Peace Plan Linguistics

On Language

By Philologos

Published December 18, 2008, issue of December 26, 2008.
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The “Saudi peace plan” is back again. Officially known as the “Arab Peace Initiative,” and first formulated at an Arab summit in Beirut in 2002, it is now being aggressively pushed by the Palestinian Authority, with the support of other Arab states. Last month, the P.A. published full-page ads in Israel’s daily Hebrew newspapers, colorfully bordered by 57 flags and promising that “57 Arab and Muslim countries will establish diplomatic ties and normal relations” with Israel if it accepts and implements the Beirut initiative.

Sounds (for those of you old enough to remember) like Heinz’s 57 varieties! Should Israel respond positively? As usual, the Jewish state is split. Its political left regards the Saudi initiative as a serious offer and urges Israel to accept it as a “basis” for negotiations. Its political right calls it an Arab trap from which Israel must steer clear at all costs.

In particular, the right stresses two points. One is that among the clauses the initiative “calls upon Israel to affirm” is “full Israeli withdrawal from all the Arab territories occupied since June 1967”; this, it is argued, would mean agreeing to evacuate not only every last settlement, but also all the Jewish neighborhoods built in formerly Jordanian Jerusalem. The other point is that the Saudi plan mandates “a just solution to the Palestinian Refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.” Resolution 194, which was passed in 1948, states that “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date,” and so the plan could force Israel to admit hundreds of thousands or even millions of Palestinians now living in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere.

Not at all, the left argues back. In the first place, although the Arab Peace Initiative calls for a total Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines, it says nothing about evacuating Jewish settlements; clearly, this opens the door to the possibility of Jews continuing to live in these settlements under the jurisdiction of a Palestinian state, just as Arabs live in Israel. And second, the right ignores the crucial words “to be agreed upon” in the clause referring to Resolution 194. This means that Israel would not have to admit a single Palestinian that it did not consent to admit — which could be no Palestinians at all, if it so desired.

Linguistically, which side is right?

Both are. The right is correct in saying that the word “full” in “full withdrawal” can signify only “total”: No room is left by it for an Israeli offer to withdraw from “most” or even “nearly all” of the territories. The left, on the other hand, is justified in pointing out that the initiative’s silence on the fate of the settlements does not necessarily preclude their inhabitants remaining in them, as it is in contending that Israel’s agreement would be required for any refugees to be admitted to its sovereign territory.

Is the right, then, wrong about the Arab Peace Initiative being a trap?

I think not. Even if you are in favor of a withdrawal to the 1967 lines, it could easily become a trap if accepted unreservedly.

Let’s think about it for a minute. Suppose Israel, as called upon to do by the initiative, “affirms” all the points in it, thus accepting the principle of total withdrawal. And suppose that, in the course of further negotiations, the P.A. and its Arab backers insist that all the settlers must leave Palestinian territory and large numbers of Palestinian refugees must be admitted to Israel. Although Israel would then have the right to reject these interpretations, in which case negotiations might stall and lead nowhere, in the meantime it would have bound itself to the principle of total withdrawal, from which there could be no future retreat. Thus it would end up having made an enormous concession without having received anything of value in return.

Can this trap be sidestepped if Israel responds to the initiative not by “affirming” it, but by accepting it as a “basis” for negotiations? Well, let’s look at the dictionary. The one I use regularly defines “basis” as either a “foundation,” a “starting point,” a “way of proceeding” or a “main component.” The last of these definitions might give Israel some wiggle room to claim that it had not committed itself to the Arab Peace Initiative’s every clause; the first three would give it less. Accepting the initiative as a “basis” for negotiations might then lead to lengthy negotiations over what “basis” means.

In a language columnist’s utterly insignificant opinion, it would be better to avoid such complications in advance. This isn’t to say that the Saudi plan need be turned down out of hand. Israel could respond to it by declaring: “The Arab Peace Initiative contains some positive points that we accept and others that we find problematic or in need of clarification. We will be glad to sit down with the other side to discuss all this.” But the initiative should not be accepted as a “basis” for anything. Whether one is left, right or center, that would only be asking for trouble.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

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