Ezzedine Choukri Fishere
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
November 12, 2010 - 1:00am

It was chilling in Jerusalem in January 2002, and not only because of the weather. The sandbags, the metal detectors, the security guards with their visible guns at entrances to restaurants, malls, hospitals; almost a guard for every door. This was a country seized by a deep sense of threat and disillusionment. In the West Bank, a second winter of heavy repression closed and terrorized villages and towns. Those who had to leave their homes for work, an errand or a family visit, couldn't know when, if, they would come back. This was a whole nation denied hope, and grounded. On both sides, this was another winter of killing, with each side doing its best to hurt the other, in the flesh.

For me and my colleagues in the United Nations' political office, this was another year of oscillation between hope and fury. After numerous diplomatic failures, we thought that what Israelis and Palestinians needed most was listening--truly listening--to each other. The two sides mirrored one another's image and most of their needs were compatible, if not mutually dependent. There was a solution to their conflict, but it couldn't be reached as long as they ignored each other. The killing spree was not only cruel, it was unnecessary. If each side expressed its concern in a way that made sense to the other, they would be able to find common ground. But they didn't. As we shuttled between the two killing fields we were revolted by the parties' self-centeredness, yet hopeful that one day we would find a way to break this infernal circle.

Then came the news of a brewing Arab peace initiative. We got excited; this could be the opening we were looking for. If only we could convince the Arabs to speak a language Israelis could relate to. At the Arab League Summit in Beirut's Phoenicia Hotel, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his senior colleagues talked to Arab leaders while my colleagues and I discussed, more bluntly, with our counterparts. We asked: why won't Arab leaders be more forceful in affirming their willingness to accept Israel as a normal member of the region? Why can't Arab leaders fly to Jerusalem and speak to the Israelis directly? What is the point of mentioning the right of return if the objective is an agreed solution on refugees?

Our interlocutors were on a different level. Almost everyone at the Phoenicia Hotel anticipated a negative reaction from Israel's prime minister: "Sharon is not interested in peace," many concurred. "This would be politically foolish," a senior diplomat explained. "In the absence of a binding deal, any concession made in the initiative will be pocketed by the Israeli government and become the new baseline. And you from the UN will come next time to ask us for more concessions."

They pointed to the disillusionment of Arab public opinion after ten years of sterile negotiations and after Arafat "gave Israel everything". No Arab leader can afford to make a positive gesture toward Israel while it represses the Palestinians and expands settlements, they said. We retorted: "but look at Sadat's example." They retorted back: "Exactly! Look how Begin 'rewarded' Sadat's gesture, look how the story ended." For them, these were real-life political realities. For my UN colleagues, this was lack of leadership and vision.

I left my UN colleagues and wandered among Arab diplomats. I asked friends and former colleagues why Arab leaders bother at all coming up with an initiative if their assessment of the situation is so bleak. Some trivialized the whole affair: "The initiative says nothing new; we have been saying mutual recognition and 1967 borders for 30 years. Why is this suddenly interesting?" Others speculated that the Saudi initiative was not meant to resolve the Arab-Israel conflict but to salvage Saudi-American relations, which were on the rocks since 9/11. Many spoke of irritation and suspicion among Arab leaders at the initiative: "Look who is present and who is absent."

We argued and argued the merits of "speaking to the other side", but what we said didn't count much. Arab officials were too busy struggling with their own political realities to pay attention to what foreign diplomats said. After pushing and pulling, the crafty Arab League chief drafted a compromise text while, ominously, a senior Saudi official had a heart attack and was carried out of the meeting on a stretcher.

The text of the initiative wasn't a resounding example of public diplomacy, but it was the best one could hope for given political constraints. I thought that its message would resonate with the Israelis who wanted to believe that the conflict wasn't inescapable, a kind of fate that they, the tragic heroes, have to face, and that what they thought to be an irreconcilably hostile Arab world was ready to accept them as neighbors.

But I was wrong. Words couldn't compete with political realities; Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dismissed the initiative almost immediately and the international community's interest in it faded. When a bloody suicide bombing at a Passover celebration was followed by a bloody invasion of the West Bank, talk about peace ceased.

The Arab Peace Initiative had failed to become the political tool we were looking for. During the ordeals that followed, our focus in the UN shifted to drafting a "roadmap" that would take the parties from their mayhem to a political solution. The Arab Peace Initiative was turned from a tool into a "parameter for the endgame" in that "roadmap for peace". Ultimately, nothing came of either. As I left the Holy Land in summer 2004, I thought the Arab Peace Initiative was dead and buried with the roadmap and similar documents. Fortunately, I was proven wrong again.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017