Back to the Arab Peace Initiative?

Back to the Arab Peace Initiative?

By Yossi Beilin, i24

1.6.15
 
The Israeli right has maintained for decades that the real problem between us and the Arabs is their refusal to recognize the State of Israel. It is not the lack of a solution to the Palestinian problem, but the Arabs’ inability to accept Israel’s existence, the rightist claims, that stands between us and peace. The 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty has validated the right wing’s claim to a certain extent. It is a historic fact that at the time, almost all Arab states cut diplomatic relations with Egypt, the most important Arab country, and even the Arab League’s headquarters were relocated from Cairo to Tunis. But then came the Saudi-led Arab Initiative, approved by all of the Arab states in March of 2002.
 
The Arab states told Israel: If you reach peace with your neighbors, we will normalize our relations with you. It was, by far, the most dramatic event in the recent history of Israel and the Arab world. However Israel, led by Ariel Sharon, was not willing to acknowledge the importance of the moment. Palestinian terrorism was at its height, mutual trust had reached a record low, the left wing was weakened and the right - which felt that its main diplomatic argument was threatened by the peace with Egypt - presented the Arab Initiative as an Arab PR ploy, which would lead to the destruction of Israel.
 
Throughout the years some positive things have been said about the Arab Initiative, mainly by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former President Shimon Peres. But Israel failed to grab the bull by its horns and never really offered to have serious negotiations about the initiative. It is true that the Arab states did not aggressively market it, either, and were satisfied with its re-approval every few years, as if to say: “We have done our share, now it is Israel’s turn.”
 
Last week, at a briefing for reporters, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted for the first time that the Arab Initiative has some “positive elements, alongside its negative ones.” Netanyahu did not detail what the positive elements were, but he most likely meant that normalization of ties with Israel was a positive aspect, whilst the compromise Israel would have to do to earn this normalization was the negative one.
 
The interpretation given to Netanyahu’s comments, in Israel and around the world, was that before the March election he had veered to the right in order to get support from that side of the political map, and ever since he has been pulling to the left because he understands that the world will never accept his narrow government’s hardline positions.
 
This might be a correct analysis, but in my opinion it is no longer relevant. Netanyahu’s famous 2009 Bar Ilan speech, in which he expressed support for the two- state solution, was important - even if Netanyahu was not entirely sincere in his intentions and aimed his words at the ears of the newly elected US President Barack Obama.
 
Peace supporters must now find out what exactly Netanyahu meant in his comments to reporters. Was it a belated interpretation to a proposal tabled 13 years ago, or is it a willingness to act now in order to see if the Arab side reciprocates. Ever since the failure of US Secretary John Kerry’s Israeli-Palestinian peace talks last March, Netanyahu has been talking about the need for a multilateral dialogue with the Arab side. Not excited by the prospect of negotiating with Israel alone, the Palestinian side has been saying similar things. An announcement by Netanyahu that he is willing to sit down any where, any time, with representatives of the Arab League, including the Palestinians, might change the state of affairs and turn a new page in the relationship with the Arab states, especially in light of our new common interest - the fight against the Islamic State and the need to restrain Iran.
 
Negotiations with the Arab states will not ignore the Palestinian issue or soften the compromise Israel will have to make, but the knowledge of the normalization that could follow an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement just might breathe life into the diplomatic process, which Israel cannot afford to see die.
 
Yossi Beilin is president of the business consulting firm Beilink. In the past he served as a minister in three Israeli governments and as a Member of Knesset for Labor and Meretz. He was one of the pioneers of the Oslo Accords, the Geneva Initiative and Birthright.