The Arab League's peace initiative is fodder for Israel's interpretation mill. Some consider it a basis for negotiations, and believe that Israel must therefore adopt it. Others view it as only a reformulation of the traditional Arab positions, which must be accepted by Israel before the other topics, such as normalization and the refugee issue, can be addressed.
Even under the latter view the initiative is a breakthrough, since it unequivocally speaks of peace with Israel. According to this version, however, what is being offered to Israel is not negotiations but essentially a dictate: Israel must first accept the Arab preconditions for establishing a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, retreat to the 1967 borders and dismantle the settlements.
Now, in the wake of a September 12 op-ed in the New York Times by Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia, it seems possible to decide which of these interpretations is valid. The prince is in great part the moving spirit behind the Arab initiative.
Anyone who has met Turki al-Faisal, a former director of Saudi intelligence services and former Saudi ambassador to Washington, and now chairman of the very influential King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, knows that he is charming and impressive and represents the moderate Saudi view, as Riyadh seeks to lead the Arab world to peace with Israel. His comments, therefore, carry weight, and Israelis who choose to ignore them are effectively burying their heads in the sand.
Turki al-Faisal first explains why it is not reasonable for Arab states to accede to Israel's demand for confidence-building measures, as long as Israel does not cease building in the West Bank settlements. His point makes sense, even for someone who does not agree with the details. He describes the basis for the Arab initiative and explains its benefits, hinting that it would contribute to isolating the extremists - Hamas, in other words.
But after he justifiably says "Israel must be willing to give as well as take," the prince explains the main points of the plan as he sees it, and in this he is crystal clear: "A first step should be the immediate removal of all Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Only this would show the world that Israel is serious about peace ... with the refugee issue to be solved later through mutual consent."
There is no ambiguity: The settlements are not open to negotiation; Israel must evacuate them first. Turki al-Faisal adds that while all of Israel's neighbors would like peace, "They cannot be expected to tolerate what amounts to theft, and certainly should not be pressured into rewarding Israel for the return of land that does not belong to it."
It may be possible to ignore the rhetoric ("what amounts to theft"), but the message is clear: The Arab initiative does not speak of negotiations. It demands that Israel first withdraw from all the territories (including East Jerusalem) - involving the evacuation of more than a quarter million Israelis - and only than will negotiations on the normalization of relations and on the refugees begin. This is truly not a serious proposal.
It does not matter how peace-hungry Israelis interpret the Arab initiative. We have been given an authorized interpretation by one of the people behind it.
The initiative should not be ignored, because it includes an Arab declaration of willingness for peace, but its meaning should not be mistaken. At this stage it is not calling for negotiations, but rather unconditional acceptance of the Arab position, and that is also its main stumbling block.
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