I wonder if the Israeli government now regrets that it didn’t consider the Arab League peace offer that was first issued in 2002 and then again in 2007. Every Arab state signed it and it was strongly backed by the Saudis who, in fact, drafted it.
It’s now called the Arab League Initiative but it actually began as a proposal by Saudi King Abdullah to Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. Friedman announced it to the world in his column and it evolved, almost incredibly, into a full blown offer to Israel by the entire Arab world (yes, every single Arab country and the Palestinians). In exchange for a return to the ’67 borders, Israel would not only achieve peace but normalization of relations with the Arab world: trade, travel, educational and cultural exchanges, security arrangements etc.
The precise wording was this: in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem:
The Arab countries affirm the following:
(I) Consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended, and enter into a peace agreement with Israel, and provide security for all the states of the region; (II) Establish normal relations with Israel in the context of this comprehensive peace
The Arab League Initiative is not a full-blown peace treaty. It is rather a framework under which Israel would conduct negotiations with the goal of reaching agreements on all the critical points including the issues of “return” and Jerusalem. Nothing would be dictated to either side; nothing could take effect without full agreement by both sides.
In essence, the Arab League Initiative was a golden offer to Israel by every single Arab state (the end of conflict and isolation in return for giving up the lands won in the 1967 war. The Palestinian Authority also signed it and Hamas said that if a deal was reached, it would not “contradict the Arab consensus.”
But Israel refused to seriously consider it and, at Israel’s request, neither did the United States.. That pretty much killed it although the offer is still out there, ready for Israel to seize the opportunity at any time.
Of course, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government have never indicated any interest in a deal that requires giving up the occupied territories, which, of course, rules out any deal at all. However, given the changes in Israel’s regional standing since 2007, even Israeli right-wingers might be willing to rethink now.
Just look at the changes since 2007.
In 2007, when the Arab League Initiative was last issued, Israel’s most important ally President Hosni Mubarak was firmly in power. For 30 years, Mubarak was the guarantee that Israel would not have to worry about war with its powerful neighbor to the west. That was because Mubarak scrupulously adhered to its terms. Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood government has not indicated that it will back away from the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty but, no doubt about it, its future is dim.
The moderate Palestinian Authority is weaker than ever before. Due largely to the fact that it has not been able to achieve the return of any Palestinian land from Israel, and the failure of its attempt to declare statehood, it appears feckless and weak. Palestinians view it as a tool of Israel. Meanwhile, Hamas has become thoroughly entrenched in Gaza and its Muslim Brotherhood allies are now in power in Egypt.
Hezbollah, formerly only a Shiite terrorist group now plays a dominant role in the Lebanese government. It is believed to possess 20,000 rockets which could reach Israel. In 2006, it launched some 4,000 of those rockets, causing the evacuation of northern Israel.
Turkey, since 1948 Israel’s staunch Muslim ally, turned against the Israeli government as a result of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and an Israeli attack on a Turkish ship that was sailing there with relief supplies for its population. The two countries are now barely on speaking terms.
And now the Assad government is on the verge of collapse. The Assad regime, although rhetorically hostile to Israel, has maintained peace with it since the 1973 war. Israelis view the Syrian regime, much as they viewed Mubarak’s, as totalitarians who maintained stability and the status quo. The replacement of Assad by a more militantly pan-Arab regime will mean more trouble for Israel
And then there is Iran, which – whether it is developing nuclear weapons or not – successfully uses the 45-year occupation as a pretext to assert leadership among Arabs. As supposed champions of Muslim interests (including the Palestinians) the Iranians have gained considerable respect in the Arab world. This is ironic because Arabs and Persians have traditionally been hostile to each other; the Israeli occupation has helped create a new unnatural (and utterly cynical) alliance.
Israel is more isolated than ever before. And, if it attacks Iran, it is likely to lose any chance for ever achieving peace with the Muslim world. That might, however, be the least of its losses,
The bottom line is that the status quo no longer works to Israel’s advantage. Every day its position grows weaker as the region it is located in becomes more and more radical, and forces militantly opposed to Israel replace those who seemed more than willing to live with it.
It is hard to know if Israel’s situation is salvageable. It just may be too late to recover from the mistakes it made when opportunities like the Arab Initiative presented themselves. Of course, the Palestinians missed their share of opportunities as well although they were understandably shell-shocked by the events of 1947-1948.
The change now is that events are moving the situation if not necessarily in the Palestinians’ favor, then definitely in opposition to Israel’s. After all, the new forces that are taking over the region have one thing in common: hate for the Israeli occupation and a determination to end it. And, on that score, they have an ally in Iran which cares little about the Palestinians but are quite good at using their plight to build support among all Muslims.
President Obama needs to explain all this to the Israelis. He needs to tell them that not only has their regional situation deteriorated, they do not have the standing in Washington that they once did either. Every poll on the issue show that Democrats have become increasingly even-handed in their views of Israel and the Palestinians while the more hawkish Republicans are suddenly split between the long dominant neocons and the more isolationist view held by Ron and Rand Paul. As for the lobby, Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as Secretary of Defense demonstrates it is no longer all-powerful.
It’s time Israel read the handwriting on the wall. It should stop any expansion of settlements and fully end the blockade of Gaza, as first step towards acknowledging its new situation. Those actions alone would restore its friendship with Turkey. And it should acknowledge through words and deed that it is ready for negotiations based on the Arab League Initiative.
Negotiations won’t start now, in the midst of the current turbulence in Syria and elsewhere. But Israel needs to be ready as soon as the dust settles. Additionally, it should end its threats toward Iran and let the Obama administration know that it favors lifting sanctions in return for tangible steps by Iran toward ensuring that its nuclear program is a civilian program and will remain one. Currently it supports “crippling sanctions” until Iran gives up its right to nuclear development. That simply won’t fly, simply because it offers Iran nothing in return for it giving up something.
All those who care about the survival and security of Israel should encourage it to take these steps. It is no act of friendship to encourage Israel to dig in when the tides of history are running against it. Israel is too important to be lost because its leaders refused to accept “yes” as an answer. That is what the Arab League initiative is: a big yes. I just hope that the offer is still there because, if it isn’t, it is hard to imagine another way for Israel to break out of its current predicament.
If the United States is truly Israel’s ally, and not just its enabler, that is the message President Obama will deliver to Israel loud and clear. Supporting Israel’s current course may be politically safe but it is no act of friendship. In fact, it is quite the opposite. There is no excuse for America not to help Israel avoid looming catastrophe, none at all.