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On January 14, 2002, when the top government and military echelon sent the Israel Defense Forces in the midst of a truce to assassinate Raed Karmi, the head of Fatah's military arm in the Tul Karm area, Dr. Mati Steinberg, who was the advisor on Palestinian affairs to the head of the Shin Bet security service, was not a partner to the decision. On this occasion, too, his direct boss, Avi Dichter (now minister of internal security), did not want to know what his in-house expert thought about the political implications of harming another key Palestinian figure.

"Just as I feared," Steinberg recalled this week, "Karmi's assassination led to the scuttling of the truce that had lasted since December 16, 2001. Not only did the assassination push Fatah's people into carrying out suicide attacks and give the signal for competition between them and Hamas as to who could kill more Jews, it also led to Operation Defensive Shield, which pushed the Arab initiative to the margins and eliminated the opportunity to put the diplomatic track with the Palestinians on a route of direct connection with the Arab peace initiative for the first time."

Although the decision-makers tended to ignore his recommendations concerning targets of assassinations, Steinberg did not give up. He remained in the Shin Bet until 2003 and continued to write opinions. Since then he has been teaching at the Hebrew University and at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. One of his desk drawers contains an opinion he wrote in real time about the Arab peace initiative of March 2002.

In it, Steinberg compared the new positions of the Arab League to the traditional positions expressed in previous league resolutions. He pointed out what he defines as "the great change" - the willingness to end the conflict, to establish normal neighborly relations between the Arab states and Israel and to reach an agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem. The knowledge that the Arab states had begun to distribute the initiative's directives in various forums, without any connection to Israel's reaction, dispelled the last of his doubts. Steinberg was convinced that he had before him a document of historic importance. The document went as far as the office of the prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon. "They contacted me on behalf of Sharon's military secretary and clarified the factual side of the League's resolution," recalls Steinberg. "I repeated the explanations I had written in the document and I never heard from them again. To the best of my knowledge there was never any discussion of this matter."

Several days later, an Israeli newspaper published an article by the government secretary at the time, Gideon Sa'ar (now a Likud MK), which "tore apart" the League's resolution. Steinberg believes Sa'ar read the document and tried to negate everything that looked like a change for the better in the Arab stance. "There was a syndrome operating here of 'if you don't want to look, you won't see,'" says Steinberg, bewailing the five lost years that have elapsed since then. "I remembered, despite all the differences, Mufti Haj Amin Al Husseini, who was opposed to the White Paper that granted him tremendous political achievements, and played straight into the hands of [David] Ben-Gurion."

A short while later, Yasser Arafat announced that he accepted the Arab initiative and had even sent Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), now Palestinian Authority Chairman, to Washington to inform the Americans of his decision. At the same time, IDF tanks were already tightening the siege on the Muqata PA government compound in Ramallah. "I realized that from the domestic perspective, the government was not able to hold back and refrain from taking action," says the former Shin Bet advisor, "but it is untenable that in the wake of the PA's acceptance of the initiative we would harm Jibril Rajoub's headquarters. What was the message to the Palestinian population? That pragmatism doesn't pay. I said that under no circumstances should the Palestinian government center be destroyed; Iran and Hamas would exploit the chaos and after them would come the global jihad."

Steinberg rejects the arguments made by people like Professor Shlomo Avineri, to the effect that the Arab League is trying to force preconditions for an agreement on Israel. It is hard for him to understand how serious people can argue that anyone is expecting Israel to withdraw from the territories without conducting detailed negations on borders, security arrangements, the holy sites and so on. According to him, the absence of a demand to evacuate the Jewish settlements in the territories, for example, is not by chance. It is clear to the Arabs that the way to an agreement passes through the negotiating table.

Since March 2001, Steinberg has been reading every word written in Arabic about the peace initiative. He has found that the Arab League is not proposing withdrawal first and normalization afterward, but rather arriving at both of them simultaneously. "Anyone who demands that normalization will lead to a withdrawal cannot negate a demand that the withdrawal will be a condition for the normalization."

Steinberg is not proposing that the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert start negotiations with the government of PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh on the basis of the Arab initiative. "The Mecca agreement gives Abu Mazen the power of attorney to conduct the negotiations," he says. "Olmert meets with Abu Mazen anyway. The question is not with whom to speak but rather about what to talk."

To demonstrate this last argument, Steinberg plucks a quotation from remarks made by Ahmed Yousef, Haniyeh's advisor, in the most recent edition of the London-based A Sharq al Awsat. "Ideological changes can be expected in Hamas' thought, as we are prepared to relate positively to the Arab peace initiative, on condition that Israel sticks to it. Something that hasn't happened thus far," said Yousef. Steinberg believes that the Arab initiative is even more important today than it was five years ago. "Back then it had mainly an internal Palestinian context, whereas today this text is relevant to an external-regional context. It embodies not only a solution to the Palestinian problem but also reinforces the Sunni Arab center. And furthermore, the regional support can make it easier for the Palestinians to come to terms with concessions they cannot digest on their own."

194 = right of return?

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is demanding that the leaders of the 22 Arab states, who will convene at the end of the month in Riyadh in order to re-ratify the Arab League's peace initiative, excise the right of return from it. Unlike the Clinton outline (which proposes realizing the right of return in the Palestinian state), the Arab initiative does not mention this phrase, which frightens Israel. But Livni argues that the problematic term is hidden in the phrase "on the basis of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194," in the final section of the Arab League proposal, which calls for arriving at a "just and agreed upon solution to the refugee problem."

Only a little less than a year ago, when Livni was trying to win people over to the disengagement plan, she gloried in a letter United States President George W. Bush had given to Ariel Sharon on the matter of the refugees, in which he pledged that when the refugee issue comes up in negotiations, the United States will support the realization of the right of return only in the Palestinian state that will be established in the territories and not in the territory of the state of Israel. At the time this letter was considered a great achievement on Sharon's part. The official mustering of the United States on Israel's side on the issue of the right of return in effect renders the discussion of the interpretation of Resolution 194 academic.

Professor Ruth Lapidot, who was the legal advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for many years, doesn't understand why Israeli politicians are clinging by their teeth to the right of return. In a position paper she published in 2003 on behalf of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, Lapidot argues that there is no basis to the Arab claim that Resolution 194 grants them the right of return. She explains that the option of return is conditioned on the Palestinians who want to return to their homes being interested in living in peace with their neighbors. This condition, notes Lapidot, has not been fulfilled since the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000.

Lapidot agrees with Professor Geoffrey R. Watson, who was a member of the legal team at the U.S. State Department, in his interpretation of the sentence in Resolution 194, stating 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 possible date." The two experts agree that the use of the word "should" (as opposed to the word "shall," for example) turns the option of return into a mere recommendation.

In his book "The Oslo Accords: International Law and the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreements" (Oxford University Press), Watson notes that even the Palestinian delegation to the General Assembly argued that the phrase "should be permitted" does not concord with the right of return. This is a General Assembly resolution, which unlike Security Council resolutions, is not operative and is not binding.

The greatest critics of Livni's version asserting that the Arab peace initiative ensures the right of return can be found among the Hamas leadership and the heads of Al-Qaida. In an official reaction to the Arab League decision in Beirut, Hamas stated, "It is necessary to condemn outright the transfer of the issue of the right of return to the negotiating table and the demand for its implementation by means of a mutual understanding with Israel." Half a year ago Khaled Meshal's deputy Musa Abu Marzuq explained in a newspaper interview that one of the main reasons for Hamas' decision to reject the diplomatic initiatives that have cropped up in recent years, including the Arab initiative, is that "a solution that does not include the return of all the refugees to their homes and their property is untenable." He argued that the Arab League's decision puts an end to this sacred right.

Dr. Steinberg says that his interpretation of the Arab initiative is identical to that of Hamas. "The difference between us," says the Jerusalem Middle East specialist, "is that a correction they consider as a retreat from traditional positions concerning return and the entire conflict - I see as a unique opportunity to remove the obstacle of the right of return from the road to ending the entire conflict."