Israel is poised to make an existential choice. After so many decades of developing Jewish towns and cities in the West Bank, and now with the blessings of the Trump Administration, Netanyahu’s government is about to decide whether or not to annex significant portions of the West Bank. If Israel chooses to annex, it will probably mark the end of the two-state solution, and Israel will have to face a Hobson’s Choice between becoming a democratic bi-national state or a state with two classes of residents.
But the path of annexation also would mark the death of the Israeli dream that followed of the Six-Day 1967 War, as famously uttered by Moshe Dayan: that Israel was just waiting for a phone call from the Arab world offering recognition and peace in exchange for recently conquered territories of the Golan Heights, Gaza and the West Bank.
Back then, all Israel craved was recognition by and the opportunity to live in peace with its Arab neighbors.
But no phone call was forthcoming. In Khartoum, the Arab states issued the infamous three no’s—no to peace, no to normalization, no to recognition of Israel—and, as a result, a new mindset gradually took hold among Israeli Jews.
For some, the newly acquired territories, particularly the West Bank, were an opportunity, divinely mandated as it were, to re-occupy the Biblical heartland and fulfill the old rightwing Zionist dream of a greater Israel from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. (No one ever considered giving up ancient Philistine lands on the coast.)
For the majority, however, security was the main issue and the most of the initial settlements were built with the idea that these civilian outposts would somehow provide protection for Israel proper. Over time, many of these settlements became permanent towns and then cities, which then became security liabilities in their own right and which Israel felt compelled to protect from potential harm.
Still land for peace remained the goal. All UN, American, Quartet, Arab and Israeli-Palestinian peace proposals have been based on this principle. But the parties were not able to take the Oslo process of the 1990s to its end-goal of a two-state solution.
By the 21st century, no Israeli government could imagine abandoning the major Jewish settlements in the West Bank. And now, with the Trump Administration’s apparent blessings, the Netanyahu government is posed to unilaterally annex large portions of the West Bank in what would, or could, have become a Palestinian state.
Somewhere along the line, Israel forgot its post-1967 dream of Arab recognition in exchange for the conquered territories. Land for land’s sake became more important than land for the sake of peace.
Thus—and even though it took some 35 years—when the Arab world finally did come around to offering peace and recognition in exchange for the land, Israel was unwilling—and perhaps unable—to embrace the real “deal of the century.”
Back in 2002, Saudi Arabia drafted a simple proposal for ending the Arab–Israeli conflict: that Israeli-Palestinian peace should be based on Israel’s return to the 4th of June 1967 lines in exchange for Arab recognition of Israel’s right to exist and peace with the Arab world. The Arab Peace Initiative (API) was endorsed by the Arab League and re-endorsed at the 2007 Arab League Summit. In 2013, the Arab League re-endorsed it with a new provision offering the possibility of mutual agreed land swaps between Israel and Palestine.
The API was re-re-endorsed at the 2017 Arab League Summit, yet again at the March 2019 Arab Summit held in Tunisia, and recently at the September 2019 meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo.
To be sure, Israel has legitimate reservations about the specifics of the Arab Peace Initiative, but as the late Israeli President Shimon Peres noted at the 2009 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference: “Israel wasn’t a partner to the wording of this initiative. Therefore it doesn’t have to agree to every word.” However, he recognized that the proposal represented a “u-turn” in the attitudes of Arab states toward peace with Israel.
Israel now stands at a crossroads. It can either annex major portions of what the world has considered to be the future Palestinian state or it can return to the negotiating table in good faith.
Today, given their mutual concerns about Iran, Israel and a number of Arab states are beginning to have informal relations. They have an inkling of how a partnership regarding defense, technology, trade, and tourism might work. But the only way of getting there is by first taking care of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. What is needed is a reasonable basis to resume the negotiations and regional support of that process. The Arab Peace Initiative—not the Trump plan—provides this foundation.
Israel’s phone has been ringing intermittently for 18 years. It’s time someone picked up the line and said “Shalom.”