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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

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Israel right to be wary of Arab peace initiative

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We’re likely to hear quite a lot in the coming months about the Arab peace initiative (API), which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly aims to employ as a way to advance a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement.

Adopted by the 22-member Arab League in Beirut in March 2002 as an amended version of a more flexible Saudi plan, the API – on the surface – offers Israel “normal relations in the context of a comprehensive peace” (as the official text states).

Many western analysts have viewed this plan as a major breakthrough in Arab-Israeli relations and a peace plan that Israel should welcome, if not embrace. However, it’s the details of the API that really matter. The API requires “full Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied since 1967, including the Syrian Golan Heights, to the June 4, 1967 lines.” It likewise calls for “a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.” These two conditions are non-starters for Israel.

First, the API claims to adhere to UNSC Resolution 242, which calls only for Israeli withdrawal “from territories” not from “the territories” or “all the territories” acquired in 1967. But the API contradicts 242’s implicit recognition that the 1967 lines (more accurately, the temporary 1949 armistice lines) would be modified through negotiations to achieve “secure” borders, in contrast to the weak defences afforded by the 1949 armistice.

Second, Arab parties (incorrectly) interpret UN General Assembly Resolution 194 as providing Palestinian refugees with a “right of return” to their former homes in present-day Israel. Given that this would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state, such a position mocks the claim that the API embodies a “comprehensive peace.”

Kerry reportedly hopes to get the Arab League’s API committee to agree to changes on the first subject (the border issue). Nothing has been indicated about his views on the second subject (Palestinian refugees). In any event, the API was offered to Israel as a “take-it-or-leave-it” deal, as reconfirmed by the Arab summit in Riyadh in 2007, when efforts to make the initiative more acceptable to Israel were soundly defeated.

 Some analysts have said that, in at least one respect, the API does allow for flexibility. In his April 10 Globe and Mail story about the API, Patrick Martin pointed out that the initiative “left the details open to negotiations” on the refugee issue. On this point, he’s technically correct, since the relevant passage in the API speaks about “an agreed upon” solution.

Nonetheless, the API immediately adds that this is to be agreed upon “in accordance with” UNGA 194, which, as mentioned above, is interpreted by virtually all Arab parties in a way completely inimical to Israel’s very existence. (The reference to 194 was added by Lebanon and Syria to the initial Saudi plan specifically to toughen it up, and make it palatable to those states that have traditionally been most hostile to peace with Israel.)

Today, with total rejectionist forces such as Hezbollah largely in control of Lebanon’s government, Hamas ruling in Gaza, the Muslim Brotherhood in charge in Egypt, and Syria in the grip of a devastating civil war, with Islamist forces in the ascendancy, those dedicated to Israel’s destruction are as influential as ever. In this atmosphere, the API, already encumbered by terms and conditions hostile to the Jewish state, becomes even harder to sell as a plan for “comprehensive peace” based on “normal relations” with Israel.

The surface language of the API serves today to put Israel, which has always sought genuine peace with its neighbours, on the defensive. Israel, for the above reasons, has solid grounds for deep concern about an initiative that appears to a great many outsiders as a perfectly reasonable opportunity to bring the Arab-Israeli conflict to an end.

The task for Israel is to pursue what is possible for peace, but also to explain to the world what’s really at stake with the API.

Paul Michaels is director of research and senior media relations with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

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