Mati Steinberg
Haaretz (Opinion)
December 9, 2008 - 1:00am

Finally, six years after it was conceived and in the six years in which it has been reaffirmed annually, the Arab Peace Initiative has merited a discussion among the Israeli public. When the Arab world unanimously said "no," we didn't ask about its intentions. When the Arab world says "yes" to Israel, yes to normalization and an end to the conflict, the puzzled expressions multiply as to what exactly is meant by "yes."

While the Arab initiative has only recently made its way onto our agenda, a fierce debate is raging in the Arab world between its supporters and opponents in the political and public realm. Indeed, the language adopted by the Arab initiative with regard to the question of Palestinian refugees leaves room for more than one interpretation and thus requires a cautious approach - an opinion not shared by Arab and Palestinian naysayers.

From Hamas and Islamic Jihad to Hezbollah and Al-Qaida, these detractors are firmly convinced that the initiative deals a final blow to the Palestinian "right of return" and the possibility of exercising that right within Israel proper. In their view, there is no equivocation in the initiative on all issues related to "an agreed-upon solution" to the Palestinian refugee problem. In officially articulating their positions, these forces have rejected the Arab initiative, particularly the clause about the refugees, since it was first proposed in March 2002.

They remained so unsatisfied that this year they convened two conferences in Damascus, both of which were sponsored by Syria and Iran and which excluded moderate Arab states as well as the Palestinian Authority: The Palestinian National Conference of January 2008 and the International Right of Return Conference, held last month. These gatherings were principally directed against the concession inherent in the Arab initiative on a return of refugees to areas within Israel's boundaries.

On the day the initiative was launched, Hamas published a communique that denounced the expropriation of the "sacred right of return" from its rightful owners by virtue of the demand "to bring the matter to the negotiating table and to implement it by way of mutual agreement with Israel." The head of Islamic Jihad, Ramadan Shallah, said in a programmatic speech before the attendees in Damascus that the Arab initiative is worse than the Balfour Declaration. All because of the clause pertaining to the refugees, in which the rightful owners of Palestine concede to those "who have no rights" (Israel), whereas in the Balfour Declaration, "those who are not the owners" (the British) gave Palestine "to those who have no rights" (the Zionists).

Shallah branded the readiness of the Arabs and the Palestinians to adopt the initiative as "a Nakba of the consciousness." This is also the reason why Hamas, all throughout its ongoing dialogue with Egypt and Fatah, refused to even accept a softened wording, which agreed to "an Arab consensus and its decisions," because it saw this as implied support for the Arab initiative.

The inter-Arab disagreement over the refugee clause of the Arab initiative shows us the lengthy road this wording has traveled from the fundamental Arab and Palestinian positions on the issue. Those opposed to the interpretation I mapped out - like Alexander Yakobson in his letter to the editor in Monday's Hebrew edition - ignore the part of my argument that emphasizes the inter-Arab controversy as a testament to the enormity of the change. Does skipping over this important fact reveal a fundamental Achilles heel in their argument? What they dismiss by claiming that there is no real change in the Arab position is viewed by the Arab opponents of the initiative as a significant change. If this is the case, whose interpretation is more trustworthy?

In my eyes, the opinions expressed by Arab critics about the initiative are more credible than those made by Israeli opponents, because the former continue to cling to maximalist Arab positions. If we accept the premise that they are genuine in their fanaticism, we need to accept their statements as pointing to a shift expressed in the Arab initiative. We cannot remain hung up on Hamas' obstinate stance as proof that an agreement is not possible and at the same time ignore its statements arguing that the Arab initiative betrays sanctified values.

When I referred to the "Clinton framework," I sought to add another perspective. The Clinton plan indeed seeks to address the refugee issue within the framework of a two-state partition, but at the same time it cites the "right of return to historic Palestine" or "to the homeland." Were the Arab initiative to employ such terminology, we would view this as a blatant attempt to pull the wool over our eyes.

The Arab initiative is devoid of such terms, and this is what has aroused the ire of its Arab critics. Paradoxically, those same critics find common ground with Israeli opponents in the ultimate test, though from opposite directions. The Arabs identify a fundamental change in the Arab initiative, and the Israelis do not discern any change or they simply do not wish to see it.

Therefore, I propose the following solution. Israel accepts the Arab initiative as the basis for negotiations (alongside the other known sources of authority) as part of its fundamental understanding that an "agreed-upon solution" of the refugee question enables it to reject a return to Israel proper. If Alexander Yakobson agrees to this, then there is no argument between us.

The writer is a former advisor to the head of the Shin Bet security service on Palestinian affairs.


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