The State of Israel's Worst Missed Opportunity

This week marks the anniversary of three connected events that resulted in a glorious victory for the enemies of the Zionist enterprise.

Tuesday, according to the civil calendar, is the 10th anniversary of the terror attack on Netanya's Park Hotel, which killed 30 people as they were sitting down to their Passover seder. Wednesday will mark 10 years since the Arab Peace Initiative, which began as a joint Saudi-Jordanian effort. Thursday will be the 10th anniversary of Operation Defensive Shield, which was launched in retaliation for the Park Hotel bombing.

The result of these three connected events was the worst missed opportunity ever for the State of Israel, and a glorious victory for the enemies of the Zionist enterprise.

On March 28, 2002, 85 years after the Balfour Declaration, Arab leaders decided to reconcile themselves to the existance of the Jewish national home in the Middle East, within borders that would be agreed on and recognized. Within a few months, all 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (including Iran, under then President Mohammed Khatami ) gave their blessing to the initiative, which offered Israel normalized relations with all of them. The price: withdrawing from the territories taken in 1967, and a just and agreed-upon solution of the refugee problem, on the basis of UN Resolution 194.

The words "agreed-upon" in essence gave Israel the right to limit the number of refugees it would allow to be repatriated. Senior Arab spokespeople reiterated frequently that the initiative was only a framework for negotiations over borders, security arrangements and other core issues.

The terror attack in Netanya, and Operation Defensive Shield which followed in its wake, pushed the Arab proposal to the back pages of the newspapers. A book by Mohammed Arman called "Resistance - A View from the Inside," reveals that the proximity between the attack and the launching of the peace initiative was not coincidental.

In the book, which came out two years ago, Arman, who had been sentenced in Israel to 36 life terms, tells of conversations he had with his friends in Hamas, most of whom he met for the first time in prison. During these conversations, he writes, it emerged that a few weeks before the Beirut summit at which the Arab initiative was launched, all Hamas cells had been given an order from the top to stymie it. During the first decade of the Oslo Accords, Hamas had learned that a terror attack was the best way to foil any threatening peace overtures.

Yet despite the Israeli incursion into the West Bank, which killed 250 Palestinians, after a year the Arab leaders stubbornly reaffirmed their initiative and once again presented it to Israel. Shortly afterward, then-U.S. President George Bush wrote in his administration's "road map for peace" plan that the initiative was "a vital element in international efforts to achieve regional peace."

And what was the response of the Likud government then headed by Ariel Sharon, who later founded Kadima? The government listed the initiative as one of the 14 reservations it had about the road map. Instead of proceeding ambitiously together with all the Arab nations, Sharon preferred to evacuate a few homes in Gaza and - as Tzipi Livni, who stood by him, once said - to throw the keys back over the border. More accurately, right into Hamas' hands.

In July 2007, senior Kadima figure Meir Sheetrit, who was then housing minister, recalled that in 2002, he had urged Sharon to invite the Saudis to discuss their initiative with him, but Sharon didn't do anything. According to Sheetrit, he had also suggested that Ehud Olmert adopt the plan, but was told by Olmert that it was not on the agenda. Even though the Arab League continued to re-ratify the proposal every year, the Kadima government never even debated the initiative.

From the opposition benches, neither Livni nor Shaul Mofaz has lifted a finger to advance one of the few peace initiatives that's worthy of being described as "historic." And the Likud government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is following in its predecessor's footsteps. Bibi would prefer to harness his coalition to a war against the Iranian nukes than to join a coalition of peace with Tehran's rivals. It's more important for him to build settlements in the territories than to build trust with the Palestinians.

Although the Middle East is different now than it was 10 years ago, there are signs that the Arab Peace Initiative is refusing to disappear. Three months ago, the secretary of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, Prof. Ekmelledin Ihsanoglu, told an audience in Doha that the initiative was and remains the only framework for peace with Israel.

But it won't wait forever. Ignoring this opportunity will cause us endless trouble.

Read this article in Hebrew