Encountering Peace: A long way from the Three Noes

Israel is being offered 'normal' relations with virtually all Arab and Muslim states. What is Ehud Olmert waiting for?

dont use 88 (photo credit: )
dont use 88
(photo credit: )
Recently I re-examined the September 1967 decision of the Arab League summit in Khartoum - the famous three no's - no recognition, no negotiations and no peace with Israel. Here we are 40 years later and instead of speaking about the Arab-Israeli conflict, we speak about Arab-Israeli relationships - complex and diverse. Peace, albeit cold, with Jordan and Egypt. The Saudis continue to speak about the Arab Peace Initiative (API) and even Hamas wants a cease-fire agreement with Israel. Syria is calling for direct negotiations with Israel. The Palestinians claim that Israelis are holding back on making progress toward peace for the creation of a Palestinian state which is essentially supported by the government and a majority of Israeli citizens. The Lebanese government, which also supports the API and managed to kick the Syrians out of Lebanon, claims that Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon will not be complete as long as Israel holds on to the Shaba farms. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said that he would consider opening talks with Damascus, but we all know that his hands are tied by President George W. Bush. The US has issued preconditions to Syria that must be met before Washington is willing to loosen the rope around Assad's neck. The US demands that Syria seal its border to Iraq to prevent insurgents from killing US soldiers there. The US has also demanded that Syria cease the flow of Syrian and Iranian money and weapons to Hizbullah. The US further demands that the Assad regime shut down the offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Damascus. All of these are quite reasonable demands and something that every supporter of peace in the Middle East should applaud. The Syrian response has been that these demands can be met as a result of the process and not as a precondition. Damascus has communicated to the US that when the Israeli-Syrian peace process is back on track, those demands can be placed on the table alongside of the Israeli demands for security arrangements and Syria's demands for the return of the Golan Heights. A SENIOR White House policy maker expressed to me the view that Syria's current anti-US and pro-Iranian policies are strategic and ideological and not tactical. Most Syria experts I know, and quite a number of senior Syrian personalities that I meet with regularly have expressed to me and to other senior Israeli personalities the opposite position. Israeli Syria experts including military people who participated in the direct Israeli-Syrian talks claim that during the time of the negotiations between prime minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Farouk Shara, Syria was ready to meet all of Israeli security demands including disproportionate de-militarization of the Golan Heights and areas beyond, and the stationing of civilian dressed Israeli personnel in US-manned early warning stations on the high mountains. There remained several key issues of great consequence to negotiate on the exact positioning of the border along the Sea of Galilee, but most aspects of the agreement were near completion before Barak got cold feet and subjected president Bill Clinton to a humiliating experience in front of Assad, the father. THE NEXT summit of the League of Arab States will be held in March in Damascus. In the past three summits (Beirut, Khartoum and Riyadh) the Arab league unanimously ratified the Arab Peace Initiative tabled by the man who is the present King of Saudi Arabia. That initiative called on Israel to settle its bilateral conflicts with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon by returning to the June 4, 1967 armistice lines. On the Palestinian track, the parties have already agreed to the principle of territorial swaps to accommodate a large number of Israeli settlers and I have been told by several leaders from several Arab countries that a Palestinian agreement on territorial swaps would meet the Arab Peace Initiatives requirements. The API also called for the establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel and to the agreed upon resolution of the refugee issue based on UN Resolution 194. Israel has already accepted the principle of Palestinian statehood and even refers to it as an Israeli interest. Israel has real problems with UN resolution 194 and refuses to recognize that a "right of return" exists that puts a legal obligation on Israel to allow for the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel proper. Marwan Muasher, the former Foreign Minister of Jordan and one of the authors of the Arab Peace Initiative explained to me that he and several of the other drafters demanded that the words "agreed solution" appear in the text as a way of assuring Israel that the Arab states were not demanding a significant return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. This showed a clear understanding on their part of the demographic peril to the existence of Israel as a state of the Jewish people should Israel be forced to accept large numbers of Palestinian refugees. THE ARAB PEACE Initiative offers Israel, in return to meeting the demands, full peace and "normal" relations with all 22 Arab countries. The use of the word "normal" is quite intentional by the authors who understood the deep transformation of Arab positions that "normal" relations intended to indicate. One of the great "sins" in Arab political culture has been any form of normalization with the Jewish state. Among many Arab intellectuals, normalization with Israel before Israel withdraws from all Arab lands remains a grave crime. The use of the word "normal" aims to convince the Israeli people and government of the seriousness of the Arab intentions. Most of the Arab countries believe that Hamas and Hizbullah are not exempted from accepting the position voiced three times unanimously by all of the Arab countries. Furthermore, the Organization of the Islamic Conference representing 56 Muslim countries has indicated that at least 55 of them would support the API if Israel met the terms of the plan and they would also recognize and engage in normal relations with Israel. THERE IS talk in the Arab world that because Israel has not responded positively to the Arab plan - on the table since March 2002 - that the time has come to withdraw the offer. Is that the achievement that Israel would like to take credit for? It seems to me that the primary strategic objective of the Olmert government is to reach a framework agreement on permanent status with the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. At the same time, perhaps Olmert should accept the Syrian offer to renew negotiations and to continue the process until full agreement is reached. The issue of the Shaba farms, over which Israel has no claims of sovereignty should be discharged to the United Nations with an Israeli demand that its security concerns be addressed before Israeli troops leave the area. Undertaking all of these steps would provide the Arab world with hard evidence that Israel was in fact implementing all of the demands of the Arab Peace Initiative and now the challenge would be referred back to the Arab League to begin to start planning for establishment of diplomatic and normal relations with Israel instead of planning to withdraw the offer of full and comprehensive peace in the region. The writer is co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. www.ipcri.org