Sometime in the coming weeks, a Jordanian-Egyptian delegation representing the Arab League will visit Israel to discuss the Arab peace initiative, which was first approved by an Arab summit in 2002 and was recently reconfirmed. This will be the first official contact between Israel and the Arab League. While that organization has never before been friendly to Israel and never particularly helpful to the cause of Arab-Israeli peace, it behooves the Olmert government to make the most of the meeting in terms of advancing Israel’s relations with the Arab world.
The Arab peace initiative has been the object of growing Israeli, Arab and international attention since last summer’s war in Lebanon. Israel and its Sunni Arab neighbors see in it a vehicle for facilitating a more concerted regional effort to blunt both Iran’s drive for hegemony and Sunni and Shi’ite militant Islam by applying collective Arab influence to solving the Israeli-Arab conflict. In view of the demise of the Madrid Quartet’s roadmap and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s unilateralist approach, the Arab peace initiative is also the only framework for peace currently on the region’s agenda.
By Arab standards, the peace initiative reflects a relatively moderate set of demands and an impressive payoff. It offers to “consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended, and enter into a peace agreement with Israel, and provide security for all the states of the region.” In return, Israel must make peace with Syria and Lebanon and accept a Palestinian state, all based on a return to the 1967 borders. Israel must agree to a “just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem… in accordance with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194” of 1949, and to a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.
It is clear what the Arab League delegates will say to Olmert when they meet: Make peace with your neighbors based on the 1967 lines and solve the refugee problem, and we will all make peace with you. So obvious is this course of action to the Arabs that until now, they have made no effort to explain and amplify on their proposal to Israel, seemingly insisting that the rest of the world simply impose a solution. It took a sense of desperation born of recent Islamist and Shi’ite threats to moderate Arab interests to persuade the Arab League to render its plan a bit more friendly and agree to discuss it with Israel.
What should Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni reply to the Arab League emissaries? Here are a number of thoughts and insights regarding Israel’s approach to this crucial discussion with the Arab League.
First, Israel has no problem to respond in kind to the Arab peace initiative and, as requested, to “declare that a just peace is its strategic option as well.” It should then point out that the initiative helpfully presents the Arab payoff of peace and security as a “parallel” process to Israeli-Arab peacemaking rather than as an end-of-process quid pro quo.
Since Israel is almost certainly not expected to make peace with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians all at once, but rather in sequence, it can fairly demand to know what portion of regional peace and security it will receive in return for each successful effort at peacemaking with a neighbor. It can point out that the Israeli public would look positively upon incentives, such as renewal of multilateral economic and water discussions, as rewards for progress and in anticipation of pursuing additional peace deals.
Apropos peace and security, Olmert and Livni should inquire what sort of “security for all the states in the region” the Arab peace initiative has in mind: Specific guarantees for Israel’s borders and the sovereign integrity of the Jewish state? Welcoming Israel into the Arab League, which in theory (though hardly in practice) is a mutual defense pact? And what, if anything, would Israel be called upon to contribute to Arab security? In short, it is fair for Israel to inquire what genuine increment to its security, beyond the obvious component of peace, the Arabs have in mind.
As for the demand to make peace with Syria, Olmert and Livni could point out that at least until recently, they have been cautioned not only by Washington but also by Cairo, Riyadh and Amman not to open up peace talks with Bashar al-Assad, lest he exploit them to evade his responsibilities regarding terrorism in Iraq, Israel and Lebanon and the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. How, Israel could ask the Arab League, can you demand publicly that we make peace with all our neighbors while admonishing us privately to boycott one of them?
Then there is the special case of the Palestinians. After compelling Fatah and Hamas to set up a unity government, the Saudis boasted privately that they were on track to “domesticate” Hamas and bring it to accept a two-state solution. Meanwhile, Israel confronts more Palestinian anarchy and Hamas extremism.
Are the Egyptians, Jordanians and Saudis now offering some sort of regional umbrella to assist the weak and divided Palestinians in getting their act together? Will they, for example, provide their own guarantees for a solution to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a place holy to all Muslims and not just to Palestinians? Will they contemplate sending Arab peacekeepers to stop the anarchy in Gaza?
Finally, what happens if Israel, as is likely, reaches agreements acceptable to its neighbors that nevertheless do not correspond with the conditions laid out in the Arab peace initiative — a refugee solution not based on U.N. Resolution 194, border agreements that do not correspond to the 1967 lines or even, by stretching the imagination, a long-term interim agreement with Hamas that falls short of peace and mutual recognition? Will the Arabs still reward Israel with peace and security?
The Arab peace initiative and the Arab League’s newfound readiness to discuss it with Israel create important new opportunities for Jerusalem’s regional diplomacy. Despite — or perhaps because of — its weakness, the Olmert government has to grasp them.
Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.