By Jonathan Freedland (THE GUARDIAN, 28/03/07):
Call it peace process envy. If they have any sense, Israelis and Palestinians will have a bad case of it this week, as they eye with jealousy the photographs flashed around the world from Belfast. How they must pine for the luck of the Northern Irish, as they gaze at Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley sitting side by side, promising their war is over and vowing to govern their bruised land together. How the people of Tel Aviv and Ramallah must wish their leaders would show some of that same Belfast determination which, after a long, torturous decade, has finally wound up what once seemed an intractable conflict. Instead, Israel and Palestine watch months turn into years without progress.
Now there is a chance to break the deadlock. The 22 member nations of the Arab League are meeting for two days in Riyadh, with the Arab-Israeli conflict high on their agenda. They are preparing to make a remarkable offer: if Israel withdraws to its 1967 borders, pulling out of the West Bank and Gaza, they will agree to a full and comprehensive peace, including normal relations, between the entire Arab world and Israel.
This, in case anyone has forgotten, is what Israel says it has yearned for since its creation 59 years ago, the acceptance of a Jewish state in the Middle East by its neighbours. What’s more, Israel has always feared that a separate accord with the Palestinians would not hold because the Palestinians would be too weak to make historic compromises – on, say, the holy sites of Jerusalem – alone. An accord with 22 Arab nations would remove all such worries. Any final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians would be underpinned, with the leading Muslim states giving their blessing to the concessions that would be required. And they would promise what Yasser Arafat never could: that the conflict was truly, finally, over.
How could Israel pass up such a great opportunity? The answer is that it already has. The Arab League approved what began as the Saudi peace plan when it met in Beirut back in 2002. Among the signatories then were Libya’s Muammar Gadafy and Saddam Hussein of Iraq. That’s right: Saddam Hussein was ready to recognise the Jewish state.
Nevertheless, Israel’s then prime minister, Ariel Sharon, ignored the Beirut declaration, pretending it had never happened. Admittedly he was handed a gilt-edged excuse. The Arab League initiative came when the second intifada was at its bloodiest; indeed, the Beirut text was issued hours before a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 29 Israeli civilians gathered at a hotel to mark the Passover festival. Sharon was less interested in peace with Saddam than he was in rooting out Palestinian fighters in Jenin, and so the moment passed. An Israeli cliche is that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. In fact it’s Israel that keeps missing opportunities – with the Beirut offer of 2002 the stand-out example.
This week it’s getting a second chance. That’s not because the Arab states are undergoing a spasm of peace, love and flowers in their hair. It’s all about hardball regional politics. A cluster of Sunni, self-defined “moderate” states are alarmed by the rise of Iran, whose aspiration to lead the Muslim world, to be a regional superpower and to acquire the bomb, terrifies Riyadh, Cairo and Amman as much as it scares Washington and Jerusalem.
In their bid to block the feared Shia ascendancy, action on the Israel-Palestine conflict helps. First, any progress on the Palestinian issue would deny Iran and, just as importantly, the Islamist radicals in the moderates’ own countries – whose support is high and growing – one of their key recruitment weapons. The moderate regimes would show they too can act for the Palestinians. While they’re at it, they hope a conciliatory stance on Israel will win US favour, necessary if they are to stand firm against the Shia “arc of extremism” they all fear.
So much for the Arab states’ motive. Will Israel seize this chance, whatever its origins? The prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has hinted that there are “positive elements” in it worth pursuing. That’s certainly true for him personally. Olmert currently commands what may be the lowest approval rating for any democratic leader in world history: a measly 2%. Mired in corruption scandals and about to face the verdict of a commission of inquiry into the debacle of last summer’s war in Lebanon, Olmert finds his premiership stalled and in a ditch. “He needs an initiative and this could be it,” says one Israeli government official of the Saudi plan.
He would have ample political cover if he gave Riyadh a positive response. His rivals, including former PM, Bibi Netanyahu, have spoken approvingly of the Saudi opening. At the weekend, a clutch of eminent Israelis, including former minsters and security officials, joined a similar group of Palestinians in calling for an embrace of the Arab initiative.
Still, only a reckless optimist would be hopeful. For one thing, Israel retains major objections to the initiative as it currently stands. They don’t want to give back all of the post-1967 territories, preferring negotiations, and maybe even a land swap, to arrive at final borders.
The key obstacle, though, relates to the Palestinian refugees displaced by Israel’s creation in 1948 and their descendants. The initial Saudi plan, first floated six years ago, spoke only of a “just solution” to the refugee problem. At Beirut the language hardened up, to include a demand that Palestinians have the right to return to their homes inside Israel. Israel insists that any such right would be impossible to implement, spelling the demographic end of the country as a Jewish national home: Palestinians should instead return to the proposed Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. If Riyadh sees no return to the original language, Israel will refuse to engage with it.
Above all, Olmert may just be too weak to act, even in response to the initiative of others. Any progress would eventually require concessions and he is in no position to make them.
There is, however, something that can be done. Normally, in the Israel-Palestine conflict, it makes sense to call on Israel, as the stronger party, to make the first move. But in this wider conflict, between Israel and the entire Arab world, that same logic may not apply. There is, in fact, something the Arab world could do this very week. It was raised in an open letter written by Shlomo Gazit, the former head of Israeli military intelligence, and addressed to the Saudi regime. The former general called on the Saudis to bypass Olmert, appealing over his head to the Israeli people directly. Follow the path taken by Anwar Sadat of Egypt 30 years ago, Gazit urged: come to Jerusalem and call for immediate negotiations. Public opinion will rally and “no government in Israel will be able to reject that kind of initiative,” he wrote.
It’s a good idea, for it would call Israel’s bluff. The country always says it wants peace; now the sincerity of that stance would be tested. If the language on refugees and borders were loosened, thereby denying Olmert a reason to say no, all the better. The current prime minister has made the mistake Ariel Sharon never did: he has lost the initiative. This would be a way for the Arabs to fill the vacuum, with a stunningly dramatic gesture. And if there’s one lesson the world can learn from Northern Ireland, it’s that a little bit of human drama and symbolism goes a long way.