Arab Peace Initiative demands Israeli response

It behooves Israel to, at the very least, respond to an offer that has been gathering dust on the table for more than a decade.

Kerry with Arab League delegation 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Kerry with Arab League delegation 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The long, ugly path of Israel-Palestinian relations is tarnished by the bitter memories of failed summits and initiatives, with words like “Oslo” and “Camp David” like old battle tanks littering the road to Jerusalem. At best, these ventures have allowed civilians on both sides to enjoy brief respites from the pervasive tension that seems to stew permanently in the scorching Middle Eastern air. At worst, the collective national disappointments – renewed hopelessness brought on after promising peace agreements prove ephemeral – have fueled new rounds of violence and terror.
But in 2002, the Arab League launched a new final-status proposal aimed at resolving the longstanding dispute which has been a constant source of discord in the Arab world. The plan was, and remains, unlike anything that has existed previously, and represents a complete break with the traditional equation of a bilaterally- negotiated, US-backed approach.
The parameters of the proposal, which has become known as the Arab Peace Initiative, are thus (official excerpts): • I – Full Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied since 1967, including the Syrian Golan Heights, to the June 4, 1967 lines as well as the remaining occupied Lebanese territories in the south of Lebanon.
• II – Achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.
• III – The acceptance of 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.
In return for these concessions, the Arab League’s 22 member-states unanimously agree to: • I - Consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended, and enter into a peace agreement with Israel, and provide security for all the states of the region.
• II – Establish normal relations with Israel in the context of this comprehensive peace.
Israeli leaders are split on whether the Arabs are genuine in their peace overture, or whether they have only presented a cunning public relations scam aimed at portraying Israel as the belligerent in the eyes of the international community.
Detractors point to the League’s take-it-or leave-it approach as proof of the Arabs’ disingenuousness, while supporters label the proposal unprecedented, citing the massive potential benefits of an Israel-Arab peace accord.
Unfortunately, the Arab Peace Initiative has been dismissed offhandedly by every sitting Israeli prime minister to date, to the detriment of Israel’s reputation and international standing.
Though Israeli leaders have legitimate concerns with regard to the content of the proposal, these should have been expressed through some form of official counter offer. Every passing minute that the Arabs have a standing peace offer on the table while Israel doesn’t is a minute during which students, community leaders, and indeed politicians are being convinced Israel is not serious about peace.
In the battle for public opinion, Israel is losing.
The Jewish state should have responded to the Arab proposal immediately; it should respond now to prevent the damage from worsening.
THE ARAB League has carefully constructed its proposal to sound fair, even generous, to a Western audience. It recognizes Israel’s right to exist in security, while demanding Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967. For the typical Western progressive, this is nothing less than music to the ears.
The Arab demands, however, are not as reasonable as they sound. Consider the Shebaa Farms – known in Israel as Mount Dov. In June 2000, Israel withdrew its troops from Lebanon, and the United Nations itself affirmed that Israel had complied fully with UNSCR 425 and was no longer occupying any Lebanese territory.
Israel cannot be expected to withdraw further from its internationally-recognized northern border.
Turning to Syria, it is abundantly clear that Israel cannot withdraw from the Golan Heights with any legitimate security guarantee. As Syrian President Bashar Assad continues to murder his own citizens by the thousands, and with his main opposition group being increasingly dominated by the rabidly anti-Israel and Islamist al- Nusra Front, the prospects for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan approach zero.
Regarding the Palestinians, the initiative seems to envisage the possibility of families of Palestinian refugees returning to Israeli territory – an idea rightly considered all but taboo in Israeli society. In addition, up to late last month, the plan required an Israeli evacuation of massive swathes of heavily populated areas in the West Bank – the forced expulsion of over 350,000 settlers from their homes (closer to 750,000 if Jerusalem is included). Not just immoral, this would also be completely unfeasible.
Notably, the League amended its proposal on April 30, 2013, allowing for “minor land swaps” between Israel and the Palestinians.
Importantly, Israeli gains from these painful concessions would be theoretical, susceptible to whims of each new Arab “Spring” leader. Israel would be left without recourse if, for instance, Saudi Arabia reneged on its side of the bargain by boycotting Israeli diplomats. Or if Egypt failed to allow Israeli shipping through the Suez Canal. To quote Anwar Sadat on the 1978 peace agreement with Israel: “Poor Menachem [Begin]... I got back... the Sinai and the Alma oil fields, and what has Menachem got? A piece of paper.”
Perhaps most important is the fact that the Palestinians themselves have not agreed to the Arab Peace Initiative. Israeli leaders initially reacted to the initiative so strongly, and so negatively, because of the extreme response by some in the Palestinian camp. On the day that the Arab League announced its proposal, a Hamas suicide bomber detonated himself at the Park Hotel in Netanya, killing 30 Israeli civilians and injuring over 170. Hamas head Sheikh Ahmed Yassin called the attack “a message to the Arab summit,” signaling his organization’s intent to continue its struggle to destroy the State of Israel and erect an Islamic-oriented Palestinian state in its stead.
Indeed, Hamas’ dismissal of the Arab Peace Initiative has not changed over the years. “The so-called new Arab initiative is rejected by our people, by our nation and no one can accept it,” said Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh earlier this month. Other Palestinian terrorist organizations, too, have expressed that they would not honor the terms of the deal. The Arab Peace Initiative is “worse than President Bush’s vision, worse than the Road Map, and even worse than the Oslo Accords and the Balfour Declaration,” said Islamic Jihad Secretary-General Abdullah Ramadan Shallah in 2007.
With terrorists in Gaza vowing to fight on, Israel can hardly be expected to capitulate on nearly every issue for what at best will amount to a partial peace.
THAT SAID, Israel cannot continue to ignore this offer. Its international standing, and more importantly its relationship with the US, are being constantly damaged as people increasingly view Israel as intransigent, the main obstacle to a peaceful Middle East. As US Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts at finding a solution increase, Israel must not allow itself to be caught flat-footed.
Israel should counter the Arab Peace Initiative with a standing offer of its own, which should reflect the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative but should include the following provisions: a mutually agreed-upon number of Palestinians must be granted full civil and human rights in their current countries of residence; the new State of Palestine, negotiated around 1967 borders with land swaps, will be completely demilitarized, while Hamas and other Palestinian groups will agree to end all outstanding disputes with Israel; Israel will be allowed security systems in the Jordan Valley for an agreed-upon time frame; Lebanon and Hezbollah will agree to end all outstanding disputes with Israel, in accordance with UNSCR 425; the status quo in the Golan Heights will remain until the situation in Syria stabilizes, upon which Israel will conduct separate negotiations with the Syrians over the territory.
An offer of this kind would serve multiple purposes.
First, the move would mark a massive public-relations victory for a country that seems typecast as the world’s darling antagonist. It would convince many in the international community that Israel is indeed seeking peace, and is willing to make great sacrifice to that end.
Second, it would also put pressure back on the Arab League to moderate its proposals, and review some of its more problematic stances vis-à-vis the Shebaa Farms, the Golan Heights, and Palestinian refugees.
The Arab League has historically followed a narrow-minded Israel policy ranging only from obstreperous rhetoric to all-out war. Nonetheless, it behooves Israel to, at the very least, respond to an offer that has been gathering dust on the table for more than a decade. And who knows, maybe, just maybe, doing so will lead to peace.
The author is a former staff writer and Breaking News editor on The Jerusalem Post’s Internet desk, and a contributing author to the Post’s weekend supplements. After making aliya from Vancouver, Canada in 2010, Yoni served as an NCO in the IDF’s Strategic Division.