Two despondent peddlers, the foreign ministers of Jordan and Egypt, are coming to Israel this week to offer shop-worn goods. Once again, they seek to sell the Arab peace initiative to the government and public opinion in Israel - the same old historic promise of normalization with the Arab states, an expression that has already invited much ridicule in Israel because of the dreams of eating humus in Damascus and catching the train to Baghdad.
But that is not the issue this time. The true meaning of normalization is not formal Arab and Islamic recognition of the State of Israel's existence, but rather of the region's ability to detach from the conflict that fed Arab nationalism, the Islamic common denominator and a fair share of the hatred for the West. These are two foreign ministers who are coming on behalf of two brave countries that proved that peace agreements have a validity that goes well beyond the time they're signed, far beyond the charisma of the leaders who signed them.
These two ministers are proposing that Israel accept the broad perspective according to which every discussion with Mahmoud Abbas is a direct negotiation with Morocco, Algeria, Kuwait and Bahrain. In a region where every conflict takes place separately, and where the supreme Arab institution, the Arab League, has for years been incapable of resolving disputes, the Arab countries are offering a unique balancing system in which a local resolution of one conflict is a regional, comprehensive resolution.
The Arab guests are not coming to talk some more about the old fruits of peace. Agriculture, tourism or joint industry are no longer the point. In Jordan, in any event, the Israeli factories are disappearing from the industrial zone of Irbid and there are hardly any new Israeli investments. Egypt is contending with tremendous economic problems, an unemployment rate of 25 percent and collapsing systems that a single free-trade zone in cooperation with Israel won't be able to deal with. Peace with Israel is not just another gesture or good conduct medal.
The new fruits of peace are the ability to meet new threats: radical organizations that grab countries by the throat, the breakup of Iraq into a nation of gangs, a terrifying struggle between fanatic movements and the regime in nuclear Pakistan, the Iranian nuclear program that threatens Arab countries as well. In short, a gathering of storm clouds that relocates Arab concern from the luxury of dealing with a tactical conflict, which long nourished national Arab literature and poetry, to questions of substance and existence.
Jordan's Abdelelah al-Khatib and Egypt's Ahmed Aboul Gheit are not only representatives of two countries that made peace with Israel; they are coming in the name of that same Arab concern and seeking to enlist Israel as a partner. Yet in Israel's eyes, the Arab peace initiative is akin to that torn billboard notice over which a fresh notice has been posted announcing a festival: an American or international conference either in the fall or the winter. Al-Khatib and Aboul Gheit are offering an Arab document, Arab assurance and an Arab promise; the American festival offers refreshments and money, development and sponsorship. The Israeli client stands there bewildered: Should he opt for the Arab initiative or the fireworks show? Should he go for a historic move or wait for the festival to end in a pile of paper and deep freeze until the next elections in the United States?
In fact, Israel need not agonize too much. It has no use for the American festival or the Arab initiative. Both promise something they cannot deliver. The Bush conference is a private party for the Palestinians and Israelis; it will not bring Israel peace with Syria, and without it the Arab initiative has no validity either. Meanwhile, the Arab initiative cannot eradicate the inter-Palestinian conflict, and so long as this goes on, Israel is left with only half a partner and there will not be a political solution. Israel is therefore exempt from the customary need to pretend it is deliberating the options or to play the famous reservations game from the road-map days. Israel must make an Israeli decision, not an American or Arab one, without awaiting the festivities and without insulting the guests arriving this week. A decision that will put a stop to the patronizing gestures saga of another prisoner and another checkpoint, and begin speedy and serious negotiations with the Palestinians.
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