- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 17, 2008


For the Middle East, a region where peace initiatives rise and fall but hardly ever resurface, the current comeback of the Arab League’s peace initiative is a big deal. After more than six years of disregard, both Israeli and Palestinian leaders are grasping the plan’s potential to provide much-needed traction for a peace process that has been going nowhere for a very long time.

The plan offers Israelis full peace with the entire Arab world in return for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and a “just” solution for the Palestinian refugee problem, to be “agreed upon” by Israel.

The initiative recently has been acknowledged by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, by his ministers of foreign affairs and defense, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak, by President Shimon Peres and by other Israeli politicians as a positive framework for comprehensive peace negotiations. And recently, the Palestinian Authority, eager for some progress toward a peace settlement, took the unprecedented step of placing full-page ads in all the large-circulation Israeli Hebrew daily newspapers, offering a full Hebrew translation of the Arab peace initiative.

Israel’s Peace Now movement, in response, published a large ad in the chief Palestinian daily newspaper, welcoming the initiative. Israel’s Council for Peace and Security, an organization made up of many of the country’s leading former generals, last month launched a campaign to introduce the initiative to Israelis. And President-elect Barack Obama, as well, reportedly sees the opportunity in this plan.

Why is it, then, that such an important peace initiative, launched more than six years ago, approved and reapproved by the Arab League’s 22 members, is only now picked up by Israeli leaders and so belatedly introduced to the Israeli public?

The explanation reflects the grim dynamic of Israeli-Palestinian relations, in which terrorism too often trumps peace, suspicion tramples opportunity and fear crushes hope.

The initiative was first adopted by the Arab League on March 28, 2002. As far as Israeli public opinion was concerned, the timing could not have been worse. Hours before the Arab foreign ministers voted to approve the Saudi-drafted plan, a Hamas-affiliated suicide bomber blew himself up at Netanya’s Park Hotel, where 250 Israelis were celebrating Passover. This attack was one of the deadliest and most traumatic in Israeli history. Thirty people were killed and more than 100 were injured. The so-called “Passover massacre” triggered a large-scale Israeli military operation in the West Bank and brought Israeli-Palestinian relations to an all-time low.

The Arab League’s initiative had no resonance whatsoever in Israel. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, when asked about it, portrayed it as a Trojan horse, as an Arab attempt to impose on Israel the Palestinian refugees’ “right of return” - and therefore the practical destruction of Israel - in the guise of a peace plan. Mainstream Israeli politicians and pundits did not recognize that the plan called for an “agreed upon” solution of the refugee problem, a clause that some of the plan’s drafters say was inserted to grant Israel a de-facto veto over any resolution that it finds objectionable.

The Bush administration also made no real effort to take advantage of the plan and harness it to its meager Mideast peacemaking efforts. President Bush’s inaction contributed to the plan’s fading away.

In subsequent years, Israelis had little exposure to the plan. The Arab League kept the initiative alive but did very little to market it to the Israeli public. When asked by reporters and peace advocates why they did not try to directly introduce the plan to Israelis, Arab leaders argued, understandably, that doing so would be regarded as premature normalization of relations with Israel. After all, they would say, the plan offers normalization as an incentive for Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders, not as a reward for merely exploring the plan.

With Iran flexing its nuclear muscle and sending its influence into the Arab Middle East, Israeli leaders have become cognizant of the value of regional peace and regional strategic cooperation. Israeli policymakers are seeking more than just land for peace. They now realize that in exchange for the land that Israel occupied in the West Bank, Gaza and Golan Heights 41 years ago, they can secure Israel’s future as a democratic state with a solid Jewish majority, fully accepted in the region and internationally.

The Arab League’s peace initiative is powerful enough to reinspire the cynical Israeli public, traumatized by terrorism and fed up with unfulfilled promises of peace. Without a supportive Israeli public, no peace effort could succeed. To do that, the initiative has to be activated. It has to become dynamic.

Arab leaders are reluctant to make gestures to Israel because they are concerned about the perception of being viewed as normalizing relations prematurely and they seek Israeli reciprocity. Ask any Arab diplomat what the Arab world would need as cover for making gestures and the answer almost always would be: Israel’s government must enforce the settlement freeze to which it committed time and time again.

If the Obama administration is looking for a good place from which to launch its Mideast peace efforts, this is it: Push Israel to impose a real, full settlement freeze while working with the Arab world to animate the Arab peace initiative. This - leveraging a real freeze on settlement construction toward advancing regional peace - is one of many ideas in a blueprint for the first 100 days of the incoming administration’s Mideast policy that my organization, Americans for Peace Now, is publishing this week. This is a moment of opportunity. This is a moment to seize.

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