Rami Khouri
The Daily Star (Opinion)
April 9, 2011 - 12:00am

The historic transformations under way in many Arab countries have temporarily overshadowed other major regional issues. Well, this period seems to be coming to an end, forcing us all to refocus on understanding the hard reality that we can no longer isolate a single issue or conflict in the Middle East – Palestine-Israel, Iran, democratization, Hezbollah, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, terrorism, Anglo-American invaders, corruption, take your pick – and address it on its own. The thick web of inter-linked issues, players and interests means that restoring stability, security and sustained development to the Middle East forces us to deal with underlying causes of tensions.

This week we have been reminded with a jolt that the oldest and most destabilizing issue in the region is the Arab-Israeli conflict. Much as some people would like for it to go away, it will not. It keeps rearing its head and demanding that we seek a just and realistic resolution.

The jolt this week has been the escalating attacks across the Israel-Gaza border. This is no surprise, given the determination of both sides to fight and kill for what they believe is their right to self-defense. The limited attacks, following on from the recent bombing of a West Jerusalem bus station, could easily spiral out of control into a renewed war. So it was fascinating that this week also saw the release of a new Israeli peace initiative by a group headed by prominent former Israeli political and security officials and private-sector leaders. They warned that Israel would become more vulnerable with time if no serious effort was made to resolve the conflict. Among the promoters of the initiative are Jacob Perry, former director of the Shin Bet internal security service; former Mossad head Danny Yatom; and former armed forces chief of staff Amnon Lipkin Shahak.

The plan has positive and negative elements, and all concerned in the region and abroad would do well to assess it carefully in order to build on the positive and ameliorate the negative. The positive elements of the plan could provide important building blocks for a wider national or official policy by Israelis, if public opinion and political circles support it. The positives are that the initiative calls on Israel to accept the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative as a framework for starting negotiations. The Israeli group seems to accept that peace requires a full return of Israeli-occupied Arab lands (with relevant land swaps) in exchange for a full peace. The initiative also shows that serious, trusted national figures in Israel are willing to initiate diplomatic approaches that differ from the right-wing government now in power; and, it recognizes that Israel must make a serious effort to work for a comprehensive peace agreement that acknowledges prevailing Arab and international principles, rather than demanding peace accords that respond primarily to narrow Israeli security concerns.

As Perry correctly said a few days ago, “Israel no longer has the privilege of sitting around doing nothing.”

The main but deep weakness of the initiative – reflecting long-standing distortions in Israeli and American approaches to resolving this conflict – is that it embraces the importance of resolving the core, existential need of Israelis for official Arab recognition and security guarantees; however, it refuses to apply the same standard of seriousness or intensity in addressing the core, existential need of the Palestinians to have their refugee status acknowledge and redressed in accordance with prevailing international legal norms. The initiative is also a private one by individuals out of power, and thus carries fascinating political symbolism but no real weight, as of now.

Many Israelis honest enough to deal with the world as it is must appreciate that a more democratic Arab world where governments actually reflect public opinion will provide more diplomatic and material support for the Palestinians. Therefore, time is not on Israel’s side. The Israelis are also, rightly, worried that they and their policies are being subjected to an international campaign of delegitimization, while Palestinians are seeking and receiving more international support for United Nations recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state this coming autumn at the annual General Assembly in New York. Israel’s best defense is probably a strong offense.

While the Israeli government moves society towards a militaristic, quasi-racist, neo-colonialist policy, it is refreshing to see some influential Israelis propose more sensible and realistic diplomatic objectives. The Israeli peace initiative offers novel kernels of hope amid long-standing fistfuls of Zionist intemperance. It would be a productive investment by Arabs, Americans, Europeans and others to explore whether the hope can be expanded into a meaningful national policy by Israel. The Arabs have been waiting since 2002 for a reasonable response to their offer to coexist with Israel once Israel in turn coexists with the legitimate national rights of the Palestinians.


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