The Four Sons and the Arab Peace Initiative
Last week’s meeting of the Arab League in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia reaffirmed the Arab League peace initiative, which was originally approved in Beirut, Lebanon in 2002. With the Passover holiday here, one wonders what the “four sons” (hereinafter to be referred to as the “four children”) of the Haggadah would ask about this initiative and its implications for Israel and the peace process. So, in reverse order:
1. “Sheh Aino Yode’a Lishol” – The Child Who Doesn’t Know Enough to Ask.
Wikipedia’s entry for the 2002 Arab League summit offers a general background to the origins of the Arab League initiative though it offers little information on the recent effort to revive it. The March 30 New York Times offers a summary of developments this week, as does Haaretz.
2. The “Tam” – The Simple, Uninformed Child: What does s/he ask? “What is the Arab League proposing” “And what is Israel’s response”?
This week’s “Riyadh Declaration” essentially reauthorized an Arab League proposal first approved in 2002. This 2002 Arab Peace Initiative appears in English on a variety of webpages, where it is sometimes referred to as the Beirut Declaration. It is also available on the webpage of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. The Arab League proposal calls for Israel’s withdrawal to the pre-war 1967 borders, the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel (with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital), and the “achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian Refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194″ in return for full peace and normal relations with the entire Arab world.
The Israeli response to the Riyadh Declaration is harder to define. The official response, which appears on the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s website, seems to do its best to be “parve”: It neither endorses the Riyadh Declaration nor rejects it. The response merely restates the basic tenets of the Israeli approach, foremost among them being a two-state solution and a desire for dialogue with the Arab world. Although Israel’s endorsement of Palestinian statehood is always welcome, this initial reaction studiously steers clear of any reference to the future borders of Israel and Palestine, or to possible compromises over Jerusalem and refugees.
Senior Israeli politicians are also beginning to weigh in on the Arab League proposal. In a Passover interview with Haaretz, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert tried to take a more upbeat tone, offering praise for Saudi Arabia and expressing willingness to take part in a regional peace conference. But, Haaretz also quotes Olmert as indicating that he finds the call for Israel to return to the 1967 borders unacceptable.
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, fighting for his political survival within his own Labor Party, offered a more positive assessment: Suggesting that Israel see the “glass as half full,” Peretz indicated that the Arab initiative could serve as the basis for peace talks.
Vice Premier Shimon Peres tended to toe the official Israel line, merely calling for Israeli-Arab talks with no preconditions.
3. The “Rasha” – The Wicked (or, perhaps, Skeptical) Child: What does s/he ask? “Why should Israel bother with this initiative? Isn’t this just another Arab effort to bring about Israel’s destruction?”
This child will point to the tough talk used this week by Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, who said that if Israel were to turn down the Arab offer, it would essentially be placing its faith and fate in the vicissitudes of the military balance of power. PA President Mahmoud Abbas also warned of impending violence if the offer were rejected – the type of remarks Israel often interprets as a threat, rather than a sober and cautionary projection. Indeed, Prof. Shlomo Avineri has argued that the Arab League plan is all about making demands, and not about dialogue.
Nonetheless, perhaps this child should be instructed to look at editorials in both The Forward and Haaretz, which call on Israel to respond positively to the renewed Arab initiative. And he or she should read an analysis by Israeli Jewish journalist Orly Azoulay, who was allowed to visit Saudi Arabia as part of the UN Secretary-General’s entourage. Azoulay reports that the Saudi kingdom is entirely serious about its drive for Middle East peace; indeed, she writes, the invitation of an Israeli journalist to an Arab League summit – “a move that raised more than a few disapproving Arab eyebrows” – was an indication that the Saudis are willing to push past the decades-old Arab consensus in their efforts.
4. The “Chacham”? the Wise, Inquisitive Child: What does s/he ask? “The question of Israeli-Arab peacemaking seems quite complicated. How might I learn more about the specifics of the Arab initiative, especially its treatment of the refugee issue? And how might I find additional perspectives?”
The question of how the Arab initiative relates to the refugee issue has been much in dispute. Dr. Jerome Segal has argued that the Arab initiative refers to refugees only within the context of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 “which neither mentioned nor endorsed an absolute ‘right of return’.” An op-ed co-authored by Meretz MK Abu Vilan offers a similar conclusion — that Israel has nothing to fear from this UN Resolution. Of course, the future of the refugees does remain an important and fiercely contested issue. But, if Yediot reporter Smadar Peri is to be trusted, Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel are already at work behind the scenes, putting together a proposal that would offer compensation to those refugees willing to remain in their current countries of residence.
Finally, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has dedicated two recent columns to Middle East peace: In one, he calls on Saudi Arabian King Abdullah to push past the dry formulations of the Arab peace plan, and to come to Israel to deliver his message of peace personally Anwar Sadat in 1977. In another column, Friedman argues that the Bush team’s ineptitude and apathy with regard to the Middle East has undone much of the progress made under President Clinton. The Bush decision to let the breakthrough Clinton plan fade away, Friedman maintains, has essentially made the Arab Initiative the only game in town.
Update on the Ensign-Nelson Letter to Secretary Rice
Last week, Meretz USA asked its members to call their Senators and urge them not to sign onto a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, which called for the Bush administration to deny financial aide and contact with the Palestinian government until it recognizes Israel, renounces terrorism, and accepts past agreements.
In the end, the letter was signed by seventy-nine Senators. But, because of the efforts of organizations like Meretz USA, Americans for Peace Now, and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, the initial language was tamed. The letter, in its final form, reaffirmed the status quo for the Administrations aid to the Palestinians and allowed for contacts with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Significantly, the majority of Senators signed onto the letter after the changes were made. Please read the Forward article for more information.
A Happy Pesach to all! A Ziesen Pesach! Hag Sameach!