Opinion |

Twenty Years Since Israel’s Biggest Missed Opportunity

Akiva Eldar
Akiva Eldar
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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Tuesday.Credit: Egyptian Presidency / AFP
Akiva Eldar
Akiva Eldar

Over 50 years ago, then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan famously said that “Sharm el-Sheikh without peace is better than peace without Sharm el-Sheikh.” The majority of Israelis adopted the war hero’s view and descended in droves to the resort town that Israel renamed Ophira.

Almost 50 years after the terrible and unnecessary Yom Kippur War, which cost Israel thousands of dead and injured, the people of Israel are once again flocking to hotels on the Sinai’s golden beaches that were returned to Egypt in the peace accords.

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Last week Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s plane landed at Sharm el-Sheikh airport, where the Egyptian flag flies proudly.

The peace treaty with Egypt is to date the only time the paradigm of “land for peace” has triumphed over that of “not one inch.” In recent years Israel has been ruled by governments that unequivocally prefer “Ariel and the Shoafat refugee camp without peace” to “peace without Ariel and the Shoafat refugee camp.”

On Monday, we will mark 20 years since the Arab Peace Initiative declared at the Arab League summit in Beirut, which later became known as the “Saudi initiative.” This initiative proposes the upgrading of peace with Egypt to normalization.

In exchange for this, Israel is required to withdraw from all the territories it occupied in 1967 (the Arab League would later adopt the idea of land swaps in the West Bank and drop the demand for a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights), and to allow the establishment of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. In addition, the Saudi initiative proposed a just solution to the refugee issue, to be agreed on with Israel.

For the past 20 years, the proposal has been waiting for a partner, but Jerusalem has not responded. In the meantime, the two-state option is disappearing and its opponents are strengthening. In his 2010 book, “An Inside Perspective of the Resistance,” the terrorist Muhammad Arman, a member of Iz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, related how a few weeks before the Arab League summit in Beirut, the organization’s cells received instructions from Hamas’ senior levels to thwart the initiative.

Indeed, a few hours before the summit convened, the worst suicide attack in Israel’s history took place: 30 people were killed and 60 were wounded when they sat down to a Passover seder at the Park Hotel in Netanya. The images of Israel Defense Forces tanks surging towards West Bank towns pushed aside the reports of the breakthrough initiative. Hamas achieved its goal.

A review published by Middle East scholar Prof. Shimon Shamir in a collection of articles about the Arab Peace Initiative, published by the Steinmetz Center for Peace Research in 2010, points to the great importance of the Arab League Initiative.

Shamir, who was Israel’s ambassador to Egypt and its first ambassador to Jordan, stressed that the fact that the initiative was accepted unanimously by all Arab countries was a turning point – from the bilateral agreements signed before to a multilateral peace proposal by the Arab states to Israel.

Furthermore, Shamir noted that the initiative proposed that the peace agreement be the end of the Israeli-Arab conflict and not just an erasure of the tracks left by the aggression of the war in 1967. It was the first time the Arab world used the term “normal relations” with Israel.

Shamir signed off his article by writing, “Something extraordinary has happened in the Arab world; its leaders have approached Israel with a respectable peace offer.” He added that “the ball is now in Israel’s court.” He should whisper that in the prime minister’s ear when he shakes his hand at the award ceremony where he will soon be awarded this year’s Israel Prize in the field of Middle East studies.

Many other Middle East scholars in Israel share Shamir’s feelings that an opportunity has been missed. Matti Steinberg, a former special adviser on Palestinian affairs to the head of the Shin Bet security service, compares Israel’s rejection of the Arab Peace Initiative to the rejection of the 1947 UN Partition Plan by the Arab states, no less.

He believes that by rejecting the 2002 peace framework, which also had the support of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Israel renounced the opportunity to establish a stable coalition in the battle against radical forces in the Arab and Muslim world.

On the face of it, the Abraham Accords are allegedly final proof of the fact that the Arab League initiative is no longer relevant and that Israel can make peace with the Arabs and enjoy its sweet fruits, and at the same time go on demolishing the homes of other Arabs.

That, however, is not the situation. Because of Israel’s continued ignorance of the Arab initiative, the Abraham Accords have in fact become a honey trap for Israel as it ignores the cost of the diplomatic standstill. On the eve of the signing of the Abraham Accords in the White House on September 2020, the secretary general of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said that in talks with members of the Arab League the initiative was seen as the exclusive source of authority for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as it is based on the formula of land for peace.

The foreign ministers of Jordan and Saudi Arabia declared that the Arab League initiative and other international resolutions, such as UN Resolution 242, are the only way to solve the conflict. Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it will not follow the path of the United Arab Emirates without a peace accord with the Palestinians.

In his new book, “From Mistress to Known Partner,” Middle East scholar Eli Podeh deals with the secret history of Israel’s ties with the Arab states from the establishment of Israel to the Abraham Accords.

The ties with the Gulf states, Morocco and Sudan came out into the open in the 1990s following the Oslo Accords. The deterioration of the peace process following the Al Aqsa Intifada led to the closure of Israeli representative offices in these countries.

Podeh sees Israel’s approach to the Arab League initiative as another in a long series of missed opportunities that include the shooting down of secret peace overtures by President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt in the 1960s, which could have prevented the 1967 War that brought upon us the disaster of the occupation and the settlements.

Some years later, during the tenure of Anwar Sadat, Israel once again pushed off contact with its large neighbor to the south that could have prevented the disaster of 1973. The Yom Kippur War made Dayan an enthusiastic supporter of the new position that peace without Sharm el-Sheikh is better than Sharm el-Sheikh without peace. Do we now need another war so that the penny drops for the current Israeli leadership?

The Abraham Accords have indeed opened the gates of the Gulf to Israel, but at the same time they have also blocked the possibility of annexing the territories. The solution of the Palestinian issue at the expense of the Arab states (for example, the deluded concept that Jordan is Palestine) is also no longer an option.

There are therefore only two possibilities: an end to the occupation and division of the land on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative, international law and the international consensus, or entrenchment in one apartheid state by relying on historical rights and negating the right to self-determination of millions of people.

Any comparison between the second option and the Russian invasion of Ukraine headed by Vladimir Putin is solely at the reader’s discretion.

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