Waiting for a Call From Netanyahu

The story of the Arab Peace Initiative is the story of Israel repeatedly missing an opportunity.

Elie Podeh.
Elie Podeh
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Elie Podeh.
Elie Podeh

One of the arguments you hear from the Israeli side ever since the Arab Spring erupted is that the Arab Peace Initiative, which was first publicized in 2002 at an Arab League summit, is no longer relevant. But the recent Arab League declaration, following a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, that it was sticking by the initiative, completely refutes the Israeli argument. What's more, the Arab League Monitoring Committee even made an additional concession, agreeing to consider minor corrections to the 1967 borders.

The Israeli response was terribly disappointing. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn't address the initiative. The response of "diplomatic sources" in Jerusalem was rather cool, and didn't refer directly to the Arab proposal, either. Both President Shimon Peres and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni responded positively, but both related positively to the initiative before, so there was nothing new there. What's needed is to pierce the fortified rejectionist Israeli positions and persuade the public, as well as the decision-makers, that the Arab Peace Initiative includes elements that are good for Israel, and that could serve as a suitable basis for breaking through the diplomatic stalemate with the Palestinians and the entire Arab world.

Ever since the initiative was first presented, most Israeli decision-makers, as well as the public, have regarded it with doubt and suspicion. This was not the result of a rational consideration of the initiative's inherent potential; it's an emotional reaction. The Arab and Muslim world, in our minds, are generally linked to threats and danger; when they "launch" a peace proposal at us, we don't know how to react. Aggressive behavior by the Arab side is regarded as expected and logical; conciliatory behavior immediately makes us wonder about ulterior motives and raises doubts about its sincerity.

In other words, the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 was the product of eight years during which the Egyptians tried to achieve peace. The Arab Peace Initiative has been gathering dust for 11 years now. The fact that the Arab League has ratified the proposal every year at its summit conferences is evidence that its position is consistent.

Unfortunately, Israel also has a consistent position. It stubbornly refuses to see this proposal as a basis for a diplomatic breakthrough with the Arab world, and continues to focus on the negative components of its wording.

The proposal offers Israel a lot of benefits: Firstly, recognition and legitimacy from the regional Arab environment; second, it would enable Israel to cooperate with the Arabs against the common regional threats posed by Iran, terror elements like Al-Qaida, and even Shi'ite organizations like Hezbollah. Third, given the split in the Palestinian camp between Fatah and Hamas, the initiative offers Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas an "umbrella" that provides Arab legitimacy for making concessions on the complex issues of Jerusalem and refugees. Last but not least, addressing the proposal would improve Israel's status in the international arena, as well as among civil society organizations in the Arab world, which fill a much more important role than in the past in shaping government thinking.

The ratification of the Arab Peace Initiative by the league's Monitoring Committee, and particular the new amendment agreeing to possible land swaps, are extremely significant because they show that the Arab side is maintaining its position despite the persistent Israeli refusal to respond.

Since the initiative was publicized, moreover, the Arabs had refused to insert even the smallest change, insisting that first it get some kind of positive response from the Israeli government. The ball, they reiterated, was in the Israeli court.

The story of the Arab Peace Initiative is the story of Israel repeatedly missing an opportunity. After the Second Lebanon War, there was momentum generated that led to the proposal's revival, with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the one hand, and Peres on the other, pushing for a change in Israel's stance. But the opening slammed shut with the election of the Netanyahu-Lieberman government, which vehemently opposed the initiative. Under the leadership of a different foreign minister who had only just been appointed to his post, perhaps the Arab Peace Initiative would have had a better chance to gather new momentum.

The gauntlet has been thrown down to Israel. It's about time we picked it up.

The writer is a professor in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Hebrew University, and a member of the Israeli Peace Initiative group.

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