Hussein Ibish
NOW Lebanon
April 12, 2011 - 12:00am

On April 6, a group of prominent Israelis released the “Israeli Peace Initiative,” an answer to the Peace Initiative adopted by the Arab League in 2002. The biggest difference between the two documents is that one is official, formally adopted by a large group of states, and the other is a civil society initiative. This puts the two documents on significantly unequal footing. However, the new Israeli private initiative bears serious consideration, given the paucity of any other Israeli response to the API and the lack of diplomatic activity generally.

Most of the signatories to the IPI are associated with the political left, which has lost ground in Israeli society over the past decade.

The extent to which their proposal resonates with the Israeli public or the cabinet of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is questionable.

But both the API and the IPI demonstrate that there are clear grounds for negotiating a two-state outcome whose outlines are clear but whose details still need to be worked out. They show there are plenty of Arabs and Israelis eager to negotiate in all seriousness, and that a meaningful peace process is no fantasy if the parties really want peace.

The IPI joins a long list of other civil society peace process thought experiments from recent decades. But it does have some particular features. It introduces the idea of Jewish refugees from Arab states in a more sustained manner than has been raised in formal negotiations or in most other informal peace ideas. It accepts that the Palestinian state must be on land equivalent to that of the 1967 borders, but talks of land swaps incorporating up to 7 percent of the Occupied Territories, far in excess of anything Palestinians have considered acceptable. It entirely avoids the question of Jewish Israelis remaining in the Palestinian state, presumably on the reasonable assumption that no Israeli government will want the responsibility for their security and will insist on a full evacuation.

It essentially accepts the Clinton parameters in Jerusalem, that what is now Jewish will be Israeli and what remains Arab will be Palestinian, and that the city will be the capital of two states. It also includes the following interesting anomaly that: “the Western Wall and Jewish Quarter will be under Israeli sovereignty; [but] The Temple Mount will remain without any sovereignty.” It therefore dismisses the idea of a special regime for the old city in general or the holy basin, a mainstay of many other civil society plans. Perhaps the most “Israeli” part of the IPI is its categorical rejection of anything other than a “symbolic” return for an apparently very small group of refugees.

These ideas are intriguing, but much more important is the underlying diplomatic reality. The PLO knows what it wants, but lacks the leverage to achieve it. The Obama administration has hit a brick wall and is presently embroiled in detailed soul-searching about a potential American statement of principles. And, most worryingly of all, it has become disturbingly clear that Netanyahu has neither a vision for the future nor any meaningful diplomatic strategy other than a single-minded emphasis on security to the exclusion of peace.

This has left many Palestinians feeling that an effort to shift the diplomatic process to the multilateral level, probably through the United Nations, is becoming almost unavoidable even though without at least tacit American support this will almost certainly prove a dead end. These efforts are presently focused on the coming September, but there seem to be few grounds for believing that anything that really changes the strategic equation will take place at the UN or elsewhere this fall.

Many thoughtful Israelis are deeply concerned about the potential effects of such multilateralism, even if opposed by the United States, especially since Netanyahu appears to have no alternative approaches.

These worries were carefully dissected in a recent article by Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz, who suggested Israel should not oppose a declaration of Palestinian statehood but use it to its advantage.

The multilateral track is beguiling in many ways, but unless it is being used by the United States as a proxy for its own continued leadership – as with the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya – it will not produce the actual establishment of a Palestinian state.

Neither will the plethora of South American and other international recognitions of Palestine in its 1967 borders, which help reinforce the international consensus about the need for Palestinian independence but do not change either the balance of power or realities on the ground.

In the final analysis there is only one state’s recognition of Palestine that will be decisive: Israel’s, since it is in complete control of the territory that will constitute the Palestinian state.

All roads ultimately lead back to negotiations, which is why documents like the IPI that reinforce the understanding that such a process is entirely plausible, and that therefore peace is genuinely achievable, are more relevant than they may appear at first glance.

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