Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Op-ed: What Obama Must Do First for Peace


The Palestinian Authority, in a brilliant display of public relations, ran Hebrew-language ads this week in Israel’s four major newspapers endorsing the Arab Peace Initiative and calling on Israelis to support it, too. The Palestinian Authority also is urging President-elect Barack Obama to put his prestige behind the initiative, formerly known as the Saudi plan, as a critical first step to help end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Reports in the British media that Obama has endorsed the plan are false. The British media has always been rather dodgy on issues relating to the United States.

I wish it were true. And I hope Obama does endorse the initiative early in his term. But he hasn’t yet.

One of the stellar accomplishments of the Obama campaign’s Jewish outreach team was its ability to prevent the candidate from taking stands on specific Israeli-Palestinian issues, leaving him with maximum flexibility.

That is not why he received nearly 80 percent of the Jewish vote. Jewish voters do not cast their votes with the Middle East foremost in their minds. Nonetheless, the campaign’s studied ambiguity probably helped deliver some key precincts in battleground states such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Nevada.

The campaign is over and governing time approaches. The new administration will soon have to decide how to proceed. One thing is certain: It has a stronger hand than any new administration in recent history. It won in a landslide; Obama is the first Democrat to win a majority of the popular vote since Lyndon Johnson. His party controls both the House of Representatives and the Senate. And Jewish voters are in his corner.

So where should he start?

He should start by endorsing the Arab Peace Initiative — the best offer the Arabs have ever made to Israel.

Forget what some Israeli officials and Jewish organizational types say about the Arab League plan. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it. I say that because every provision requires the agreement of both Arabs and Israelis. So what if its language on borders presupposes full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-’67 lines? So what if it contemplates the return of more refugees than Israel can handle? Or that it envisions the full return of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians?

None of that matters because the language of the initiative represents the maximum Arab position, an opening position. The Saudis (and the other Arabs) are not saying “take it or leave it.” They are saying “let’s negotiate.”

In fact, to avoid misunderstanding, the reference to the return of the refugees — the most controversial part of the initiative — specifically refers to Israel’s agreement. It calls for the “achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem agreed upon (my emphasis) in accordance with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194.” Could anything be more clear? A solution to the refugee problem would not be imposed on Israel; it would have to be accepted by Israel.

That is true of everything in the initiative. In fact, it specifically states that its provisions are derived from U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338 — the U.S.-drafted resolutions, endorsed by Israel, that call for direct negotiations to end the Arab-Israeli conflict on the basis of land for peace.

Of course, 242 and 338 have not resolved the conflict. This is in large part because, until recently, the Arab world was not ready to accept Israel’s right to peace and security, while Israel refused to accept Palestinian rights. Even after 1993, when the Palestinians and Israelis exchanged mutual recognition, the Arab world as a whole remained steadfast in its refusal to accept the presence of a Jewish state in its midst.

But now Israel accepts the Palestinian right to statehood in the West Bank and Gaza. And the Arab Peace Initiative offers Israel not just acceptance, but also full recognition and normalization of relations with the entire Arab world.

The initiative states that following successful negotiations, every single Arab state will: “(I) consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended, and enter into a peace agreement with Israel, and provide security for all the states of the region, and (II) establish normal relations with Israel in the context of this comprehensive peace.”

So why is Israel dragging its feet rather than accepting the plan and starting to negotiate? The reason is, almost surely, the settlers. It’s always the settlers.

No peace plan is going to permit a few hundred thousand Israeli settlers to remain in the West Bank — settlers who have no intention of leaving. For instance, this weekend some 20,000 settlers and their supporters are descending on Hebron to defend their right to remain in a Palestinian home they seized. The army ultimately will move to evict them, but the militants say the Israel Defense Forces is the enemy and that they will fight them. Past experience has demonstrated that they will attack the IDF soldiers who are ordered to move them. (In fact, attacks on soldiers have begun.)

This whole business of attacking soldiers is difficult for an American to fathom. In the 1950s and 1960s, Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson all had to send in troops to break the back of segregation in the Deep South. The segregationists were every bit as entrenched as the settlers — and they were armed — but once the president sent in the troops, resistance collapsed. Americans do not physically attack their own soldiers. Besides, the U.S. show of force was so overwhelming that the segregationists understood that they were beaten.

What’s wrong with Israel? Has the occupation so degraded attitudes toward the military that settlers feel that they can spit on them, throw rocks at them or worse, and get away with it? Talk about democracy run amok.

That is not America’s problem. Our problem is to resolve a conflict that harms American interests throughout the Muslim world, and has done so since 1967. Perhaps the American interest hurt most of all is Israel’s long-term prospects for survival.

Time is running out. The Arab Peace Initiative presents an unprecedented opportunity. Obama should run with it.

M.J. Rosenberg is the director of Israel Policy Forum’s Washington Policy Center.

Recommended from JTA