Friday, April 13, 2007

Why the Arab peace initiative should not be rejected



Commenting on the 2002 Arab peace initiative, Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery once remarked, "Every international initiative designed to put an end to the conflict passes through three stages: denial, misrepresentation, liquidation." He said that was how "both Labour and Likud governments have succeeded in scuttling every peace plan put forward." Sure enough, the Saudi initiative put forward that year was quickly liquidated -- and followed by a military buildup in the Palestinian territories.

Today, that same 2002 initiative has made a comeback, endorsed by the Arab League. It calls for Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines; the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.

In return, the Arabs offer Israel a peace agreement and normal relations.

Despite the promise, Israel seems intent on yet another rejection -- not outright, but by demanding conditions that kill the spirit of the offer. So, while publicly welcoming the initiative, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rules out a full withdrawal from the West Bank, and rejects any refugee return. "I don't think that we should accept any kind of responsibility for the creation of this [refugee] problem," he told the Jerusalem Post, in a step-back from Ehud Barak's 2000 position. Mr. Barak allowed that Israel would recognize the Palestinian right to return in principle, but would have the right to determine how many refugees would be allowed to exercise it.

The positive reception the peace initiative received in the United States and Europe has obliged Mr. Olmert to put a positive spin on his reaction. He has now proposed a regional peace conference or a meeting with moderate Arab leaders and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas under Saudi auspices "to hear them [ideas] and be glad to offer our ideas." Neither option is taken seriously.
First, the Arab initiative is not a menu of individual "ideas" that Mr. Olmert can pick and chose from, but a proposal for a comprehensive peace. Second, such a conference would, itself, entail broader normalization of relations with Israel, something many Arab states will confer only once Palestinian rights are achieved, not before.

The incremental process favoured by Israel in dealing with the Palestinians overlooks the asymmetry between the two sides, and puts the onus on Palestinians. What ought to be points to discuss at a negotiating table are made preconditions designed to ensure that no discussions ever take place or else requiring Palestinians to accept Israel's position. The demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel should be matched by Israel's recognition of the Palestinians' own elected government.

Israel's demand that Palestinians renounce violence ignores the continuing settlement expansion, the destruction of Palestinian infrastructure and the turning of their daily life into an Orwellian ordeal. Palestinians deserve respect, security and, above all, freedom. The absence of these is what justifies their moral claim to retaliation.

It's been said Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, suggesting the fault for the failures of past peace initiatives lies on the Arab side. This is not true. The Rogers initiative during the Nixon years and the Reagan plan of 1982 both spoke of a Palestinian state in the territories and a freeze on Israeli settlements. Both were rejected by Israel.

Mr. Barak's offer at Camp David, from which Yasser Arafat "walked away," proposed a Palestinian state broken up by settlements, Israeli security zones and access roads. The West Bank of which Mr. Barak was said to have offered 95 per cent to the Palestinians did not include the suburbs of Jerusalem unilaterally annexed by Israel, or the security areas that would be under Israeli control for 20 years.

Indeed, a viable Palestinian state has not been what successive Israeli governments had in mind. Even Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the Oslo Accords, told the Knesset in 1995 that the permanent solution he envisioned would provide Israel with "most of the area of the Land of Israel as it was under the rule of the British Mandate, and alongside it a Palestinian entity." He explained: "We would like this to be an entity which is less than a state," and added: "We will not return to the 4 June 1967 lines." It is in Israel's own interest to find a peaceful solution that will satisfy the needs of Palestinians. To this end, Israeli leaders need to abandon the destructive and faulty narrative that all the giving is done by Israel and all the taking by Palestinians. It won't be easy, but just as de Gaulle overcame opposition within his country to end the colonization of Algeria, and South Africa's de Klerk presided over the dismantling of apartheid, Israel's leaders can rise to the moment.

Mr. Olmert can look for ways to liquidate this latest peace initiative or he can turn it into a lasting peace. Canada should encourage him to accept the opportunity.

Bahija Réghaï is president of the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations.

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