Friday, September 24, 2010

The Arab Peace Initiative

Among the things remaining unclear in the aftermath of the visit to Washington last week of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the next negotiating move of the Palestinians. President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has warned that if his objectives in the "proximity talks" mediated by the U.S. are not achieved by mid-September, he will ask the Arab League to press harder with its 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. This document has become part of the verbiage of international declarations on the Arab-Israel conflict. According to the American envoy George Mitchell, it has also been incorporated into the Obama administration's peacemaking strategy. What is it?

The initiative was born after the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States, carried out by Muslim terrorists fifteen of whom were citizens of Saudi Arabia. Recognizing that his kingdom's image as a viper's nest of Islamic fanaticism undermined its vital relationship with Washington, and in the midst of the Palestinians' murderous second intifada against Israel's civilian population, Crown Prince (now King) Abdullah invited New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to Riyadh to present a peace plan. The plan was touted as offering Israel "full normalization" of relations with the Arab and Muslim world in exchange for an Israeli "full withdrawal" to the armistice boundaries in place from 1949 until the outset of the 1967 Six-Day War.

The following month, an already watered-down version of Abdullah's plan was officially adopted by an Arab League summit in Beirut. Its inauspicious unveiling took place on the day after the ghastly terrorist suicide-bombing of a Passover Seder in Israel's coastal town of Netanya. In a muted reaction to the plan, Jerusalem acknowledged that it did reverse the League's long-standing policy of "No peace, no negotiation, no recognition" set forth at its infamous August 1967 Khartoum summit.

Yet the plan did little else. Instead of offering the promised "full normalization," it vaguely held out a "full peace," presumably along the cold Egyptian model. It also referred to UN General Assembly Resolution 194, commonly understood to grant the 700,000 Arab refugees from the 1948 war, along with millions of their descendants, the right to "return" to a now-truncated Israel in what would amount to a demographic death-knell to the Jewish state. The initiative absolved the Arab countries of any responsibility for absorbing their Palestinian brethren. And by calling for a withdrawal from all territory captured by Israel in the Six-Day war, the initiative patently rejected Security Council Resolution 242, which since 1967 has been the sine qua non of all peacemaking efforts. Nor did the initiative make even a fleeting mention of the inalienable rights of the Jewish people to a national homeland. Finally, it was put forward as a non-negotiable, take-it-or-leave-it diktat.

In the eight years since the initiative was announced, the Palestinian polity has been torn asunder, with the comparatively less extreme Fatah running West Bank affairs and the rejectionist Hamas ruling the Gaza Strip. With the Palestinians thus fragmented and the Arab League frozen in intransigence by radical forces, can anything transform this dead-letter initiative into a linchpin for peace?

Egypt and Jordan broke with the Arab consensus to make their separate peace with Israel. No one expects that kind of courage out of Riyadh. But what if the Saudis were to announce that, from their point of view, the plan is an overture, i.e., not a diktat but a starting point for direct negotiations with Israel?

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