By Sadie Goldman
WASHINGTON (JTA) – In the first visit to Egypt by an Israeli president in 12 years, Shimon Peres last week endorsed the Arab peace initiative and declared, “Peace has never been more possible. It would be a mistake to miss out on this opportunity.”
His statement comes 6 1/2 years after the leaders of 22 Arab countries met in Beirut on March 28, 2002 to present the Saudi-led peace initiative.
That proposal offered Israel permanent peace and full recognition by the Arab states in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from all the territory it occupied in 1967 – including all of the West Bank, Golan Heights, eastern Jerusalem and, at the time, Gaza Strip – the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and the resolution of the Palestinian refugee question. All these are components of the current Israeli-Palestinian peace track.
The initiative’s first presentation, at the 2002 Arab League summit in Beirut, was overshadowed by the suicide bombing at Netanya’s Park Hotel the night before, and the peace proposal did not get much traction in Israel. Arab states renewed the idea at a summit in Riyadh on March 28, 2007.
Yet while Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert lauded the Arab step toward peace, he had reservations about some of the plan’s details – and a corruption scandal to deal with – and the proposal fell on deaf ears.
This time, however, Israel’s leadership is listening.
Without the suicide bombings that terrorized Israelis between 2000 and 2004, with a Palestinian Authority in the West Bank committed to the peace process and with a four-month cease-fire with Hamas in Gaza, Israel’s leaders say they are receptive to including the Arab states and their peace initiative in Israel’s pursuit of a comprehensive regional peace.
Peres, with the backing of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, has been working behind the scenes on an Israeli proposal that is in line with the Arab initiative. According to the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, Peres gave Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak such a proposal and hopes to hold peace talks with the representatives of the Arab states.
Of course, Peres is not the prime minister of Israel.
Including the Arab peace initiative in any form in Israel’s current negotiations will require the endorsement of Israel’s government and its leader. With the Israeli government in transition and Olmert, a strong proponent of negotiations with the Palestinians and the Syrians, likely staying on as prime minister until at least early February, Israel’s next election could be a referendum on the peace process.
Most Israelis worry that the Arab initiative dictates a final solution on issues currently up for negotiation, particularly borders and refugees. Indeed, the issue of refugees is a “red line” for Livni, who says Palestinians displaced in 1948 should return to a future Palestinian state, not Israel.
Supporters of the Arab peace initiative point out that it is a framework, not a final dictate. This could give Israel’s new government wiggle room to address its concerns.
Jordan’s King Abdullah reaffirmed this in a recent interview with the Spanish daily El Pais on Oct. 18.
“We aren’t saying take it or leave it," Abdullah said. "There are ideas that must be agreed between the two parties. The proposal is extremely flexible so as not to isolate Israeli politicians.”
The initiative does not rule out the current negotiations Israel is conducting with the Palestinians and the Syrians, nor does it resolve the outstanding issues between Israel and the Palestinians or Israel and Syria.
In essence, the initiative calls on Israel to finalize agreements on all final-status issues and, in return, offers normalization with the Arab states.
Some critics of the proposal say Israel cannot manage two peace tracks at once, especially if one is Syrian. However, Israel already has begun informal peace talks with Syria while negotiating with the Palestinians. In fact, Israel’s 2009 intelligence assessment, released last week, concluded that Syria is sincere about its desire to make peace once there is a U.S. administration that will support it.
If Israel’s leadership is convinced that it should work on multiple fronts for peace, as it is signaling, the Arab initiative could provide Israel with the international backing it craves.
Political transitions can push peace initiatives to the back burner, but they also can create momentum for them.
Both candidates for the U.S. presidency support Middle East peace, the Arab states say they are ready for it and Israel says it’s open to starting negotiations.
After Jan. 20, when the new U.S. president takes office, there will be no more excuse for delay.
(Sadie Goldman is senior policy associate at the Israel Policy Forum.)