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Stop saying no to the best deal ever

The Arab League peace plan is in line with Israeli interests – Netanyahu's government must embrace it or make a better offer

Since March, 2002, the Arab Peace Initiative has provided the most strategic and hopeful framework for a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israel conflict. It has passed the test of time, surviving the vagaries of the Arab spring and the current instability throughout the region. Reaffirmed once again in the meeting of the Arab League in Doha in March, its leaders went on to recognize the need for territorial adjustments in any Israeli-Palestinian accord. They presented this flexible formula as a basis for the resumption of negotiation to Secretary of State John Kerry last week, just as the situation on Israel’s northern border became more volatile.

And yet official Israel remains at best lukewarm – if not downright indifferent. It is no longer possible to believe Prime Minister Netanyahu’s assurances of his commitment to an agreement based on the two-state concept if he keeps rejecting every offer that is presented, especially when such an overture holds the promise of normalization between Israel and its neighbors. This government does not have the luxury of procrastination: it must either embrace the Arab Peace Initiative now or suggest its own program for how to achieve the goals it contains.

The objective of the Arab League plan deserves repetition: the “establishment of normal relations in the context of a comprehensive peace with Israel” in return for Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967. Specifically, the member states of the Arab League pledge themselves not only to the normalization of relations with Israel, but also to “consider the Arab-Israel conflict ended, and enter into a peace agreement with Israel, and provide security for all the states of the region.” This promise undeniably constitutes the concrete articulation of Israel’s prime collective aspiration since its inception, as embodied in its Declaration of Independence.

In order to reach this goal, the original document requires Israel to move back from “all the territories occupied since 1967, including the Syrian Golan Heights, to the June 4, l967 lines.” The updated 2013 iteration allows for land swaps in keeping with changed realities on the ground. The Arab Peace Initiative (API) also calls for a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem on the basis of UN General Assembly Resolution 194. Most importantly, it demands that Israel accept “the establishment of a sovereign independent Palestinian state on the Palestinian territories occupied since June 4, 1967 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital”.

The trajectory laid forth by the API therefore makes the normalization of Israel’s position in the Middle East contingent on the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conundrum. In essence, it places bilateral negotiations within a broader context and suggests that outstanding disputes with Israel’s neighbors (specifically the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon) be handled within an overriding regional perspective.

Such a strategic conjoining has multiple advantages. It aligns current and future overtures of any Israeli government with those of the vast majority of its neighbors. It places Israeli thinking (and subsequent action) firmly within the context of contemporary global trends, in which the fragmented international community, plagued by the lethal rise of militant non-state actors and the immobility of international institutions, is systematically attempting to bolster viable regional groupings. The uncertainty unleashed by the Arab uprising against authoritarian regimes makes the promise inherent in the plan even more appealing in the long term. Today, just as when the API was initially promulgated, Israel faces the choice of either consciously becoming a part of the Middle East bloc, or finding itself effectively isolated from global currents. The difference lies in the fact that now time is running out.

In effect, the Arab League trajectory is the only one that gives meaning to Israel’s diplomatic efforts. Its vision of a new Middle East is Israel’s as well. Israel should therefore have responded positively to the original call “…to accept this initiative in order to safeguard the prospects for peace and stop the further shedding of blood, enabling the Arab countries and Israel to live in peace and good neighborliness and provide future generations with security, stability and prosperity.” Israel has even more reason to embrace the modified and moderated version proposed this year.

That has not happened to date. Ostensibly, the reason for the hesitation of the new government lies in its reluctance to be tied to a formula which derives from the 1967 boundaries. But this justification is beyond specious: the Palestinian Authority and now the Arab League’s declared willingness to consider changes in the Green Line, coupled with overt assurances by the Obama administration in this regard, obviate this fear.

All this makes it even more difficult to explain the new government’s foot-dragging. One way of understanding the present situation rests in internal priorities. The peace process is not really on the Israeli agenda today: much more important are domestic issues and the Iranian and Syrian threats. In these circumstances, the new coalition and its leaders feel that they can get away with ignoring the steps inherent in the renewal of the API under American auspices. Another possibility is that there is no determined domestic pressure, but that is only partly correct. In April 2011 an impressive group of political, business, academic and security leaders launched the Israeli Peace Initiative, which was designed to be an Israeli response to – and elaboration of – the Arab League plan. One of the key people behind this move was Yaacov Peri, now Minister of Science, Technology and Space. When the details are presented to the Israeli public, the terms of the API and its Israeli counterpart continue to enjoy broad popular support.

Inescapably, therefore, it appears that those who claim that this Netanyahu government, like its predecessor, really doesn’t want to advance on the path to peace may be right. It is content to mouth various truisms, proclaim its commitment to two states and insist that it wants to resume negotiations, but essentially it continues to be the proverbial nay-sayer. In this way, it is not only compromising Israel’s character as a democratic state and the homeland of the Jewish people, it is also threatening its ultimate survival.

Israel must now take the long overdue step and announce that it is dedicated to realizing both the letter and the spirit of the Arab Peace Initiative. This would be its historic contribution to regional stability, to reconciliation and to Israel’s own secure future.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.