By Yossi Alpher
There is a certain formalistic justification in Israel’s standoffish attitude toward the Arab Peace Initiative. After all, the API was never seriously “marketed” to Israel. The concluding paragraph of the API asks every relevant institution in the international community to “pursue the necessary contacts to gain support for this initiative” —everyone, that is, except Israel itself, the target of the initiative. At one point a few years ago, in response to protest over this lacuna, the Arab League sent the Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers to Jerusalem to present the API. But they visit Israel on occasion anyway and this gesture left no impression.
Imagine the Israeli public response had King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia asked to come and present the API to the Knesset. The late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat demonstrated in 1977 how readily Israeli public opinion can be turned around by a sincere, hands-on Arab approach.
Still, given the revolutionary nature of the API, these formalistic protestations cannot excuse the absence of any official Israeli response. There should have been one long ago. Israel has every reason to officially accept an Arab offer of comprehensive normal relations and security in return for peace agreements based on the 1967 lines. It should attach three relatively minor “interpretations” to its acceptance.
First, Israel should accept the principle of the 1967 lines, but with agreed land swaps. This would reflect the progress already made in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations: both sides have agreed to the principle. It would also suggest an acceptable formula for negotiating the territorial gaps between Israel and Syria generated by the Syrian demand for the 1967 lines as opposed to Israel’s potential readiness to return to the international border between the two countries. That the API stipulates the 1967 lines for Syria as well as the Palestinians reflects the influence of Damascus’ unreasonable demand to ignore a well-delineated international boundary. Moreover, in the case of Israel-Syria, there is no clear record of the 1967 lines, which reflected land-grabs by both sides inside demilitarized territory. So the Israeli “interpretation” in this regard should not seem unreasonable.
Second, Israel needs to stipulate its interpretation of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, which is cited by the API as the basis of a just and agreed solution to the Palestinian refugee issue. Back in 1949, the Arab UN members voted against 194, precisely because it did not stipulate a specific “right of return” of all refugees. Since then, the Palestinians have successfully recast 194 and persuaded many quarters in the international community that it does indeed offer a comprehensive right of return. Israel should cite its understanding that 194 refers only to the original refugees and not succeeding generations, that it never mentions “right of return”, and that it conditions return upon Israeli agreement and a willingness on the part of a refugee to live at peace in Israel.
Only a few tens of thousands of the original refugees are still alive. Israel has in any case frequently offered over the years to compensate all refugees and allow a few to return based on humanitarian considerations. Since the API conditions a refugee solution on Israeli agreement, it obviously leaves room to discuss Israel’s interpretation of 194. But better to place that interpretation up front when Israel accepts the API. This is also the place for Israel to add that it expects the Arab countries to discuss compensation for the hundreds of thousands of their Jewish citizens who fled and came to Israel in 1948 and thereafter as a consequence of Arab hostility to Israel’s existence.
Finally, Israel should cite an offer made on at least one occasion by then Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit, to implement the API in phases that correspond with phases in Israel-Arab peacemaking. As Abul Gheit apparently recognized, rewarding Israel with aspects of normalization and security in return for a partial peace agreement or for agreement with one Arab neighbor prior to the others, would provide incentives for further peace-making and persuade the Israeli public that the API is a serious offer.
Because I believe the API is indeed a serious offer, I hope the Arab League finds a way to respond to the kind of Israeli acceptance described above, if and when it happens. Unfortunately, under current circumstances, Israel’s pro-settler government is not likely to accept the API with these or any other “interpretations”. And in view of the turmoil in the Arab world, the Arab League will in any case probably not be in a position to respond or reciprocate for some time to come.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons.org.