Arab Peace Initiative Has Barak Backing, but Livni Still Cautious

Support for 2002 plan brings ex-rivals Peres, Barak together; FM says Palestiniant track must come first.

Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni and Labor chairman Ehud Barak are beginning their struggle for the support of left-wing voters, with part of the focus being their disagreement over the Arab League's peace initiative.

The Arab peace initiative, first approved by the Arab League in 2002 in Beirut (and reaffirmed last year), calls for Israel's withdrawal from all the territories and a solution to the refugee problem in exchange for an Arab recognition of the end to the conflict and normalization between Israel and all the Arab countries.

Barak, the defense minister, has proposed that Israel use the peace initiative as a basis for negotiations, to smooth the way for both the Palestinians and the Syrians to make concessions. He also assumes that Israelis are willing to make concessions in exchange for a comprehensive peace.

President Shimon Peres also supports this view, although his position as head of state precludes his taking an active role in the political discourse.

Livni, the foreign minister, does not oppose the Arab peace initiative, but believes that efforts must focus directly on the Palestinian track.

Livni has disparaged Barak's approach, calling it, in private conversation, an "attempt to seek a diplomatic agenda for himself and the Labor Party." Livni has also said privately, "I'm for world peace and regional harmony, too; who isn't? But is it realistic?"

Still, Livni has not abandoned the regional arena. On November 12, she is to take part in New York in an interreligious summit hosted by Saudi King Abdullah and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, with the participation of outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush. King Abdullah is the architect of the original Arab peace initiative, and also oversaw its reaffirmation last year at the Riyadh Summit.

Livni's bureau declined to discuss her planned trip to the New York meeting.

It has been difficult lately to differentiate between statements by Barak and Peres on the peace process. Peres spoke enthusiastically about the Arab initiative in his address at the opening session of the Knesset this week, and was echoed by Barak in a radio interview. At a Labor Party faction meeting, Barak attacked the "piggish capitalism of the right," using an old Peres stock phrase.

Sources close to Barak and Peres say the two are coordinating their positions and talk frequently with each other, including a regular Sunday morning breakfast at the President's Residence before the weekly cabinet meeting. Peres consulted with Barak (and with Livni) extensively before traveling to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, last week to meet with President Hosni Mubarak.

To those familiar with Barak and Peres' history, this late-blooming romance comes as a surprise. From the day Barak entered politics in 1995, he positioned himself as the successor to Yitzhak Rabin, and as Peres' rival. His position as foreign minister in the short-lived Peres cabinet after Rabin's assassination was fraught with mutual suspicion. Barak later prevented Peres from being named "president" of the Labor Party, and when he was elected prime minister in 1999, he appointed Peres to the negligible post of "regional cooperation minister."

Peres got back at Barak when he attempted, unsuccessfully, to run against him in the prime ministerial election in 2001 as the candidate of Meretz, thus challenging Barak's legitimacy among voters on the left.

However, ties were restored in July 2006 when Peres, then a Kadima minister in Ehud Olmert's cabinet, called Barak to consult before the cabinet meeting in which it was decided to go to war in Lebanon, and have grown even closer over the past five months.

Barak, political sources say, is trying to bring Peres, who left Labor for Kadima, over to his side, in anticipation of the coming Knesset election. As president, Peres cannot take part in the campaign, but if his and Barak's messages are the same, it will be clear who Peres supports. For Barak that is enough.

Peres has increased his support for the Arab peace initiative, encouraged by his associate Avi Gil, a former Foreign Ministry deputy director general who is seeking formulas to advance the diplomatic process. "The Arab peace initiative is waiting in the bottle, without ever having been treated seriously by Israel," sources close to the president are saying. Those same sources note that the initiative does not supplant the dual Syrian-Palestinian track, but supports and strengthens it. "Only Ahmadinejad and Yuval Steinitz are against it, because they do not want peace," a source said, referring respectively to the president of Iran and a Likud lawmaker.

Peres told the Knesset at the opening of its winter session that the 2002 Arab peace initiative was a "yes to peace" that replaced the "three no's" of the 1967 Khartoum summit - no to peace, no to recognition of Israel and no to negotiations.

Livni noted in recent discussions that two years ago she had called on Arab countries to begin phased normalization with Israel while it negotiated with the Palestinians, rather than waiting for negotiations to conclude. Livni discussed her approach last year with numerous senior Arab officials, including the emir of Qatar and the foreign ministers of Oman, Morocco and Bahrain, among others, all of whom told her that the key to the peace process was an agreement with the Palestinians.

"I am the one who met in Cairo with the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan, and then I invited them to come here as representatives of the Arab League to discuss the Arab initiative," she says. "But after they came, I understood that as far as they were concerned, an agreement with the Palestinians came before anything else." This was also Mubarak's message to Peres in their meeting last week.

Sources close to Peres and Barak said that after Livni hosted the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan in July 2007, who had come to present the Arab initiative, she told the two Israelis that this was an opportunity that should not be missed. "But what did she do? She did not establish any system to promote it," a source said.

To date only the Geneva Initiative and those clearly identified with the left have tried to promote the Arab peace initiative, particularly as a means of persuading the Israeli public that it will not obligate Israel to absorb Palestinian refugees into Israel. Professor Ilai Alon, a Tel Aviv University expert on Muslim philosophy and theology, who has distributed an updated translation of the initiative, has written that it is persuasively sincere and even alludes to the fact that the Arab League is prepared to represent the Palestinians and compel them to accept an agreement. However, these voices remained marginalized until Barak and Peres discovered the peace initiative "in the bottle."