*What the Arabs propose, and what they do not*
Monday, April 9, 2007
The Arab peace initiative has been widely misunderstood, and
occasionally even deliberately misconstrued.
The initiative is not a road map providing a step-by-step approach to an
agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, nor does it demand of
Israel prior acceptance of certain Arab or Palestinian conditions.
It does not provide a framework for peace negotiations other than what
is already specified in the road map that Israel claims it fully
supports: Israel's return to the pre-1967 armistice line as the basis
for negotiations for alterations, if any, to that line; the location of
a capital of a Palestinian state in East Jerusalem; and a resolution of
the Palestinian refugee problem.
a condition dreamed up by the Saudis or the Arab League. They are the
universally accepted ground rules for peace negotiations that even
President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have
stated categorically Israel cannot alter on its own.
The specific terms of a peace agreement are essentially left by the Arab
initiative to the parties themselves. Whatever terms enable the parties
to close the deal will be acceptable to the initiative's sponsors. Their
concern is less that Palestinians will be too generous to Israel than
that they will be too inflexible.
Arab leaders therefore see Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's request
for a meeting to "clarify" the Arab initiative as his way of obtaining
normalization with all Arab countries without doing anything for the
Palestinians in return.
That their skepticism is not misplaced was confirmed by Olmert's boast
in one of his pre-Passover interviews in Israeli newspapers that if he
were to succeed in his demand for a meeting with Arab leaders, Israel
would already have gained a significant measure of recognition from all
Arab countries. That is why the Arab League has turned Olmert down.
Israel's acceptance of the Arab League peace initiative would not limit
its ability to protect its vital interests in negotiations with the
Saudi officials confirmed in 2002 that their peace initiative does not
preclude minor territorial adjustments, by mutual consent, on both sides
of the pre-1967 border for security reasons and to enable Israel to
incorporate large concentrations of population in the settlements that
adjoin the former Green Line. This would entail no more than about 2
percent of Palestine in exchange for comparable territory on Israel's
side of the border.
Nor would the location of the Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem
preclude Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall, the Old City and
Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. This Saudi clarification of the
peace initiative was confirmed by senior U.S. Administration and Saudi
officials on Feb. 21, 2002.
Olmert's declaration in his pre-Passover interviews that he would not
allow "even a single Palestinian refugee" to return to his home inside
Israel was heartless and gratuitous. Olmert is aware that the Arab
League's version of the initiative requires that a solution to the
refugee problem receive Israel's agreement. He also knows that in 2002,
the Arab League rejected efforts by several Arab countries to include an
affirmation of the "right of return" in the initiative, and it did so
again at the meeting in Riyadh this past February.
Olmert's insistence that any reference to UN resolution 194 - which
makes no mention of a Palestinian "right of return" - be omitted from
the Arab initiative is a non-starter. Even Palestinians who agree that
most refugees will have to be repatriated in the new Palestinian state
will not agree to the elimination from the initiative of a reference to
a UN resolution that acknowledges, however inferentially, a measure of
Israeli moral responsibility for the dispossession of Palestinians from
their homes in the war of 1948.
Israeli historians have established beyond any question that such
responsibility does indeed exist. Its acknowledgment by Israel - even if
it finds it impossible to permit a return of anything more than a
symbolic number of refugees - is no less important to the Palestinians
than the demand that its own history of persecution and oppression not
be denied is to the Jews.
There are no grounds for Israel's rejection of the Arab initiative. If
after 40 years of occupation, two intifadas and much bloodshed and
suffering by both Palestinians and Israelis, Olmert forgoes this
opportunity to normalize Israel's relations with the entire Arab world,
the only explanation will be that he believes a deadlock in the peace
process serves Israel's interests better than a peace agreement.
Henry Siegman is director of the U.S./Middle East Project and the Sir
Joseph Hotung professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies,
University of London./