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Discussing the Arab Peace Initiative

The Arab Peace Initiative in its 2002 and 2007 incarnations has met with two categories of responses in Israel. The Israeli Right has denounced and rejected it for several reasons. It is opposed to the notion of withdrawal to the 1967 lines, it is opposed to withdrawal from the Golan Heights that is implied thereby and it is skeptical and critical of the fashion in which the issue of the "right of return" is dealt with by the API. To Israeli skeptics, the API represents yet another, more sophisticated attempt to push Israel into a settlement that would entail an Israeli commitment for full withdrawal while keeping open the issues of the Palestinian refugees and the demand for a full "return" as well as the question of full recognition of Israel and its legitimacy.

Israeli policy-makers and analysts who do believe in Israel-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian peace take a more complex view of the API. They recognize the value of the Arab consensus endorsing the settlement and its Israeli-Palestinian component in particular, and feel that a full reconciliation with the Arab world would help the Israeli public and political system deal with the agonizing concessions that such an agreement would entail.

But those Israelis who see the sunny side of the API cannot ignore either the problems posed by its text or the other issues and questions that it raises. In this regard, the main problem raised by the text is its open-ended approach to the refugee issue. The 2002 Beirut summit final communique (though not the actual summit resolution as then published) was quite explicit and disappointing in this regard. It demanded full implementation of "the right of return of the Palestinian refugees based on the resolutions of international legitimacy and international law including General Assembly Resolution 194" and rejected "any solution that includes their settlement away from their homes".

This clearly was unacceptable to Israel and to a significant portion of the international community and was superseded in 2007 by a reaffirmation of the 2002 resolution: "The Arab League further calls upon Israel to affirm... . Achievement of a just solution to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194" and "assures the rejection of all forms of Palestinian patriation which conflict with the special circumstances of the Arab host countries".

These formulations represent significant improvements over the 2002 communique but they still leave important issues in need of clarification. First, in the history of the Arab-Israel conflict, "just" has been an Arab term representing the need (from an Arab perspective) to rectify the original "injustice" of 1948. It is important to clarify whether this is still a code word or merely a relic of traditional rhetoric.

Second, it is important to clarify what the reference to General Assembly Resolution 194 stands for: an elegant retreat from the traditional demand of "return" or a clever way to exit through the main door merely in order to return through the back window. Third, in the API statement that a just solution would be "agreed upon", Israel is presumably given a veto over any idea or measure that it finds unacceptable. But what happens when Israel vetoes Palestinian or other Arab demands: a stalemate and crisis or further movement forward?

Fourth is the issue of "patriation". Much ink has been spilled by Israeli experts who have debated in recent years whether the Arabic "tawtin" stands for patriation or for the granting of citizenship. There is a clear contradiction between the apparent waiving of the "right of return" and the rejection of "tawtin". If the refugees and their offspring would not return to Israel proper but would also not be settled in the Arab world, where would they end up? The final 2007 version refers more coherently to "the special circumstances" of the host countries and may be directed at the specific case of Lebanon but it could also open the way for countries like Syria and Iraq to raise objections.

So much for textual analysis, which has its own importance particularly in a region and in the context of a conflict where words and symbols are so potent. But it is equally important to look at the API as a potential tool for moving on in the peace process. The first step to be taken by Israel is to offer a serious response to the API. Whatever its flaws, the API has been a major step and it deserves a serious Israeli response.

Israel then needs to create some distance between the Arab League and the actual peace process. PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) committed a grave mistake by bringing the Arab League back into the process after Yasser Arafat's successful effort to guarantee the "independence of Palestinian decision-making". The Arab supporters of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement should be kept at a safe distance from meddling in the process, but close enough to be summoned in order to endorse controversial Palestinian decisions and concessions.

Once the process begins to roll, the need would arise to turn the brief general language of the API into the concrete language of a plan of action. It would likewise be important to separate the Syrian and Palestinian components of the issue. The API includes an insistence on Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines in the Golan too. Realistically, the present Israeli government (and future ones as well) will not be able to deal simultaneously with withdrawals in the Golan and the West Bank. The diplomatic challenge would be finding a formula for keeping one party engaged while progress is made with the other.

The time would then come to probe the refugee issues. The difficulties are well known. Moderate Palestinians tell their Israeli counterparts that they are only interested in the principle of "return" and in the actual return of a small number. This is not acceptable to the mainstream of Israeli moderates. They are not interested in a "principle" that smears Israel with an "original sin", nor are they interested in accepting even a small number of Palestinians into a country grappling with its relationship with an Arab minority of 20 percent that will soon enough amount to 25 percent.

Israel will have to be crystal clear and firm on this issue. There are ways in which Israel can demonstrate its empathy and take part in a rehabilitation effort, but it cannot and must not accept the principle of "return" or endorse its own "original sin". Israel successfully absorbed the Jewish communities of the Arab world. The massive refugee issues of the immediate post-WWII years, whether in Europe or in Southeast Asia, have all been resolved and practically forgotten. Now it is time to resolve the Palestinian refugee issue on a rational, practical basis. Any effort to keep it simmering or to adhere to open- ended formulae will not be acceptable.

Another issue concerns the position of Hamas and other Islamist groups. Some recent statements by Ismail Haniyyeh may indicate a change and an apparent willingness to endorse the notion of a political settlement. Closer scrutiny raises serious doubts. If a formula for moving on with the Palestinian mainstream is found, the position of Hamas and its ramifications should be checked thoroughly.

In practical terms, the following steps should be taken. Israel should coordinate its response and strategy with the United States. It should then announce that it is responding to the API and seeks to clarify some fundamental issues and questions and to turn a terse text into the potential basis for a new effort. It should insist on a practical separation of the Palestinian and Syrian tracks and on sequencing them, not as a ploy (as many in the Arab world see it) but as a practical necessity.

Such an Israeli response to the API would not be a panacea. It would not eliminate all the difficulties that have obstructed efforts to revive the peace process in recent years. But it could be a very fruitful first step. -Published 15/12/2010 © bitterlemons- Edition 4 Volume 1

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