Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The Muslim world and Israel – is peace possible?

To adapt W S Gilbert’s well-known lyric:

                             “They themselves have said it,
                              And it’s greatly to their credit…”

“They” are the 22 members of the Arab League (21 since last November, when Syria was suspended), but speaking now – according to their own website – for all 57 Muslim majority states, including Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia.

What have they said? It is contained in what is known as the “Arab Peace Initiative”, issued initially by the Arab League in 2002, subsequently readopted several times, and only a few months ago, as a gesture to US Secretary of State John Kerry, somewhat softened in interpretation.

On March 20, 2002, a few days ahead of a summit of the Arab League to be held in Beirut, then Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia electrified the assembled Arab foreign ministers by floating a peace plan for Palestine-Israel.

Basically, he called for peace with Israel in return for Israel withdrawing from all territories captured in the 1967 war and a "just settlement" of the Palestinian refugee crisis based on UN Resolution 194 (a sort of "right of return" or, for those who do not want to go back, agreed compensation). The quid pro quo for Israel’s acceptance of the plan would be that all 22 Arab States would consider the Arab–Israeli conflict over, sign a peace agreement and establish normal relations with Israel. The plan was discussed for a week, amendments were incorporated (notably a clause which prevented the 350,000 or more Palestinians living in Lebanon claiming Lebanese citizenship), and it was adopted on March 28, 2002.

Shortly after President Obama took office for the first time, George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, announced that the new administration intended to "incorporate" the Arab League’s initiative into its Middle East policy. During Obama’s first term the peace effort got as far as several face-to-face meetings between Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but petered out when Israel’s moratorium on construction in the West Bank came to an end.

Obama’s second term started with a clear intention by the new administration to give high priority to a renewed effort at brokering a deal between Israel and the Palestinians. This time the lead was to be taken not by a special envoy, but by the newly-appointed Secretary of State, John Kerry. He soon proved himself dedicated, tireless and unremitting in his effort to narrow the differences between the two sides to the point at which they would agree to meet. On April 29, 2013, he hosted an Arab League delegation in Washington, during which Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani for the first time signalled that a “comparable and mutual agreed minor swap of the land” would be an acceptable interpretation of the Arab peace initiative’s requirements.

When first issued, the initiative was perceived by the Israeli government as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, and they made no official response to the proposals. Within Israel, however, reactions divided as might be expected between right- and left-wing political opinion. What is not generally known, however, or has been forgotten, is that during Ehud Olmert’s premiership a semi-official Arab League delegation actually came to Jerusalem and discussed the Arab peace initiative with the prime minister and then foreign minister, Tzipi Livni.

Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Abul Gheit, and his Jordanian counterpart, Abdul Ilah Khatib, came to Israel on July 25, 2007. At a joint press conference in Jerusalem, Khatib said the offer he and his colleague had come to present was an “opportunity of historic magnitude — it will provide Israel with the security and recognition and acceptance in this region to which Israel has long aspired.” Gheit added that he planned to present a report to the Arab Ministerial Council within days and “then we shall probably suggest some ideas to strengthen and ensure the continuation of this process.”

They “were never heard of again,” said an Israeli Foreign Ministry official.

Opinion within Israel remains as divided as ever on the Arab peace plan. Only last week cabinet minister Yaakov Peri, his Yesh Atid party’s lead on peace talks and former head of Shin Bet, warmly endorsed it. "The initiative signals the path ahead," he said.

International Relations and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, is less enthusiastic. “No peace initiative can replace bilateral negotiations between us and the Palestinians,” he said in June. “We need to worry about genuine peace with genuine security — these items are not included in the Arab Peace Initiative…and it would not be right to discuss them with the entire Arab world.”

But this view is based on an “either-or” perception of peace negotiations – either the Arab peace initiative, or face-to-face negotiations between the PA and Israel. It would be more realistic to regard the prize offered by the Arab initiative – a peace agreement between Israel and the whole Muslim world, and the normalization of relations – as a bonus that would, in whole or in part, follow the conclusion of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. For the terms of an Israel-Palestine accord ending the interminable dispute would doubtless also fulfil the requirements of the initiative.

This interpretation of the situation may explain the persistent rumour that surfaced during an earlier Middle East visit by John Kerry. An authoritative speculation, which described itself as an “exclusive”, affirmed that Kerry had obtained the agreement of both Netanyahu and Abbas for a novel plan to run peace negotiations simultaneously on twin tracks. The first track would have Israel facing the Palestinian Authority (PA) across the table; the second would, for the first time ever, see Israel facing the Arab League in direct discussions.

Last month, speaking during a debate in the Knesset on the Arab peace initiative, Netanyahu said: "We are listening to every initiative - the Arab initiative has been mentioned - and we are prepared to discuss initiatives that are proposals and not edicts."

Opinion polls are notoriously unreliable – for public opinion is notoriously fickle – but one carried out in Israel in May indicated that 73.5 percent of Hebrew-speaking Israelis had never heard of the Arab initiative. When the plan was explained to them, though, 55 percent of respondents said they would support the initiative to some degree. When they were asked how they would respond if the prime minister backed the initiative, the number of supporters jumped to 69 percent.

In short, if the Arab peace initiative were in some way associated with, or incorporated into, meaningful bilateral peace negotiations, Israel’s prime minister would have more than two-thirds of the nation behind him – possible compensation for the loss of half his cabinet, and a prize no less tempting, perhaps, than that held out by the initiative itself.

But whether the Muslim world as a whole, which can rarely live at peace with itself and is at present in a state of turmoil, would be willing or able to live up to its declared intention – that is a quite different story.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 3 July 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 3 July 2013:

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