Critical Currents: Take a fresh look at the Arab League plan

Israel needs a more comprehensive strategy now that it is negotiating on many fronts.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
The launching of negotiations with Syria, alongside the ongoing talks with the Palestinians, has been met domestically with a mixture of guarded interest, skepticism and, in some quarters, derision. Once again, responses are at best tactical - when not predictably petty-political - instead of being broadly strategic. Regardless of the political fate of the incumbent prime minister, the current impetus can be propelled into a transformative political move by any future government if Israel presents its latest moves within the framework of the Arab League initiative. The reignited debate on the Syrian track is as agonizingly familiar as it is trivial. With elections in the air, more attention is being paid to the motives behind the timing of the formal announcement than to its significance. While proponents of an Israeli-Syria accord are busy defending its propagators, opponents are hastily galvanizing support against any withdrawal from the Golan - the unquestionable quid pro quo of a peace treaty with Syria. This bevy of activity, together with the discourse it engenders, is hopelessly anachronistic. Although it admits to the alarming growth of regional strategic threats, it presumes in a by-now tiring manner that the best we can do is engage in tortuous bilateral talks when the conditions and timing appear propitious. This is as true for the Syrians now as it has been for negotiations with the Palestinians for quite some time. Inevitably, such an approach raises grave doubts about our sincerity in reaching lasting agreements with our neighbors, let alone our ability to meet new challenges. It consequently prevents us from seriously pursuing our long-term interests. The official rationale behind the diplomatic reengagement with Syria nevertheless does possess considerable merit. On the most mundane level, a summer of discussions in separate rooms with Turkish go-betweens is far more salubrious than the prospect of another northern conflagration. More to the point, the possibility of a Syrian-Israeli treaty may be the much-needed trigger to altering the troubling geopolitical reality of the Middle East today. In this scenario, Syria will at least cease to be the political refuge for Hamas and the critical funnel of arms to Hizbullah. And, as long as these talks do not become a substitute for progress on the Palestinian track, from the government's perspective they could constitute a turning point in the country's relations with its immediate neighbors. The ultimate purpose of such parallel negotiations, however, remains strikingly nebulous. If Israel truly wants to achieve a comprehensive peace - as its leaders have repeatedly stated since the Declaration of Independence in 1948 - then it must act much more strategically to achieve its goal. IN THIS respect, the Arab League initiative, first endorsed in Beirut in March 2002 and reaffirmed in Riyadh five years later, provides an unusually perspicacious framework. Although inexcusably ignored when originally promulgated, and only half-heartedly acknowledged when reiterated last year, this Saudi-based program offers Israel the strategic conceptual foundation it is currently lacking. The gist of the Arab League plan is well known: the "establishment of normal relations in the context of a comprehensive peace with Israel" in return for Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied in 1967. Specifically, the member states of the Arab League pledge themselves not only to the normalization of relations, but also to "consider the Arab-Israel conflict ended, and enter into a peace agreement with Israel, and provide security for all the states of the region." This promise undeniably constitutes the concrete articulation of the country's prime collective aspiration since its inception. Israel's obligations are also clearly delineated. First and foremost, it is required to move back from "all the territories occupied since 1967, including the Syrian Golan Heights, to the June 4, l967 lines." Second, it must agree to a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem on the basis of UN General Assembly Resolution 194. And third, it has to accept "the establishment of a sovereign independent Palestinian state on the Palestinian territories occupied since June 4, 1967 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with east Jerusalem as its capital." Put bluntly, these are precisely the terms of any separate accord with either Syria or the Palestinians. It therefore makes no sense at all not to cast the present diplomatic undertaking squarely within these embracing parameters. Such a strategic conjoining has multiple advantages. It aligns current and future overtures of any government with those of the vast majority of its neighbors. It places Israeli thinking (and subsequent action) firmly within the context of contemporary global trends, in which the fragmented international community, plagued by the lethal rise of militant non-state actors and the immobility of international institutions, is systematically bolstering regional groupings. The country faces the choice of either consciously becoming a part of the Middle East bloc, or finding itself effectively isolated from global currents. Above all, the Arab League trajectory is the only one that gives meaning to Israel's diplomatic efforts. Its vision of a new Middle East is Israel's as well. It should therefore respond positively to the call "to accept this initiative in order to safeguard the prospects for peace and stop the further shedding of blood, enabling the Arab countries and Israel to live in peace and good neighborliness and provide future generations with security, stability and prosperity." Now that we are again involved in simultaneous discussions with both Syria and the Palestinians, we cannot allow ourself to miss the boat. We must take the long-overdue step and announce that our strategy is to realize both the letter and the spirit of the Arab League initiative.