What Arab Initiative?

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According to the London newspaper Al Hayat, in a preliminary discussion that was held yesterday in Cairo, the Arab foreign ministers agreed that the summit that will convene in Riyadh three weeks from now will emphasize the commitment of the Arab League and its members to "a just and comprehensive peace as a strategic choice." The line is identical to its big brother, born in February 2002 in Saudi Arabia, and baptized in Beirut. It will be difficult to impossible for Hamas to swallow this bitter pill but like experienced poker players, its leaders are keeping mum. Why should they come out the patsies of the Arab world?

The formulation of the resolution that has been prepared in advance of the Riyadh summit states that the Arab League "expresses full support for the Mecca agreement, which was obtained under the auspices of the Guardian of the Holy Places [the Saudi king], with the help of an Arab effort, to achieve Palestinian national agreement and the establishment of a national unity government." The summit will also call upon the international community to recognize the new government and to lift the siege on the territories. Hamas is not taking too great a risk in gambling that Israel will do the work of refusing in its stead.

The reaction of the Israeli government to the Riyadh summit in general, and to the Mecca article in particular will have been known for a long time before the opening ceremony even takes place. It is enough to look at the reactions to the agreement that arranged the conditions for the establishment of a Palestinian unity government. It suffices to follow Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's crusade to the world intended to thwart the agreement that was aimed at lifting the international boycott on the territories and paving the way for negotiations on a final-status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

In Fatah, they are refusing to relinquish the hope that the Riyadh summit will do to Hamas what the Quartet's three conditions have been unable to do to it. The greatest haters of Hamas, headed by Yasser Abed Rabbo, who has refused even to hear about a unity government, are building on the combination of "the Mecca agreement" and "the Riyadh declaration." Their hopes are based on the assumption that Hamas has no interest in placing itself outside the Arab camp. The picture of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh at the Arab summit that will ratify the Beirut resolution will be worth more than a thousand words in condemnation of the Oslo agreement and recognition of Israel.

Haniyeh can rest easy

But if there is not a turnaround in Israel's position, Haniyeh can go to Riyadh with no fear at all and take his place on the seat reserved for Palestinian society at the Arab League; all of the signs coming from Jerusalem, as well as from Washington and most of the European capitals, are that the Arab League's decision to recognize Israel in its June 4, 1967, borders, and to establish normal relations with it, will turn yellow on the paper. After March 28, no Arab country will be able to come complaining to the Hamas that it is thwarting the establishment of a Palestinian state and sabotaging the interests of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan and the wealthy donor nations of the Gulf. The Hamas will be able to claim that once again it has been proven that pragmatism does not pay and that the Israelis understand only force.

Syria has adopted the tactics of the Hamas. President Bashar Assad has promised his participation in the Riyadh summit. He has seen to it that the resolution that will emerge will explicitly mention the call for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, and not make do with a general formulation about withdrawal from Arab territories. There will also be explicit mention of "lands that have remained occupied in the Lebanese South" (the Shaba Farms area). Iran too is joining the celebration, in its assumption of Israel's certain rejection of the extended Arab hand. Otherwise, one would have to assume that the official Saudi news agency invented the report of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's support for the Saudi initiative. His surprising visit to Riyadh was intended to ensure Tehran's place on the Palestinian track. What do they have to lose from support for blocked tracks?

And indeed, the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, like the government of Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres before it, hasn't the slightest clue about what to do with the expected resolution by 22 Arab leaders to ratify their decision from five years ago to replace the state of war with normal relations. Who knows when, or if, 22 Arab leaders will ever again offer a peace formula that 40 years ago would have been considered the Zionist dream come true?

To this day, neither the government of Israel nor the Knesset has held a single serious discussion on the Arab League's initiative. Olmert has said that there are some positive provisions in it, Housing and Construction Minister Meir Sheetrit has recommended accepting the proposal to open negotiations with the League on the basis of that resolution. Labor Party leader Amir Peretz has inserted the plan into a good spot in the middle of his own peace plan.

What will come of all this? The same thing that came of the Labor Party resolution five years ago to note the initiative in its diplomatic platform. Incidentally, National Infrastructures minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer's peace plan (yes, he too had one), which was born when he was at the Defense Ministry, also had a good word about the Beirut resolution.

The most concrete reaction has been Livni's. She is demanding of the Arab League that it amend the provisions in the Beirut formulation that deal with Israeli withdrawal and the refugees. On the one hand, for her, the formulation "an agreed-upon solution" with Israel to the refugee problem is unsatisfactory, and on the other, it is very important to her to that the provision about withdrawal be agreed upon with Israel.

In a comprehensive study of the Arab peace initiatives, in the framework of studies for a master's degree in conflict resolution at Tel Aviv University, Gal Peleg spoke with Hillel Newman, the foreign minister's diplomatic advisor. The advisor presented Livni's position to the effect that "the initiative speaks specifically about return to Israel, whereas Israel's position on this is clear. Therefore, there is no revolutionary proposal here, but rather a slight change in the semantics, only a blurring of the intentions... A more profound analysis would see in this proposal the negation of the existence of the State of Israel: There is an attempt here to create two states with a Palestinian majority."

Law professor Eyal Benvenisti, who is considered an international expert on the refugee issue, rejects outright the minister's argument (and at the Foreign Ministry there are quite a few who share his opinion). He notes that it was Israel that supported United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, and until 1988 the Arabs avoided it as though it were a plague. According to him, the Arab League formulation, which requires Israeli agreement to any solution of the refugee issue, is a bargain that should have been grasped with both hands.

The response: Defensive Shield

The birthplace of the Saudi initiative and its younger sister, the Beirut resolution, was in Jordan, not Saudi Arabia. The first drafts were written by Dr. Marwan Muashar, who was Jordan's first ambassador to Israel and later its ambassador to Washington and foreign minister. He has recently been appointed to the position of World Bank vice president. King Abdullah of Jordan thought that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had a beter chance of selling the initiative to his American friends. He assumed that it would not suit the Arab leaders to buy an initiative from a small trader like the Hashemite kingdom.

At the end of August 2001, the crown prince and acting ruler of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abed al Aziz al Saud, sent United States President George W. Bush a 25-page document about the situation in the territories. He called Israel's behavior vis-a-vis the Palestinians "state terror," and protested against the United States' forgiving policy toward Israel. He also enumerated the proposals for a condemnation of Israel in the U.N. Security Council that had been thwarted by an American veto. George H.W. Bush, the president's father, who is very close to the Saudi royal family, tried to placate Abdullah: "My son's heart is in the right place," he promised the heir apparent.

Several days later, on September 11, all at once Saudi Arabia was transformed from a critic into an object of criticism. It emerged that 15 Saudis were involved in the terror attacks on the United States. The following February, to soften the criticism, Abdullah invited columnist Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times to dine with him. Friedman wrote that he took advantage of the opportunity to tell his host that in one of his recent columns, he had proposed that the 22 members of the Arab League, who were to convene for a summit in Beirut on March 27-28, should offer Israel, in return for its withdrawal to the June 4 lines and the establishment of a Palestinian state, the establishment of full diplomatic and trade relations and the provision of security guarantees.

Friedman reported that after he presented the idea, the crown prince looked at him in astonishment and asked: "Have you broken into my desk? The reason I ask is that this is exactly the idea I had in mind - full withdrawal from all the occupied territories, in accord with U.N. resolutions, including in Jerusalem, for full normalization of relations," he said. "I have drafted a speech along those lines. My thinking was to deliver it before the Arab summit and try to mobilize the entire Arab world behind it. The speech is written, and it is in my desk. But I changed my mind about delivering it when Sharon took the violence, and the oppression, to an unprecedented level."

The American commentator said to Abdullah that if the idea was so important to him, he should put it on record. The next day someone from the crown prince's office phoned him and said that the prince had authorized him to quote his words. President Bush welcomed the initiative. So did prime minister Ariel Sharon. He sent a message to Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief, and to President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, asking them to arrange a meeting between him and senior Saudis, either openly or in secret. At the end of February, Sharon offered to deliver a speech before the Arab League and present his conditions for peace. The Arab leaders rejected the idea on the grounds that it was just a maneuver to win recognition without giving anything in return.

Haaretz was the only Israeli newspaper that urged Sharon not to miss the opportunity for peace.

The news of the summit's decision on March 28 came to the world on Passover, almost simultaneously with the news of the terror attack at the Park Hotel in Netanya, in which 30 diners at the Seder table were murdered. Four days later, in the wake of a mega-attack in Haifa, Operation Defensive Shield began. The Israel Defense Forces embarked on an assault on the territories, and the Arab League initiative was forgotten.

From the Arab perspective, the military operation was considered Sharon's real response to the league's resolution. Knesset member Yossi Sarid of Meretz was among the few who expressed criticism at the time of the government's ignoring of the initiative and proposed the convening of an international conference based on the league's proposal.

Every year, the Arab League again ratifies the Beirut resolution. Since 2003, it has made a point of omitting the words "right of return" from its statements. Last September, the Security Council rejected the League's proposal to adopt its initiative and to work toward its implementation.

The declaration's main points

  • Full Israeli withdrawal from all of the Arab territories that were occupied in June 1967, with the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338

  • Israel's agreement to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital

  • A just solution to the problem of the Palestinian refugees, to be agreed upon in accordance with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194

  • In return, the Arab states will consider the Arab-Israeli conflict as having come to an end, will enter into a peace agreement with Israel, will provide security to all the states of the region, and will establish normal relations with Israel