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(photo credit: Shabtai Gold)
The Israeli government should accept the Arab League/Saudi initiative because Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has a solemn obligation to explore any possibility, however remote, to peacefully end the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Israel can accept the Arab initiative in principle, and as long as it negotiates in earnest, the whole world will listen to its legitimate national concerns.
But any negotiation the government enters into and any peace agreement it may reach must not betray Israel's three core requirements:
maintaining indefinitely the Jewish national identity of the state;
ensuring its national security and territorial integrity, and
ending the state of belligerency while establishing normal relations with the entire Arab world.
No Arab nation nor any other global power should ever expect Israel to compromise on these three tenets because they form the core of its very existence.
ACCEPTING the Arab initiative is not a sign of weakness; on the contrary, it is a sign of strength. Israel has never been stronger militarily or economically than it is today. Israel can accept the initiative by openly and courageously stating its three core principles, which no Israeli government can give away and no serious interlocutor can deny.
First, maintaining the Jewish national identity: I believe that the Arab world has come to accept the principle that Israel will never voluntarily do or accept anything that in any shape or form compromises the Jewish national identity of the state. For this reason, Israel simply cannot literally accept the 1948 UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which calls for the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees.
Although some Arab states or organizations still insist that Israel accept the principle of "return," the vast majority today talk about finding a just solution to the Palestinian refugee situation, as the latest initiative suggests, in the context of resolution 194 and also of Security Council resolution 242. In this context, Israel's acknowledgment of the refugees' plight and participation in finding a just solution, including resettlement inside or outside the future Palestinian state, as well as some form of compensation, will ultimately be an acceptable compromise. While Israel must admit to the existing Palestinian refugee problem, no one can force Israel to commit political suicide by forcefully changing the demographic makeup of the state through the implementation of GA Res. 194. Regardless of how sensitive this issue may be for the Palestinians, the existence of Israel as the last refuge for the Jewish people rests entirely on the securing of a sustainable Jewish majority within it.
SECOND, ensuring Israel's national security: Accepting the Arab initiative would also mean that Israel relinquish lands equivalent to 100 percent of the territories captured in 1967. I say equivalent to 100%, because to achieve secure borders, and because of some hard facts on the ground, Israel will have to swap some land.
There are many Israelis - and even more supporters of Israel in the United States and elsewhere - who still equate territory with national security. History has proven this notion to be utterly wrong. Forty years of occupation have not enhanced Israel's security an iota. Those who claim that the withdrawal from southern Lebanon and Gaza turned these territories into a new staging ground of violence against Israel are being disingenuous at best.
The withdrawal was neither complete, nor executed in a manner that could foster improved relations. In addition, the withdrawal from both territories was involuntary. Southern Lebanon became a killing field for Israelis, and the pullout from Gaza was prompted by the demographic nightmare scenario. No one who is lucid can possibly believe that the Arab states will ever make peace without recovering the territories. Israel needs peace more than the Arab nations or even the Palestinians do; they can wait for another 100 years, but the Israelis cannot. In the end, Israelis must choose between peace and territory; they cannot have it both ways.
THIRD, normalizing relations with the Arab states and ending the violence: This third core requirement is of paramount importance for Israel because any hope of future stability and progress depends on it. To be sure, only a comprehensive peace and a complete end to hostilities can offer Israel the ultimate security it seeks. Whereas the initiative promises just that, Israel must be able to translate the peace between governments into people-to-people peace, in which the Arab masses develop a vested interest in the peace and so are motivated to preserve and protect it. To promote such a positive situation, the Arab states will have to demonstrate that they have the capacity and the political will to rein in extremist groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah.
Israel must realize that as a result of the Iraq war the political and security conditions in the Middle East have changed dramatically, posing a serious challenge to the region's old geopolitical order. Iran's regional ambitions alarm both the Sunni Arab states and Israel, which creates the possibility of an alliance of necessity. The reintroduction of the Arab initiative at this particular time is not accidental. It is designed principally to change the region's new political dynamic in a central way: by ending the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The confluence of events offers Israel an opportunity it cannot afford to miss. Israel's national security depends on its military and economic prowess, but Israel's ultimate survival as an independent, secure and free nation will depend on the ingenuity and resourcefulness of its people, leaders, and the moral tenets on which its institutions stand. Occupation degrades the occupied and dehumanizes the occupier. Israel will never realize its true potential as long as it remains an occupying force. Only by ending the occupation will Israel fulfill its destiny and become a "light unto the nations."
The writer teaches international relations at New York University's Center for Global Affairs. www.alonben-meir.com
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