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(photo credit: AP [file])
During his last visit, US envoy George Mitchell disclosed that the Obama administration looked to the so-called "Arab peace plan" (a.k.a. the Saudi initiative) of 2002 as a starting point for peace between Israel and the Arab world, including the Palestinians. Mitchell's statement reflected a developing policy approach which is gathering steam in Washington these days - as evidenced, among other things, also by some of US President Barack Obama's statements and answers in his joint press conference with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
In fact, in general terms a regional approach also is Netanyahu's preferred approach. Both leaders in their one-on-one session discussed ways and means to buttress the Israel-Arab peace tracks with a participation of others in the Arab world, or as Netanyahu put it: "I would like to broaden the circle of peace to include others in the Arab World."
Obviously this regional approach to tackling the Palestinian issue has been reinforced by the common threat from a nuclearizing Iran, though the failure of the Annapolis process has also played a part in the thinking of both the US and Israel about new ideas.
Unfortunately, and though one shouldn't "judge a book by its cover," neither the "cover" nor the "contents" of this "plan" in its present form are particularly encouraging. Actually, the focus of the original document was not on peace nor was there any room for negotiations; it was an ultimatum, a dictate, that Israel must accept in its entirety - or else! If Israel rejected it, violence or as Saudi King (then Crown Prince) Abdullah put it, "steadfastness and struggle" would continue.
IF THE "COVER" was problematic, its content was even more so, leaving no doubt about the real intentions of its authors - though artfully coached in ringing phrases of peacefullness and reconciliation. In addition to the outright demand for a full withdrawal from all the "territories" including east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights (all the way to the Sea of Galilee, i.e. areas which Syria had grabbed illegally), the "plan" also unequivocally called for the "return" of Arab refugees.
There are those who misrepresent this paragraph as if it were subject to Israeli agreement, but as Prof. Asher Sasser, a senior researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, explained in an article in Haaretz, "the concluding statement accompanying the publication of the 'peace plan' makes it clear that the Arab leaders adhere to the 'right of return' for the Palestinian refugees, and this was to be the only way to put UN General Assembly Resolution 194" into practice.
In other words, not only would Israel have no right to agree or disagree to the settling of the refugees, it must see this stipulation as the one and only approved version of the pertinent UN resolutions.
Needless to say that the "plan" abounds in other willful distortions, such as presenting UN Security Council Resolution 242 as if it called for an unconditional Israeli withdrawal from all the lands it had seized as a result of repulsing the Arab aggression in 1967 - not mentioning that said resolution had made withdrawals subject to security considerations. In fact, if this plan were to be realized, Israel would have lost its ability to properly defend itself.
What stands out clearly throughout the "plan" is that its authors ignored the principle that compromise was a two-way street and that not only Israel would have to make concessions.
EVIDENTLY, THE administration is aware of the many shortcomings and negative aspects of the "plan" in its present form, and consequently it has taken steps in its contacts with Arab leaders to introduce changes - both as to the contents and to its form. In this context there was the statement a few weeks ago of Secretary by State Hillary Clinton "that the Arabs must through words and deeds show that the spirit of the peace initiative can begin to govern attitudes towards Israel now," while President Obama, in his press conference with the king of Jordan, indicated that though the Arab initiative could be seen as a "constructive beginning," the Arab countries should "demonstrate their commitment to the peace process." After his meeting with Netanyahu, he called on Arab states to "normalize" relations with Israel. A similar statement was made by Vice President Joseph Biden and in the same vein, The New York Times wrote last week that "Mr. Obama should challenge Arab leaders to respond, perhaps by initiating openly acknowledged diplomatic contacts and trade with Israel."
One of the objects of diplomacy is sometimes to latch onto a certain situation and to change it to one's own advantage. Unfortunately, the Arab peace plan as it stands today has yet to convince Israel that we have a real partner in the quest of peace in our region, but if the Arabs were ready for genuine, unconditional, negotiations with the object of peace, things could take a turn for the better.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US.