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Time is ripe to end the Arab-Israeli conflict

By: Israeli President, Shimon Peres, The Times


President Obama's journey to Saudi Arabia and Egypt could be an opportunity. It reflects both the need for an historic change in the Middle East and a unique chance of achieving it.
Various ideas are being discussed. One significant concept is King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia's peace initiative which was adopted by the Arab League in Beirut. Much wisdom lies also in King Abdullah of Jordan's proposal of a “57-state solution” to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The kings are right in seeing both the proper destination and the surest path for its realisation. With the support of the leadership in Egypt, it seems the time is ripe to end the Israeli-Arab conflict once and for all.
Achieving this historic goal calls for a twin-track approach. It requires bilateral negotiations between Israel and each of its neighbours - the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon. And in tandem with this, a regional process of normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab states.
Such diplomatic architecture may introduce a win-win strategy for all parties. Support from the entire Arab world will provide legitimacy for the Palestinian Authority as it approaches the difficult task of making and then implementing historic compromises. At the same time it may reassure Israel that the painful concessions it will make will be rewarded by a broader, more enduring comprehensive peace across the region.
This approach is already set down in the internationally accepted “road map”. This framework outlines certain steps of normalisation towards Israel that must be taken by the Arab states as the bilateral process advances. In its second phase, it calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional borders that will serve as a step leading to permanent status. A similar plan was negotiated in the past. The Palestinians rejected provisional borders out of concern that they might become permanent. A regional agreement with American and European guarantees may assuage their doubts.
Looking back, I confess that well-formulated peace plans are not enough on their own. Something else is often required. Unforeseen events occasionally decide the fate of war and peace - like a whirling wind they can uproot long-held, stubborn mindsets. For instance, if the Israeli-Egyptian negotiations had been guided only by lawyers, I wonder if peace would have been reached so quickly.
What brought about the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, signed in 1979, was a journey of less than an hour - the time it took Anwar Sadat to fly from Cairo to Jerusalem. This hour changed the course of history in the Middle East. Not because it exerted pressure, but because it diminished old fears. It captured people's imaginations and created a turning point far more powerful than outside pressure. Israel and Egypt were surprised by the tremendous effect of this journey. It put an end to the history of suspicion.
King Abdullah of Jordan's father did something similar in 1997 after seven Israeli girls were murdered by a Jordanian soldier. Their families lived in Beit Shemesh, a town close to Jerusalem. King Hussein, disregarding protocol, surprisingly drove to Beit Shemesh, where he visited each and every one of the bereaved families. He sought genuine forgiveness. The impact of this unexpected gesture on the Israeli public was spectacular. To this very day, this visit is regarded as a turning point in the relations between our two countries.
A regional peace may have the same dramatic effect, provided that proper preparations are made. It may have the potential to shatter prejudices and overcome petty bargaining. However erudite and astute the negotiators, they cannot match the impact of such a gesture. A regional peace is more feasible today than ever before. The alternative to regional peace is a regional rift.
Many Arab leaders perceive hegemony-seeking Iran as a threat to their existence and identity. For them, the primary challenge is not Israel but the Iranian ayatollahs who seek domination over the Middle East, using terror and threats of unconventional weapons. Israel is increasingly viewed as a part of the new path for a regional solution. A regional security framework will also help Israel to secure its paramount interest of security.
A regional peace will also address vital challenges such as water shortages, environmental pollution and poverty. These problems seem national but they are regional - and so are their solutions. Resolving them depends on science and technology that recognise no borders. Europe kept its political borders but opened them up for progress. So can the nations of the Middle East.
To keep the wind of change blowing, we have to renew bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians, supported by clear economic and environmental incentives. The “economic peace” is not a substitute for “political peace”, but rather a catalyst for progress.
The regional leaders have to treat these options seriously - not as another photo-opportunity but in a substantive discussion aimed at opening the door towards comprehensive peace and regional economic development.
The positive spirit of the Arab peace initiative, together with the road map, provides a clear opportunity. Israel did not take part in the wording of the Arab peace initiative and, therefore, should not be expected to accept its every word. But Israel will refrain from imposing its own wording on other parties and is ready to negotiate common ground. Regional negotiations should start without preconditions.
His Majesty, the Jordanian King, is right to emphasise that this is a unique opportunity. It is time to sail the strong wind, which today is blowing in the right direction. There is no greater strength than the power of an idea that has come to fruition. That is the case for peace today.
The passengers are ready. The ship is waiting. It is time for the navigators to decisively take the helm.