King Abdullah Saudi 88.
(photo credit: )
Vernacular English has some lovely phrases. "Gift of the gab," and "too clever by half" are good examples. How better can one, for instance, describe our prime minister than by saying he has the gift of the gab or that he is too clever by half? His tongue-in-the-cheek offer to meet with moderate Arab leaders in the wake of the Riyadh summit was a typical example of his too-cleverness. "A wonderful spin," he must have thought to himself. "This will get all those well-wishing peaceniks off my back." He must have known that his offer was a nonstarter, that it could be considered only after his acceptance - in principle - of negotiations on the basis of the Arab peace initiative.
He has, of course, an all too convincing excuse for not accepting that initiative. If there is one subject in Israel that enjoys a wall-to-wall unanimity, from the most radical left-wing member of Meretz to the most extreme of the Right, it is rejection of the notion of the "right of return" for the Palestinian refugees. The negotiators of the Geneva Accord would have called off the negotiations if the Palestinian side had insisted on including the "right of return." One of the Israelis present put it very simply: "You want us to commit hara-kiri?"
The Arab peace initiative refers to UN General Assembly Resolution 194 in connection with the refugees. That document asserts that "the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practical date," something that is, of course, completely unacceptable for us. This was understood by the coauthors of the initiative, the Saudis and the Jordanians. The first version of the plan did not mention 194, but did stress that the solution for the refugees had to be "agreed." That word was specifically incorporated into the text to assure the Israelis that the resolution on refugees would not force the "right of return" down their throats.
The draft text was circulated among all the members of the Arab League in order to obtain unanimous support for it. All but one accepted it. It was not the Syrians, as the coauthors had feared, that objected to it, but, surprisingly, the Lebanese. The late Rafiq al-Hariri, then prime minister, told the initiators of the plan that unless 194 was mentioned, Lebanon would not sign. He explained to them that this was not his idea, but was the adamant stand of President Emile Lahoud who, above all else, wanted to get rid of the Palestinian refugees on Lebanese soil.
So Resolution 194 was, reluctantly, added to the text in order to uphold the principle of unanimity of all Arab League members. I asked one of the former Arab prime ministers present at the recent Madrid peace conference how he thought we could accept 194. "You don't have to," he replied. "The key word in the refugee article is still 'agreed.' You can say you are willing to negotiate on the basis of the initiative and state your reservations about 194. We would understand it and accept it. No Arab leader believes you are willing to accept the return of the refugees."
The too clever by half Olmert knows that he could easily have circumvented Resolution 194. He could have said that we, too, believe there has to be an agreed solution to the refugee problem, and on that presumption we are willing to enter into negotiations on the basis of the Arab peace initiative.
That initiative, we should remember, is the very antithesis of everything we have been led to believe about the Arab position on Israel. The Khartoum conference's three no's - no to recognition, no to negotiations, no to peace - were replaced at Riyadh with four times yes - yes to recognition, negotiations and peace with the addition of yes to normalization if we make peace.
We don't like the opening demands of the initiative? So what? The opening demands of every negotiation are hard-line, with each side beginning with maximal demands. Neither side attains all that it seeks in negotiations - it they did, it would be surrender and not a negotiation.
The Arab leaders have now decided to make great efforts to "market" the plan in Israel, and it certainly is not too late to respond to it in a more positive manner. We have had prime ministers who were not afraid to lead the people into new, uncharted waters - David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin with his historic peace with Egypt, Yitzhak Rabin recognizing the PLO. Prime Minister Olmert has, it is true, to contend with enormous internal problems. Winograd's sword of Damocles is hanging over his neck. His popularity is at an all-time low. His government is the weakest in Israel's history. Yet his coalition is stable and he might well survive till the end of his term. He can either limp along with only one strong agenda, to survive as prime minister from one day to the next - or he can act as a leader and walk in the footsteps of Ben-Gurion, Begin and Rabin.
The opportunity is there. Olmert can sidestep the Hamas government and pick up the gauntlet that Riyadh presents - negotiations for peace with the Arab world. I have no doubt that the majority of the Israeli public would applaud such a move. His call to meet with the Arab leaders would then take on a completely different connotation.
Could it be that our government is afraid to enter into peace negotiations, because of the price tag that is inevitably attached to peace? Have we become afraid of peace?
Jerusalem can either replace Khartoum to become the capital of the word "No" - no to the Arab world, no to the Syrians, no to the Palestinians, no to our own citizens who yearn to see some hope on the horizon for a better future. Or our prime minister can display initiative, courage, and leadership and meet the challenge of Riyadh head-on.
Which is it to be, Mr. Olmert?
The writer is a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry.