By Shimon Z. Klein

The Arab Peace Initiative is an interesting development towards granting Israel an opportunity to develop normal diplomatic relations with its Arab neighbours.  This development is positive, and Israel should take it seriously. It is a reasonable starting point to begin negotiations. Of course, as mentioned in a previous article, this is dependent on Israel’s willingness to return to the pre-1967 borders, the right of return of 1948 Palestinian refugees and the declaration of a Palestinian state alongside Israel with East Jerusalem as its capital.
While the latter three points are problematic from Israel’s point of view, it does not negate the positive elements in this plan. It is a reasonable starting point for a permanent peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours, including the Palestinians.
Israel had a turbulent history from its establishment and the fact that the core of the problem was the Arab States’ total opposition to Israel’s establishment in 1948. They declared war on Israel – the War of Independence. They never recognized Israel’s right to exist. This was the first of Israel’s many wars for survival which resulted in a tragic Palestinian refugee problem that has defied solution up to this day.
Since then, there were more wars between Israel and her Arab neighbours:
1.      1956 Suez War
2.      1967 Six Day War of June 1967
3.      1973 Yom Kippur War
4.      1982 Lebanese War
5.      2006 2nd Lebanese War
There were also the two intifadas (Palestinian Uprisings) of 1987 and 2000.
Now there is the possibility of reaching an agreement with the neighbouring Arab states and normalization. Israel should not dismiss this peace initiative out of hand despite its disagreement with points in the initiative.
According to Ze’ev Schiff of Ha’aretz, it took the Arab states 40 years to arrive at the decisions that they did in Riyadh – recognizing Israel, calling for peace and normalization and willingness to negotiate. They have laid down some very tough conditions, of course, but the Arab countries leading the initiative know very well that Israel will not accept the return of Palestinian refugees.
The attitude in 1967 was well illustrated at the Khartoum Arab Summit of 1st September 1967 “no peace, no talks, no recognition of Israel.” The leader was the president of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
An interesting observation is that Saudi Arabia is now replacing Egypt as a leader of the Arab World and Egypt is now playing a secondary role in trying to mediate between the Israelis and Palestinians, despite the fact that Egypt and not Saudi Arabia has diplomatic relations with Israel.
The United States is embroiled in Iraq and its record of credibility is decreasing rapidly in the Middle East. How can the US act as “honest broker” in the Arab-Israeli Conflict when it has failed hopelessly in Iraq to a certain extent in Afghanistan? In the latter country, the Taliban is showing signs of becoming influential and powerful again. The US cannot be taken seriously anymore. Their power and influence is diminishing. It appears that the only movement towards peace in the Middle East must come from the Arab states in the Middle East, including Israel and the Palestinians. This becomes even more obvious as all the countries of the Middle East, including Israel and the Palestinians, have a more serious problem with which to contend. The problem is Iran which is a potential nuclear threat to all. Iran wishes to control the Middle East and they are a threat to the moderate Arab states no less than Israel which President Ahmadinajad wishes to destroy.
It remains to be seen whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will accept the Arab Peace initiative as a starting point to begin negotiations on normalization of relations with Israel’s Arab neighbours. Olmert seems to be very dubious in his attitude towards the Arab Peace initiative. He is talking with two voices. He makes statements supporting peace and at the same time not showing any desire to end the conflict by deeds. It would serve the interests of all the peoples in the Middle East if Israel were more forthcoming in accepting the peace initiative as a positive starting point to end the conflict permanently. Sticking points in the peace initiative such as right of return of 1948 refugees should remain open for negotiation so that a just solution satisfactory to all parties to the conflict can be reached. If this problem remains a hot potato then it would hinder progress in achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the neighbouring Arab states. All issues, including the status of East Jerusalem should be discussed and a just solution found with which both sides could agree.
On the Palestinian track, emphasis should be placed on prisoner exchanges and a return home of the kidnapped Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. Israel should consider talking to all members of the Palestinian National Unity Government, despite the problem of the semantics of recognition of Israel by Hamas. President Mahmoud Abbas represents the National Unity Government and not parts of it. He should be viewed as the man with the powers of decision making despite his well known weaknesses and the person with whom Israel must negotiate as the representative of the Palestinian Authority. Only by conducting peaceful and meaningful negotiations can there be movement towards the establishment of a Palestinian state which is more than overdue. Both Palestinians and Israelis must cease hostilities towards each other, Qassam rocket fire in the south and Israeli Army incursions must end.

According to Al Ahram Weekly 5th – 11th April, Israel’s prime minister is engaged in a public relations exercise. Meanwhile, it is business as usual, as his army plans a wide ranging assault against Gaza, reports Khaled Amayreh from East Jerusalem. This would be detrimental towards creating the atmosphere for negotiations on peace.
On the Lebanese track, serious negotiations should begin with Hezbollah to return the two kidnapped Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. Both sides should climb down from the high branches of the tree to achieve this. While the soldiers remain in captivity, Israel should not remain adamant in its refusal to negotiate their release with Hezbollah.
A serious opportunity for a final peace settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbours has arrived. It would be a great pity if Israel refuses to accept this challenge for peace with her neighbours.

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