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The Arab Peace Initiative

Saturday 31 March 2007, by Azmi Bishara

According to the US and Israeli foreign ministers, the Arab peace initiative is a non-binding Arab position for which the Arabs deserve a pat on the back and a friendly nudge to modify it. The very quality of eliciting such encouragement is what keeps the initiative from being an initiative.

Evidently, the Israeli foreign minister refuses to believe that history began before the elections that brought her into government four years ago. After the neo-conservative school of foreign policy failed so miserably in the Arab world and after the roadmap wandered so deeply into a maze of oblivion that it needs a new roadmap to find its way out, she and her American counterpart need to latch on to something. But such is their newfound flexibility that all they see is an Arab "position", and an unworkable one at that.

Maybe what was required was a new Arab initiative announced during the incumbencies of these two administrations. Then they might have called it an initiative. Better yet, perhaps the Arabs should come up with a new proposal, every three or four years, modifying the "positions" that had once constituted the cardinal points of the previous peace initiative, so as to placate every new set of American envoys. Then, in 20 years or so, after four or five Israeli governments and American administrations have come and gone, the Arabs will approve of Israel’s annexation of a large chunk of the occupied West Bank and they’ll feel grateful that Israel not only asked them to recognise just plain Israel but also Article 7a of its organic law in which it describes itself as a Jewish and democratic state. Anything is possible as long as Israel finds Arabs who argue, "it’s better to accept what’s on offer now, before we’re forced to accept something worse."

Such is the fate of a peace initiative that emanates from the dynamics of weakness. Without a victory to make the tenets of a peace initiative more compelling or the ability to alter the balance of power in favour of the authors of the initiative, the initiative remains no more than a proposal in need of more alterations. This is why an initiative maker is either a neutral party who wishes to mediate between antagonistic parties that cannot reach a middle ground on their own, or a victorious party who seeks to translate a military victory into a political one, or an otherwise powerful party that has the power to impose the initiative. As for an initiative that is forwarded hypothetically, it can only be interpreted as a form of backing down and is certain to whet the adversary’s appetite for more concessions. Real life is not made up of the simulation games played in the strategic study centres that live off Arab-Israeli dialogues.

Of the latter sort of initiative is the type intended to placate the adversary and curry favour with its allies. The Arab initiative is of this sort, and those who counsel this sort are the Arabs’ "friends" and their advisors from the American and Israeli Zionist left. According to these people, Israel has no objection to a just solution. Israel’s just afraid that the Arabs are out to destroy it and throw the Israelis into the sea. The Israelis aren’t racist, they’re just nervous. Therefore, what the Arabs have to do is to put the Israelis’ minds at rest. Where have the Arabs encountered this fear before? Oh yes. That was the fear that drove the Palestinians into the desert and that caused cluster bombs to fall on the villages of southern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley and Jabal Amel. That is one terrifying fear. Now the Arabs are expected to sympathise with that very understandable fear of the Palestinian right to return, the fear of restoring Jerusalem to the Arabs, and the fear of withdrawing to pre-June 1967 borders. And soon afterwards will follow the fear of a rupture in Israel’s national unity. Some Arabs have already hastened to soothe such misgivings. They were probably acting in deference to the demands aired by the Israeli foreign minister during a recent American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference. Even Benyamin Netanyahu would have been embarrassed to tell the Arabs what that mild and moderate foreign minister did via her speech to the powerful pro- Israeli lobby. What the Arab governments have to do, she said, is to normalise their relations with Israel so as to allay Israel’s fears, after which they should wait until Israel gradually changes. Perhaps, eventually, Israel would recognise the Palestinian national unity government and maybe even the Arabs.
The upshot of all these Arab efforts is that the situation has grown more and more perverse since the Arab initiative, which was quickly shunted aside by the roadmap. Suddenly, Sharon was hailed as a man of peace in spite of himself and he was forced to sit with a grin on his face in Sharm El-Sheikh as he listened to the Arabs describe his unilateral withdrawal plan from Gaza as an implementation stage of the roadmap. Even some outstripped the Arab proposal with an even greater spirit of initiative. Normally, of course, this is a very positive trait, one that is highly valued in capitalist societies since it is the antonym of the laziness, indifference and lack of initiative with which we Orientals are so often characterised. But in this instance, at least, there was no shortage of the spirit of initiative, especially when it came to pleasing the Americans by agreeing, for example, to lower the threshold of the Arab proposal to the level of the roadmap.

In theory, at least, the Arab position — as opposed to the position of the countries that have signed peace agreements with Israel — is as follows. They do not yet recognise Israel and the Palestinian cause revolves around the refugees and the whole of Palestine since partition in 1948. In addition, the relevant UN resolutions that the Arabs have approved are the basis of any just solution and according to these Israel should unconditionally withdraw to pre-June 1967 borders. The Arab peace initiative was presumably conceived as a way to bridge the gap between the Arab position and the Israel one. If Israel is rejecting that initiative then logic would seem to demand that the Arabs return to their original position, instead of turning the initiative into a new starting point for bridging the gap between the new Arab position and the old Israeli one. Otherwise put, as long as Israel insists on snubbing the Arab peace initiative or on treating it as a menu from which it can pick what it fancies then send back what it orders and ask the kitchen to come up with something new, Arab officials should simply reiterate their original position as the only other alternative and stress that if Israel doesn’t like what’s on offer now then perhaps it’s time to come up with a peace initiative of its own.

The Arabs were wrong to have produced that initiative in the post-11 September climate. They couldn’t have chosen a worse time. But now that it has been unanimously approved and signed, they should wait for Israel to accept it rather than scurrying back into further deliberations at the first sign of disapproval.

Or better yet, why not turn the tables a bit? If Israel were really afraid, then it must realise that Arab recognition and peace are the best guarantees for its safety and security. So let Israel come up with a peace initiative for the Arabs to have a look at and say, "bravo, but it will take some tweaking here and there and a few concrete steps to allay our fears." By all means, there is plenty that Israel could do to demonstrate its good intentions. It could, for example, halt settlement construction and dismantle the settlements that it had promised to remove. It could cease its policy of "targeted" assassinations. It could abide by The Hague court ruling on the separating wall, could declare its intention to withdraw to pre-June 1967 borders, and could rescind laws pertaining to the annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Such are the steps that need to be taken to reassure the Arabs that Israel wants peace.

This is how countries — fully sovereign countries that is — manage their foreign affairs, regardless of such internal divisions as "moderate" and "extremist". If they negotiate, they do so as negotiating partners, drawing on their respective strengths in order to adhere as much as possible to their original positions. The same logic applies to negotiations between an occupying power and a people under occupation. Unless the occupying power recognises the right of the occupied people to self-determination and declares its intent to withdraw, what you have is not negotiations but another form of bullying, and calling the people sitting around the negotiating table "the two sides" doesn’t alter that fact. This is why liberation movements resolve to sustain the resistance and not to negotiate with the occupying power and somehow manage to reconcile the demands of resistance with the demands of day-to-day life until the occupying power declares its readiness to lift the occupation. Only then is there really something to negotiate over.

In Palestine, the liberation movement switched track and began to dream that the occupying power would recognise it. Once that dream was realised, the Palestine Liberation Organisation became one of "two sides", and was then fragmented and reduced to a hypothetical political entity that consisted of remnants of the liberation movement and that enjoyed none of the prerogatives of sovereignty. Eventually, however, the people under occupation were given the opportunity to hold legislative elections and they returned a parliament that produced a government that rejected the post-Oslo game. This government was willing to rule for the very reason it was elected: it stood as a liberation movement determined to fight the occupation. At the same time, however, this government opposed negotiations with Israel, but in order to stay in power it delegated members of its political opponents — the very people who disintegrated the liberation movement and led the hypothetical political entity — to enter into negotiations, yet without devising a mechanism to keep negotiators in line. In other words, the government may not have negotiated, but it did not turn its rejection of negotiations into a binding position and it had no way of ensuring that negotiations would not jeopardise the national movement’s fixed priorities. Perhaps, one day, it will wake up to the fact that to Israel and the US a Palestinian government consists of no more than a Palestinian Authority president and his advisors who agree to negotiate on Israel’s terms. But this subject is better left to another day.

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