The League of Arab States has re-adopted its six-year-old peace initiative, offering comprehensive peace and normal relations with Israel by all its members in return for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, and a resolution of all outstanding issues between Israel and the Palestinians. This initiative is to be commended, but it has a major flaw: it is addressed to the international community at a time when the Arab League really needs to focus on the Israeli public.
The initiative, reaffirmed in Damascus last weekend at the meeting of several Arab nations, was aimed at showing the world that Arabs are concerned about finding a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Mohammed Sobeih, the Arab League assistant secretary general for Palestinian affairs, told reporters. But any such political initiative must garner wide popular support in Israel to be successful. An element of drama – like directly addressing the Israeli public, as Egyptian president Anwar Sadat did 30 years ago – could be a transformative step.
Sadat captured Israelis imagination and trust, addressing them from the Knesset over the heads of skeptical Israeli leaders in November, 1977. I was a high school junior at the time, studying Arabic in Jerusalem. I remember how excited my classmates and I were when our teacher had us translate Sadat s speech into Hebrew as a homework assignment. I had never been so happy about homework.
Israelis actually thought that comprehensive peace with the entire Arab world was within reach at the time. It was not then, and it still isn t today, but the current Arab peace initiative shows that it could be in the foreseeable future, if Israelis and Arabs try hard enough.
Israelis, as well as Palestinians, could very much use a Sadat-like initiative to re-inspire them, to re-establish their faith in peace. Recent public opinion polls show that although most Israelis and Palestinians support a two-state solution to the conflict, most also think such a solution – or any peaceful solution, for that matter – is impossible in the near future.
Granted, in the current atmosphere, it is difficult to expect Arab leaders to follow in Sadat s footsteps. It would be a great challenge to go to Jerusalem and address the Knesset when the Arab public is so livid about Israel s policies. And understandably, Arab leaders do not want to be perceived as having normalized relations with Israel before the Israeli government makes significant progress toward resolving the Palestinian problem. But I would argue that a direct address to the Israeli public is hardly normalization. It s a signal, a challenge, an invitation. And it could transform Israelis attitude toward active support for a robust peace process. Besides, those marketing the initiative could be members of the Arab League who already have peace accords with Israel, such as Egypt and Jordan.
There are also other things Arab leaders could do – short of addressing the Knesset in West Jerusalem – to demonstrate to Israelis that accords based on withdrawal to the 1967 lines will be followed by true peace and normal relations with all members of the Arab League. It could be a televised address. It could be an appearance at an Israeli university.
Since it was adopted six years ago, the Arab League s peace initiative has never received the attention it deserves by Israelis. No credible Arab leader has ever presented the plan directly, publicly and forcefully to the Israeli public. Not even through a televised speech or an interview. As a result, Israelis paid very little attention to the plan. They were deterred by the misperception that the proposal demands the return of all Palestinian refugees to their homes inside Israel.
A direct appeal to the Israeli public could give a new lease on life to the initiative. It could go a long way toward cracking the thick veneer of cynicism, skepticism, indifference and despair that are so commonplace in Israeli society today (as well as among Palestinians) in relation to the peace process. By showing Israelis that investment in peace with the Palestinians would have enormous dividends, Arab leaders could make an invaluable contribution to the peace process.
Ori Nir, former West Bank correspondent for the Israeli daily Ha aretz, is the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, a Jewish organisation that promotes Israel s security through peace. His e-mail is [email protected]. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.