Will Israelis ever accept the Arab Peace Initiative?

Gershon Baskin
4 May 2009

After 16 years of Israeli-Palestinian bilateral negotiations for peace there is a growing realisation that there is very little likelihood of a bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiated agreement. This realisation seems equally evident in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Brussels, Moscow and now in Washington.  Everyone appears to be searching for a new formula for peace and in that search the Arab Peace Initiative has once again reappeared as a possible saviour. The positive statements regarding the Arab Peace Initiative (API) by President Obama and members of his team have again placed it centre stage.

Six years after it was first presented, the Arab peace initiative may finally be coming of age. Previous Israeli leaders have basically trashed the API in its present form for many reasons. One of the main reasons is that it mentions UN Resolution 194 which is the foundation of the Arab claims for the right of return of refugees from the 1948 war to their homes inside of Israel. Gershon Baskin is the Israeli Co-Director and founder of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) - a joint Israeli-Palestinian public policy think he founded in 1988 following ten years of work in the field of Jewish-Arab relations within Israel, in Interns for Peace, the Ministry of Education and as Executive Director of the Institute for Education for Jewish-Arab Coexistence (established by the Israeli Ministry of Education and the Prime Minister's Office).  Dr. Baskin has published several books in the Hebrew, English and Arabic press on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Beginning with the Histadrut Prize for Peace in 1996, he has received many international awards for his work.

Additional Israeli objections include the direct reference in the Initiative to the June 4, 1967 borders. Israel rightly claims that in negotiations regarding these with the Palestinians, the principle of territorial exchange has already been accepted, so why as far as Israel is concerned go back to 1967 borders which ignore any of the new realities on the ground and consequently can have only a very tenuous nature? The new Israeli right-wing Government of Binyamin Netanyahu completely rejects the idea of return to the 1967 borders.  The most objectionable and perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of the API for Israelis is the sense that this is a ‘take it or leave document' and if this is the case, the majority of Israelis say ‘leave it'.

The Arab Peace Initiative is not a peace plan.  It has no operative aspects to it.  There is no mechanism for implementation and even no clear plan for how it should begin. The only operative part of the Initiative states: ‘Requests the chairman of the summit to form a special committee composed of some of its concerned member states and the secretary general of the League of Arab States to pursue the necessary contacts to gain support for this initiative at all levels, particularly from the United Nations, the Security Council, the United States of America, the Russian Federation, the Muslim states and the European Union.' Who is conspicuously left off this list?  Israel of course! There is nothing in the Initiative which addresses itself directly to the Israeli government or the Israeli people.

The Arab League needs to address Israeli concerns, not ignore them as has been the case since it was first presented in 2002. The Arab League should find its way to stating that the Arab Peace Initiative is a ‘framework, a basis, or a platform' for renewing the peace process rather than having it appear as a document that must be accepted in full or rejected in full. It has been reported that King Abdallah II of Jordan has now proposed a form of an ‘Arab peace deposit' (an analogy with the so-called ‘Rabin deposit' on the Golan Heights) that would in fact provide some clarifications or additional incentives to Israel to accept the API. 

Since the initiative has been widely overlooked by Israeli politicians it is certainly worthwhile pointing out its primary advantages and reasons why Israel should accept it quickly before it is no longer relevant. The Arab Peace Initiative was accepted unanimously by all of the member states of the Arab League in March 2002.  On the day that it was presented thirty people were killed and 140 injured - 20 seriously - in a suicide bombing in the Park Hotel in the coastal city of Netanya, in the midst of a Passover holiday seder with 250 guests. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack. This attack was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back that led to the ‘Defensive Shield' Israeli offensive leading in turn to the full re-occupation of the West Bank and the placing of Palestinian President Arafat under siege in the muqata' in Ramallah. The Israeli mindset, at that time when suicide bombing were a daily event and under the leadership of Prime Minister Sharon was hardly in any mood to consider an Arab peace initiative.

But the initiative was once again unanimously ratified at the meeting of the League of Arab States in Khartoum in May 2006 and again in 2007 in Riyadh.

The Arab world has tried to impress upon Israelis what is new and revolutionary in the Initiative, but Israelis have failed to understand this.  The Arab world has pointed out the following: The initiative calls for ‘achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.' This is the first time that an Arab document uses the word "agreed" in this context. That would mean that this issue could be negotiated between the parties. In its operative paragraph on refugees, UN Resolution 194 states: ‘That the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible.'

The resolution does not state that all refugees must be allowed to return and opens the door for those who do not wish to return to receive financial compensation instead. An agreement between Israel and the PLO that would award Palestinian refugees compensation instead of return would certainly fulfill the requirements of the Arab peace initiative and should not hinder Israeli agreement to the Initiative.

In order to receive the benefits of the proposal Israel must allow for the creation of an independent sovereign Palestinian state in borders that will be mutually acceptable to Israel and the PLO with east Jerusalem as its capital. This step has been (until now) clearly understood to be within Israeli national security interests. Israel would still need to resolve the issue of the Shaba Farms area with Lebanon and Syria, and must withdraw from the Golan Heights. Removing the northern front from the domain of possible war is also clearly an Israeli national security aim.

Solving these issues provides the means for achieving peace. With the Arab peace initiative, the results of such moves would not only bring peace with the Palestinians, Lebanon and Syria, but with the entire Arab world. The area of peace for Israel would extend from Marrakech all the way to Bangladesh. Only Iran would be outside the region of peace.

The most significant element of the Initiative is its call for the recognition of the State of Israel, and full peace and normalised relations between all of the member states of the Arab League and Israel. There is huge significance to the reference to normalised relations. Israelis fail to understand that since the notion of normalisation of relations with Israel has been a steadfast taboo in Arab political culture since 1948, the Arab League call for normalised relations constitutes no less than a political revolution.

This is almost too good to be true and had it been presented 20 years ago, it might have been received much more positively in Israel. But today, there is no peace camp in Israel anymore. Israeli society has lost its faith in peace.  Israelis no longer dream of getting into their car and having humus for lunch in Damascus. Israelis do not want to visit Cairo or Amman and do not particularly care if Jordanians or Egyptians come to visit Israel. If President Mubarak and King Abdallah II don't want to come to Jerusalem, so be it.  Israelis no longer believe that giving up territory will bring peace.  The general Israeli interpretation of the ‘territory for peace' scheme is that we withdrew from areas in the West Bank and created the Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat which then attacked us with weapons that we provided for them. In Gaza, which Israel left entirely - withdrawing both settlements and military, we got qassam rockets in exchange.  Whether this reflects what really happened and why is not relevant. This is the way that the overwhelming majority of Israelis understand that reality.  So, in this context, the Arab Peace Initiative is not particularly attractive.

What do Israelis want?  They want quiet.  They want security. They want to be able to be part of the neighborhood without the threat of terrorism, but they no longer believe that the way to gain security is by giving back territory. During the days when Oslo was popular and there was hope that peace could actually emerge, it was possible to talk about ‘peace and security'.  Today, the philosophy of the Netanyahu government and the political culture and mood that brought it to power is that first there must be security and only then can there be peace.  This is not merely a game of semantics. This is a worldview and it is essential to understand it in order to be able to understand the Israel of 2009.

The Israeli public and government will not be enticed by promises of normalisation, acceptance and free movement in the region. This is the ‘heart' of the Arab Peace Initiative and it has not produced the desired results in all the past years.  The Israeli public and government insist on seeing real evidence of a willingness to make peace with Israel that goes above and beyond words. 

In public opinion research of the Israeli public that we carried out in IPCRI in order to understand what would motivate Israelis to accept making significant concessions, such as those called for in the Arab Peace Initiative, we discovered that the notion of ‘partnership' was the crucial factor.  When asked ‘what would convince you that the Palestinians (or Arabs) were in fact true partners?', the main responses, overwhelmingly, were ‘when they teach peace in the classroom' - meaning when their educational curricula and text books reflect that Israel exists and has a right to exist, and when Islamic religious leaders and preachers say the same thing in Mosques.

With this in mind, it appears that we are in a kind of ‘Catch 22' situation.  Arabs, as reflected in the Arab Peace Initiative state that Israel will get the recognition and security it desires when it fulfills the requirements of the Initiative - in other words, gaining recognition, peace and security is the outcome of the process. Israelis, on the other hand, are saying that recognition and security is a pre-requisite of the process that aims to create peace.

There may be ways to bridge the gaps between these two positions or state of mind, but they have not yet been proposed or developed.  If there remains a peace camp in Israel, Palestine and in the Arab world, the next challenge they must face is how to bridge this gap in consciousness.  Without that bridge, the Arab Peace Initiative will fade away into the piles of other past Middle East peace initiatives. 

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