Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Arab Peace Plan: What the Right Doesn't Want You To Know, Gidon D. Remba

The Arab Peace Plan: What the Right Doesn’t Want You To Know

Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, April 19, 2007

Gidon D. Remba

The leaders of 21 Arab states met recently in Ryadh, Saudi Arabia under the auspices of the Arab League, and reaffirmed their 2002 offer of comprehensive peace with Israel. Originally called the Arab Peace Initiative, inspired by a Saudi proposal, its meaning has been hotly contested from the moment it was first unveiled.

According to the official translation of the newly revived Arab peace offer, the Arab states commit to “the establishment of normal relations in the context of a comprehensive peace with Israel…ending the Arab-Israel conflict.” It is often forgotten that the 2002 Arab peace initiative effectively rescinds the infamous “three noes of Khartoum”—no recognition, no negotiations, no peace with Israel—issued by the Arab League in 1967 after the Six Day War. In exchange for establishing full peace, Israel is expected to agree to:

1. A “full Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied since 1967…”
2. “A just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.”
3. “The establishment of a sovereign independent Palestinian state on the Palestinian territories occupied since June 4, 1967 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

Right-wing Jewish critics, pointing to plan’s seemingly maximalist language on the extent of Israel’s withdrawal, dismissed it as “a blueprint for Israel’s destruction.” Jewish pundits spilled oceans of ink promising that “The latest Arab League peace proposal…includes a requirement that Israel should accept untold millions of Palestinians who would relocate into Israel itself, rather than making their homes in the newly created Palestinian State.”

Once again, Jewish hardliners returned to their familiar refrain: the Arabs are making sweet noises of peace while harboring annihilationist intentions. To avert the “threat” of Israeli-Arab negotiations which might alter the status quo, Israeli and American Jewish hawks heaped on preconditions, both behavioral and rhetorical, that they insisted Israel impose on the Arabs before it discussed the plan with them. These critics maintained that unless the plan was amended to meet Israel’s positions on territory and refugees—before the parties even sit down to negotiate it—and the Arabs agreed to normalize relations with Israel first, Israel should not regard the plan as a genuine peace offer and should shun peace talks.

Hawkish critics suffer from chronic myopia. First, they overlook the fact that the Arabs are seeking to negotiate on the basis of their plan, which represents their opening position in any bargaining with Israel, not the end point. Now Israeli Prime Minister Olmert has agreed to negotiate on the basis of the Saudi proposal. The Arab initiative is not meant to preclude Syria or the Palestinians from agreeing during the course of negotiations to an equal land swap with Israel which would permit the Arab side to receive the equivalent of 100% of the territory in the West Bank/Gaza and the Golan. Second, rightist nay-sayers choose to ignore the language of the Arab offer when it conflicts with their dark and despairing picture of a world filled (with few exceptions) with eternally deceptive and evil Israel-hating Arabs. Third, they ignore growing signs (and press reports of secret top level Saudi-Israeli meetings) that Saudi and other Arab leaders are, behind the scenes, looking to open new channels of dialogue with Israel and work out practical solutions to the refugee problem and other vexing issues away from the klieg lights of the media.

When President John F. Kennedy received both hardline and conciliatory messages from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, he chose to respond favorably to the conciliatory message, setting aside the bellicose one. A nuclear war and global conflagration was averted through negotiations with a country that President Ronald Reagan later called “the evil empire.” US-Soviet bargaining was coupled with internationally sanctioned and strictly limited US military action (the US blockade or “quarantine” of Cuba) and a credible threat of force if the Russian missiles were not withdrawn. Khruschev blinked first, and offered to trade the removal of US nuclear missiles in Turkey, near the Soviet Union, in exchange for the removal of Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba, near the US. Kennedy agreed, but the trade was kept secret.

The pessimists will always have some basis for their thinking. But if their way prevails, the world of their worst fears is liable to become our real world through a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’ll act as if their fears are so well-founded, so essential to the nature of our enemies, that no other outcome is possible. By missing opportunities for breakthrough, by reinforcing through Israeli and American actions the most unwelcome trends in the Arab world, we will help insure that nothing will change for the better, and much for the worse.

The media in many cases missed the boat on the Arab peace initiative, helping to reinforce prejudices instead of reporting facts by using tendentious and careless language in reports. While many reporters and editorialists—including some at Ha’aretz—claimed that the Arab offer required Israel to accept the right of return (or simply the return) of Palestinian refugees to their former homes in Israel, others, like Ha’aretz’s Aluf Benn, were more careful, referring instead to the declaration’s “clause on refugees, which the Palestinians interpret as a right of return.”

It came as a shock to some who had not read the official translation that the Arab League declaration in fact contained no explicit reference to a “right of return” for Palestinian refugees. The omission was significant. Moreover, those who insisted that the Arab plan required Israel to allow “millions” of Palestinian refugees into Israel managed to overlook the declaration’s careful language on the refugees which called for a mutually “agreed” solution to the refugee problem.

It will also shock and awe rightists to learn that UN General Assembly Resolution 194 does not support the “right of return” interpretation favored by some Palestinians, so feared by many in Israel and the American Jewish community. An Arab peace plan which refers to this UN resolution while simultaneously calling for an agreed solution to the problem of the Palestinian refugees can fulfill the terms of the resolution without allowing a single Palestinian refugee to return to Israel.

The hardliners don’t want you to know this—and much else. They are happiest whenever we are seduced into our familiar (and not unfounded) Jewish paranoia. But isn’t that the point? Perhaps the old saw has it right that even paranoids have enemies. But not everyone the paranoid fears turns out to be his foe.

Gidon D. Remba is National Executive Director of Ameinu: Liberal Values, Progressive Israel ( His commentary is available at