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This commentary is one of a series of ten articles of views on “The Arab Peace Initiative” commissioned by the Common Ground News Service in partnership with Al-Hayat newspaper and reprinted by other regional news and media outlets. The article may be reproduced by any news or media outlet free of charge. In case of publishing, please indicate: This article is part of a series of views on “The Arab Peace Initiative” distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Series Article Eight:
An Israeli View of the Arab Peace Initiative

Shimon Shamir

The debate on the question of whether any solution to the protracted conflict between Palestinians and Israelis exists at all has been going on for a very long time. A school of thought is apparent among politicians, observers and academics, claiming that there is simply no way of bridging the wide gap between the aspirations of these two peoples. Political scientists have been warning their publics that the notion that every international conflict can be resolved is a misleading illusion.

No absolutely valid method of refuting these claims exists, yet it seems that certain developments in the last 3-4 years tend to point in the opposite direction. In various political contexts, and by a variety of political actors, blueprints for a Palestinian-Israeli agreement, which substantial parts of the two societies could endorse, have emerged in this period. Notable among these are the Clinton Parameters, the points on which agreements were reached in Camp David and Taba, the Saudi Initiative, the understandings formulated by Palestinian-Israeli track-two forums (the Nusseibeh-Ayalon Principles, the Geneva Accord), and the Quartet’s Road Map. These developments make it possible to envisage a credible peace agreement which will constitute a mixture of elements from all these plans.

Such an agreement will fall short of the maximalist demands of the two parties, but it will address realistically their basic objectives and interests. Israelis who believe that their overwhelming military superiority will enable them to impose on the Palestinians terms that go beyond this peace package show that they have learned nothing. Palestinians who entertain the hope that suicide bombings and terrorism can get them more than what this package offers simply indulge in wishful thinking.

It thus may be said that while in the past the problem was how to draw up a plausible peace plan, today common ground can be visualized which leaves the two sides with the question of how to get there as their main problem. In a sudden moment of inspiration, Ehud Barak stated that “a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict already exists, the only question is how many more people must get killed before it is implemented.”

Among the various peace plans mentioned above, the Initiative of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah occupies a special place. The Initiative had many merits. It emanated from a prestigious Arab state that is influential in defining the limits of Arab legitimacy. It was unilaterally proposed by a government which is free from the constraints of direct involvement in Israeli-Arab hostilities. The Initiative called for a comprehensive settlement that would terminate the conflict. From an Israeli point of view, it was highly significant that the Initiative addressing directly the Israeli people recognized Israel’s right to security and acceptance by its Arab neighbors. Above all, it called, for the first time, for establishing “normal relations” between Israel and the Arab states. It thus endorsed the concept of normalization that has become anathema to Arabs, including many in the countries which have peace and normalization agreements with Israel. These see it as an instrument of Israeli penetration and domination whereas for Israelis it remains the ultimate test of the sincerity of peace overtures and readiness for stable peace.

All this refers to the original Saudi Initiative rather than to the final resolutions of the Arab summit in Beirut in which original Saudi formulations were eroded. This did not surprise veteran observers of the group dynamics of Arab summitry, which usually gravitates toward more rigid positions, but it provides a partial explanation for the lukewarm reception of the Initiative by Israelis. The demand set down by the Beirut Declaration that Israel accept an unqualified right of return for Palestinian refugees, which replaced a more vague wording in the Saudi document, crossed an Israeli red line.

For Israelis, both hawks and doves, an influx of refugees that will upset the demographic balance goes against the very essence of the two-state solution which calls (just as the 1947 UN partition plan had) for the establishment of a Jewish state beside the Palestinian state. This principle belongs to the Israeli hard core positions, just as Palestinian statehood, 1967 borders and sovereignty in Arab Jerusalem constitute Palestinian hard core positions. The Declaration has thus ignored the fact that the feasibility of Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking depends on readiness for a trade-off that respects the two parties’ red lines.

There were also other factors explaining the limited impact of the Saudi Initiative on the Israeli public not to mention the reaction of the radical Right which becomes apprehensive in the face of any Arab peace offer. The credibility of the Initiative was hurt, too, by the realization that the Initiative was born in the context of the Saudi-American dialogue, targeting Washington rather than Jerusalem. On top of it all, came the Netanya suicide bombing that killed twenty worshippers in a Passover ceremony. This brutal terrorist act shocked even the Israelis who had already been accustomed to suicide bombings, and it created an atmosphere that was hardly receptive to Arab messages.

Yet, the Saudi Initiative remains an important sign-post on the torturous road to the end of the conflict. The Initiative, along with the other peace plans, generated a wealth of potentialities for the political process. What Israelis and Palestinians need now to develop these potentialities are visionary and courageous leaderships. Such leaderships should have the capability of dismantling settlements on the Israeli side and subduing militant Islamist organizations on the Palestinian side. They should be able to facilitate a fruitful political process by putting an end to the cycle of violence and to activities that change the situation on the ground. Perhaps their most crucial tasks will lie in the realm of the mind: overcoming distrust, fear, prejudice and ideological fixations. They should find ways to break out from the Israeli catch-22 notion of no reward to terror and from the Palestinian “sacrifice trap” of escalating demands and sacrifices in order to justify previous ones.

What is at stake is not just the security, well-being and future of the Palestinians and the Israelis, but the ability of the region as a whole to divert its energies and resources to the advancing of human development based on the rational principles of cultural pluralism, civil rights, economic cooperation and openness to the world.

Shimon Shamir is head of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for Diplomacy and Regional Cooperation, and former Israeli Ambassador to Egypt and Jordan.

From the Common Ground News Service
hagalil.com 18-12-2003

hagalil.com 28-12-2003



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