the 2002 resolution: “The Arab League further calls upon Israel to affirm...
Achievement of a just solution to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194” and “assures the rejection of all forms of Palestinian patriation which conflict with the special circumstances of the Arab host countries.”
These formulations represent significant improvements over the 2002 communique, but they still leave important issues in need of clarification.
FIRST, IN the history of the Arab- Israel conflict, “just” has been an Arab term representing the need (from an Arab perspective) to rectify the original “injustice” of 1948. It is important to clarify whether this is still a code word or merely a relic of traditional rhetoric.
Second, it is important to clarify what the reference to General Assembly Resolution 194 stands for: an elegant retreat from the traditional demand of “return” or a clever way to exit through the main door merely in order to return through the back window.
Third, in the API statement that a just solution would be “agreed upon,” Israel is presumably given a veto over any idea or measure that it finds unacceptable. But what happens when Israel vetoes Palestinian or other Arab demands: a stalemate and crisis or further movement forward? Fourth is the issue of “patriation.”
Much ink has been spilled by Israeli experts who have debated in recent years whether the Arabic “tawtin” stands for patriation or for the granting of citizenship.
There is a clear contradiction between the apparent waiving of the “right of return” and the rejection of “tawtin.”
the refugees and their offspring would not return to Israel proper but
would also not be settled in the Arab world, where would they end up?
The final 2007 version refers more coherently to “the special
circumstances” of the host countries and may be directed at the specific
case of Lebanon, but it could also open the way for countries like
Syria and Iraq to raise objections.
SO MUCH for textual analysis,
which has its own importance, particularly in a region and in the
context of a conflict where words and symbols are so potent. But it is
equally important to look at the API as a potential tool for moving on
in the peace process. The first step to be taken by Israel is to offer a
serious response to the API.
Whatever its flaws, the API has been a major step and it deserves a serious Israeli response.
then needs to create some distance between the Arab League and the
actual peace process. PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) committed a
grave mistake by bringing the Arab League back into the process after
Yasser Arafat’s successful effort to guarantee the “independence of
The Arab supporters of a
Palestinian- Israeli settlement should be kept at a safe distance from
meddling in the process, but close enough to be summoned to endorse
controversial Palestinian decisions and concessions.
process begins to roll, the need would arise to turn the brief general
language of the API into the concrete language of a plan of action. It
would likewise be important to separate the Syrian and Palestinian
components of the issue.
The API includes an insistence on
Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines in the Golan, too. Realistically,
the present Israeli government (and future ones as well) will not be
able to deal simultaneously with withdrawals in the Golan and the West
Bank. The diplomatic challenge would be finding a formula for keeping
one party engaged while progress is made with the other.
would then come to probe the refugee issues. The difficulties are well
known. Moderate Palestinians tell their Israeli counterparts that they
are only interested in the principle of “return” and in the actual
return of a small number. This is not acceptable to the mainstream of
They are not interested in a “principle” that
smears Israel with an “original sin,” nor are they interested in
accepting even a small number of Palestinians into a country grappling
with its relationship with an Arab minority of 20 percent that will soon
enough amount to 25%.
Israel will have to be crystal clear and
firm on this issue. There are ways in which Israel can demonstrate its
empathy and take part in a rehabilitation effort, but it cannot and must
not accept the principle of “return” or endorse its own “original sin.”
successfully absorbed the Jewish communities of the Arab world. The
massive refugee issues of the immediate post-World War II years, whether
in Europe or in Southeast Asia, have all been resolved and practically
forgotten. Now it is time to resolve the Palestinian refugee issue on a
rational, practical basis.
Any effort to keep it simmering or to adhere to open-ended formulae will not be acceptable.
issue concerns the position of Hamas and other Islamist groups. Some
recent statements by Ismail Haniyeh may indicate a change and an
apparent willingness to endorse the notion of a political settlement.
Closer scrutiny raises serious doubts. If a formula for moving on with
the Palestinian mainstream is found, the position of Hamas and its
ramifications should be checked thoroughly.
IN PRACTICAL terms, the following steps should be taken.
should coordinate its response and strategy with the United States. It
should then announce that it is responding to the API and seeks to
clarify some fundamental issues and questions and to turn a terse text
into the potential basis for a new effort. It should insist on a
practical separation of the Palestinian and Syrian tracks and on
sequencing them, not as a ploy (as many in the Arab world see it) but as
a practical necessity.
Such an Israeli response to the API would
not be a panacea. It would not eliminate all the difficulties that have
obstructed efforts to revive the peace process in recent years. But it
could be a very fruitful first step.Itamar
Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador in Washington and chief
negotiator with Syria, is professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University and
distinguished global professor at New York University. He is the author
most recently of The View from Damascus. This article was originally
published on www.bitterlemons- api.org and is reprinted by permission.