Opportunity Knocks: The Arab League Renews Its Peace Plan Offer
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The much-awaited moment has come and the League of Arab States has reissued the 2002 Saudi Peace Plan with no changes or amendments. It is important to understand what this initiative says and the great potential it has for putting the region on a course toward a sustainable peace. It is also important to understand what it is not — a take it or leave it offer with no room for negotiations.
In fact, it’s exactly what Israel has needed for decades–a firm opening offer and invitation to negotiations from the entire Arab world. It’s not only peace with the Palestinians. It’s peace with the entire Arab world that is being offered. And not just peace, but normal relations. This is offered in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from all territories it captured in 1967, the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and an “agreed upon” resolution to the refugee issue, based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194.
This can’t be stressed enough–the economic, cultural, diplomatic, political and social ties that come with normal relations prevent war and create a peaceful environment that no treaty or agreement possibly can. Israel needs to jump at this offer to negotiate. The Arab states know that Israel would not accept their plan whole cloth. They know Israel’s stance is that they are unwilling to go back to the 1967 borders and are unwilling to take responsibility for the refugees. But if Israel is willing to come to the table with their points and negotiate with the Arabs, progress can be made.
The United States must play a strong role in this. The US needs to be the party that brings Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab league together and gets them all to talk seriously about all of these issues. There was a moment in late March when it seemed Condoleezza Rice was trying to do just that, but she was apparently called off by her boss. This is where Americans, and particularly American Jews must act. The latest buzzword, a “political horizon” that Rice threw around echoing her boss, is simply not sufficient. There needs to be action.
The simple fact is that the Arab League cannot possibly start with a better offer from Israel’s point of view than this one. It is as far as they can go initially and not enrage the Arab populace, especially the Palestinians. But if Israeli accommodations can be secured in exchange for more compromise, they probably will be able to do that.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recognized this reality when he said that the proposal contained “interesting elements” and that Israel understood that an Arab proposal would include full withdrawal and a solution to the refugee problem that would involve Israel. Now, he needs to be urged to move forward in a positive way, something that will not be politically easy for him, but which could, if nothing else, lay the groundwork for a real breakthrough in the near future.
A Ha’aretz editorial on March 28 put it succinctly: “A realistic government would have rushed to embrace this willingness for recognition and reconciliation, expressing reservations for what it does not accept and seeking dialogue on the regional level.”
Presented below is a more in-depth analysis of the Arab League Plan and the reactions, views and politics around it from various players. We’ll start with a summary of the initiative and an examination of some of the key clauses, and then we’ll look at what the initiative means for the various parties involved and how they are responding to it.
The Arab League Offer
The Saudi plan begins by re-establishing UN Resolutions 242 and 338 as the diplomatic basis. It then calls for an Israeli withdrawal from all territories captured in 1967, including the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem and an Israeli acceptance of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. In exchange, all the member states of the Arab League agree that the conflict with Israel is ended; that peace is established between each of them and Israel; and most importantly, that normal relations will be established with Israel.
The importance of this last point cannot be overstated. Peace is one thing, usually based on a piece of paper. But the threat of war is eliminated not by a treaty but by normal relations between countries. Normal relations includes economic ties, cultural and academic connections and human interactions between people in the different societies. These are the things that calm tensions, build relationships and make war an undesirable option for leaders.
This all sounds great, but as usual, there is much deviltry in the details. The preamble, which makes the statements referenced above hits on some of the points Israel objects to, such as a complete withdrawal to the 1967 borders, and sharing Jerusalem. It doesn’t make mention of the toughest issue, that of the Palestinian refugees. That comes later. Hamas’ Policy of Ambiguity
The Saudi plan puts Hamas in a difficult position. Though they offer various modalities of non-belligerence with Israel, such as a 100-year hudna (truce), they are ideologically opposed to recognizing Israel or making a formal peace with it. On the other hand, they are not interested in blocking a Saudi initiative or standing outside of an Arab consensus.
To deal with this conflict, Hamas has adopted a “policy of ambiguity” where they do not block or accept the Saudi plan. Nor did they oppose Mahmoud Abbas for voting in favor of the plan for the Palestinian Authority. They will remain opposed to a formal peace with Israel or recognition of it. But they have already agreed, as part of the unity government arrangement, to allow Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate for peace with Israel and to abide by any agreement ratified by a referendum of the Palestinian people.
This points up the difference between a party’s stance and a government’s, a difference which has been sadly clouded in recent months when it comes to the PA. When Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party were in power, they opposed the Oslo Accords. They were not able to scuttle the deal altogether, as Netanyahu had wished. But no one demanded that Netanyahu and Likud accept Oslo, merely that they abide by the decision of the government they were now in control of.
Similarly, Hamas being in power (although their control is diminished by the unity government –they share the Cabinet posts with Fatah and independents — they retain a majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council) does not mean their ideology completely guides the government. They cannot afford to block a reasonable peace accord that would meet with the approval of most Palestinians. If they try, they will not be in power much longer.
Still, even in their ambiguity, their stances may prove to be problematic. They have repeatedly called on the Arab League not to compromise on their right to violent resistance or the right of return. But Hamas will have to live with compromises on both those points. It won’t be hard to deal with a cease-fire with Israel; that’s something Hamas has already accepted. But negotiations will happen on the refugee issue if peace is pursued at all, and part of their success will be based on an internal Palestinian dialogue on what is and is not an acceptable compromise for peace. Absolutism and rigidity will not serve well.
Still, a major difference in Hamas’ response is visible between today and 2002, when the plan was first issued. In ‘02, the plan was barely announced when Hamas executed a devastating suicide attack in Netanya, murdering 30 Jews in a hotel during a Passover Seder. After that, Israel launched its re-invasion of the West Bank called “Operation Defensive Shield” and the Saudi peace plan effectively disappeared.
If progress is to be made, it will be important to view Hamas’ current stance as a marked improvement over their response five years ago and work to ensure that their willingness to stand aside thus far continues and hope that they might even be willing to engage positively in the process by facilitating a national conversation on the parameters of a peace deal with Israel. Hamas will not and cannot openly abandon their ideology. But they will not want to work against the will of the Palestinian and Arab people. The Israeli Response
Israel has, of course, known for quite some time that the Saudi Peace Plan was to be reaffirmed at this meeting of the Arab League. Their initial efforts were focused on getting the Saudis to remove any mention of the refugees and of a full withdrawal from all territories captured in 1967. This was never a very realistic goal, and it is not surprising that Israel failed to accomplish this.
But now that the plan is out, the Israeli response has been more open than might have been expected. In the March 30 edition of Ha’aretz, Ehud Olmert made the following statements: “There are interesting ideas there, and we are ready to hold discussions and hear from the Saudis about their approach and to tell them about ours…The Riyadh summit is certainly a serious matter. We do not delude ourselves - they want us to go back to the 1967 borders and they also want the right of return. We were not surprised; we understood it would be this way. The content is important, but it is also important to relate to the atmosphere, positioning and direction.”
This is considerably more welcoming than past Israeli statements have been. More consistent with that history is Shimon Peres’ response to the Saudi plan: “Unilateral declarations, in which each side presents its positions, will not achieve anything.” Fortunately, and possibly due to some influence by the US, Olmert is behaving in a more conciliatory fashion than his deputy.
But again, there is a devil in the details. Olmert has been adamant about refusing to talk about the refugees at all, stating that he would never allow a single refugee back into Israel nor, and this is key, would he ever admit to any Israeli responsibility for the refugees. Basically, he is refusing to discuss the matter, a stance which cannot possibly be accepted by the Arabs.
There are simple realities that both sides must deal with. Israel is never going to accept any plan that does not leave Israel with a comfortable Jewish majority for the foreseeable future and the Palestinians and the Arab states are never going to accept a plan that does not address the refugee issue and come up with a solution that the Palestinians can live with.
There’s another potential danger in Olmert’s response. The direction he wishes to take the plan is toward a regional conference between Israel, the Palestinians and “the moderate Arab states.” Well, what does that last phrase mean, exactly?
Obviously the “moderate” Arabs would include the group that is currently being referred to (outside the Arab world) as the “Arab Quartet”, meaning Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Of the 17 other members of the Arab League, most would be generally considered part of the moderate bloc (Morocco, Qatar, Kuwait, Tunisia, Oman, and, since their own change of policies, Libya), minor players likely to go with the flow of events (Yemen, Mauritania, Somalia, Djibouti, Comoros) or countries with their own problems that will be disengaged from this process (Iraq, Sudan, Bahrain, Algeria).
The two countries that won’t fit in any of those categories are Lebanon and Syria. Given the recent war with Lebanon and the generally embarrassing episode of failed attempts to revive peace negotiations with Syria, it seems likely that Israel is trying to isolate these issues from the Palestinian question.
There’s good reason for Israel to do this. Leaving the West Bank is going to cause massive political upheavals in Israel, far greater than anything that happened around the Gaza withdrawal. For different reasons, the Golan Heights is also a sensitive issue — not as sensitive as the West Bank, but far more than Gaza. For this reason, both Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak took great pains to keep the “Palestinian” and “Syrian” negotiation tracks separate. Olmert surely wants to do the same.
The notion of separating the two made sense for Rabin and Barak. This time, however, it would be a mistake.
The essence of the Saudi peace plan is its comprehensive nature. Indeed, much of the value in it for Israel lies in the fact that it includes the commitment of the entire Arab world, including Syria. Even if Syria is not at the table, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE would allow the separation of the issues of the Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights.
But the more crucial concern is how Syria, or more to the point, Hezbollah, would respond to an attempt to freeze Syria out of the process. The situation with Syria has deteriorated, and Hezbollah, while still active in the popular uprising in Lebanon, has also lost some of its new-found support in recent months because it has not been able to fulfill its promise of helping to rebuild the areas of southern Lebanon that were destroyed and damaged in last summer’s war with Israel. The best way for Hezbollah to regain its popularity is by hitting Israel. If Syria needs to reassert the need for Israel to deal with her, another attack may well be on the way, something no civilian in Israel, Lebanon or Syria needs.
Olmert’s response is only one of several responses by Israelis. They range from Peres’ utter rejection of the plan, or Netanyahu’s completely ignoring it to more welcoming responses from Defense Minister Amir Peretz and the launching of an Israeli grassroots group to support talks based on the plan called the Israeli Regional Peace Movement.
The Olmert government is likely on its last legs. The Labor Party will soon hold its internal elections, where it is overwhelmingly likely that Ehud Barak will regain the top spot in the party. If not him, then Ami Ayalon, but there is no conceivable scenario where Amir Peretz retains control. Peretz has been unable, due both to his own failings and his scant support in Labor, to lead the party back to a place of strength. Barak, who would surely have his eye on the Prime Minister’s office, would be likely to try to position himself as a peacemaker in contrast to Olmert and Netanyahu, and would probably try to build on the Saudi plan in some fashion.
In any case, the new Labor leader and Netanyahu with Likud will be in a race to see who can gather sufficient political support to try to bring down the Olmert government and hold new elections. The outcome of that race will likely determine whether there is any possibility of Israel engaging constructively with the Arabs for peace, whether based on the Saudi plan or not. Olmert, despite his positive statements, is clearly not inclined to do so.
Why did the Saudis revive the plan at this time?
There were a number of factors that went into the Saudi decision, but probably the most important was the state of Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the United States, which is at a very low ebb right now. Saudi King Abdullah recently canceled a scheduled gala at the White House, without a particularly notable reason, and, of greater importance, he publicly denounced the US occupation of Iraq as illegal.
This indicates a serious strain in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US, one which is surely born of the failure of American Mideast policy. The Saudis have exercised independent leadership in significant ways in recent months. They brokered the Palestinian unity government, and did it by pushing both Fatah and Hamas hard to accept compromises that neither side was particularly interested in. They worked with their most hated rival, Iran, to restore some measure of order to Lebanon. And now they have taken a bold step to push the Israel-Palestine conflict back into the realm of diplomacy.
The Saudis, of course, have no wish to break away from their relationship with the US. But they also know a sinking ship when they see one, and the Bush Administration’s neo-conservative-inspired Mideast policy is already nestling down close to Davy Jones’ famed locker. They have lost confidence in the Bush Administration’s ability to deal with the threat of Iran as well, and recognize that they need to find a way to unify the Arab world behind their leadership to counter Iran’s growing influence.
The Saudis surely hope that a new administration in 2008 will bring a new policy, but they can’t afford to just sit back and wait that long. But if diplomacy is to resume as a result of their offer to Israel, it will not be short-term, and it will not be possible to conduct such diplomacy in the manner of Bush and Cheney, a style that is best described as arrogant and aggressive. The Saudis hope that Bush will allow Condoleezza Rice and others of a more moderate bent to guide the US involvement from here on. That hope may well be in vain, but even if so, the Saudis have little choice but to try to take the reins in Mideast diplomacy.
The American failure in Iraq cannot be repaired by the US, and the Saudis know this. In the long run, either Saudi Arabia will lead the Arab world in reconstituting Iraq as a viable state or Iran will do it. Increased Iranian influence in the Arab world is the greatest Saudi fear. In order to counteract it, they are distancing themselves publicly (and surely only temporarily) from the US. They are also trying to lay the groundwork for a resolution of the Palestinian question. If they can make significant progress on the conflict with Israel, they will greatly enhance their leadership position, as well as expanding their own and the entire Arab world’s ability to focus on Iraq.
The US response and its ongoing role
The US has been generally positive about the Saudi peace plan in its public statements. But in practice, the reception has been lukewarm. This was most notable during Condoleezza Rice’s trip to Israel. What was rumored to have been Rice trying to engage in a sort of “shuttle diplomacy” to get the ball rolling on substantive talks between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Arab League produced nothing more than an agreement that Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would hold bi-weekly discussions. And even those talks have no specific focus beyond some immediate security arrangements and ways to “ease the suffering” of the Palestinian people. This is smoke, and not even much in the way of mirrors. The trip by a congressional delegation headed by Nancy Pelosi and including Tom Lantos, one of the fiercest proponents of supporting the most militant and right-wing stances regarding Israel, to the Middle East, including Syria, offered some hope. The trip clearly did not sit well with the White House, nor with many congressional Republicans. Although AIPAC was silent about it, they could not have been pleased either. Pelosi was clearly staking out a new direction for a Democratic foreign policy, and doing it with Lantos’ support reveals the extent to which the pro-Israel American public is disillusioned by the abject failure of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy.
The rightward and neo-conservative turn AIPAC has taken in recent years has damaged their relationship with the Democrats. It is well known that Pelosi’s message to Syria was essentially along the lines of Bush policy: stop supporting terrorism, both in the Occupied Territories and in Iraq, Israel is willing to talk, and that Syria should help free the Israeli soldiers held by Hezbollah and Hamas. But just talking with Syria at all is a signal that the Democratic leadership is not going to pursue the self-defeating policy of not talking to one’s enemies.
There is a real opening now for action in the US aimed at getting our government to actively promote talks between Israel and the Arab states, including both the PA and Syria.
The stickiest issue in any discussion of peace between Israel and the Palestinians is the question of refugees. It therefore bears special scrutiny here. The Saudi plan lays out its proposal on refugees in the following clauses:
2b. Achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian Refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.
4. Assures the rejection of all forms of Palestinian patriation which conflict with the special circumstances of the Arab host countries.
The second clause was added back in 2002 at the insistence of Lebanon, which has one of the largest populations of Palestinian refugees and which has been the most adamant about refusing them entry into Lebanese society. Their stance is based on the fragile and complex demography of Lebanon which serves as the basis for much of their governmental structure.
Any mention of the Palestinian refugees which does not assure that Israel need take no responsibility for them scares the hell out of most Israelis. They see accepting the refugees’ claims as meaning that Jews will soon become a minority in Israel. So Ehud Olmert has taken the problematic stance that Israel will only discuss those parts of the Saudi plan which Israel views positively.
Let’s look at what is actually being proposed here. Clause 4 certainly does not bar resettlement of refugees in the countries where they now reside or any other country. It does say that the solution cannot be found by forcing the current host countries to accept the refugees.
This is a crucial principle–that resolving the most difficult issues will be accomplished through negotiations, not force or blackmail. Just as it would be futile to try to force Israel to accept conditions it is not prepared for, so too would it be disastrous to try to force Arab states to take in Palestinian refugees they are unwilling to accommodate. Similarly, any resolution to the refugee issue will have to be one that is acceptable to enough Palestinians as well as enough Israelis to overcome the hardline minorities among both peoples. If it’s not, it will fail. It’s that simple, and is a principle that holds for any agreement aimed at resolving this conflict.
But the real meat of the refugee portion of the Arab proposal is clause 2b. No doubt, this will cause great anxiety in Israel, and that is understandable. But it has already been widely mis-reported as “requiring” Israel to accept a large number of Palestinian refugees back into Israel. To be sure, the language allows for this as a possibility, and the Arab states would be delighted with such an outcome.
But the Arabs are not trying to push a plan that is doomed to failure, as any plan that had such a requirement would be. Much of the reporting on this provision is missing the key phrase in it: “to be agreed upon.” The Arabs are acknowledging that Israel would never agree to a blanket return of refugees. They have their position, however, and it is about as far as they can go in an initial proposal due to the massive and passionate support for the Palestinian right of return among the Arab people. Anything more would have to come as a result of an agreement with Israel, the results of which might be enough to mollify Arab anger at any compromise on the principle of return of the refugees. At least, such would be the hope.
In any case, Israeli efforts to have the Saudi plan modified by removing reference to the refugees were not only futile, but also misguided. No peace arrangement that involves the Palestinians and does not address the refugee issue is not worth the paper it’s printed on. One way or another, the only way to end the conflict is to come to an agreement on the refugees and trying to ignore the issue is self-defeating. For a fuller examination of this issue, see my recent article here.
Clever diplomacy could take the Arab League’s phrasing on this issue to its most practical destination: working out the contours of an end of the occupation, dealing with borders, settlements, Jerusalem, water rights and all the other sticky issues, and only then, once the Palestinians are a freed people, deal with the question of refugees in a new environment of hope and at least some modicum of trust.