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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Israeli elections and Arab hopes

Faris Al-Asr, Arab News

EVER since the dashed hopes of Annapolis, Arab desires to move forward with peace have been met with the caution that timing was not right. Repeatedly we were told that we would have to wait for American, and now Israeli elections, before deducing the political environment in which such efforts would have to be made. That wait is now over, and we have understood that it is not the environment, but the courage of participants in peace that matters.

The election of Barack Obama brought great hope to the world, and his appointment of George Mitchell as Middle East envoy was well received across the board. Yet Arabs are still disappointed by Obama’s silence on Gaza, and there are no signs yet that US policy fundamentals on the Arab-Israeli conflict will change. We hope so of course, and we hope that after Israel’s election Obama will fully redefine America’s approach to peace.

On the Israeli side, where we are told that Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud is against a viable two-state solution while Labor and Kadima are for it, the picture is actually much more nuanced. Menachem Begin’s Likud government was the first to make peace with any Arab country, while Golda Meir and Shimon Peres of the Israeli left achieved little in terms of peace. Again, it is bold moves, bold leadership and the seizing of opportunities that make peace, not political parties or circumstances.

In Israel, a broad coalition government will likely emerge from today’s elections, representing both opportunities and obstacles to peace. Meanwhile, the Palestinian leadership is even more divided, especially after Gaza. The Israeli mantra that there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side is quite fitting for once. But a Palestinian national unity government could be in the works after a cease-fire agreement with Israel, putting the Palestinians in broadly the same political situation — in terms of opportunities and obstacles to peace — as an Israeli coalition government.

As we await Obama’s proposals beyond the usual American policy of sending an envoy as a temporary tranquilizer, the only potentially transformative element for peace is the Arab peace initiative. In Beirut in 2002, 22 Arab countries signed on to a proposal from then-Crown Prince Abdullah, offering Israel peace and fully normalized relations with all Arab countries, in exchange for a withdrawal to pre-1967 borders (with expected adjustments) and a just solution for Palestinian refugees.

In the seven years that have passed since the proposal, and despite its relaunching in 2007, neither Israel nor America has responded particularly favorably, or even at all, to a daring initiative that provides a solid basis for final negotiations leading to a peace agreement. The Arab peace initiative was somewhat incorporated into the Annapolis initiative and represents international consensus and prescriptions on resolving the conflict. In fact, it spells out exactly the conditions that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, on the eve of his resignation, said that Israel must eventually accept if it wants peace.

What we would like to hear from Israel’s next government, whoever heads it, is exactly that: A clear endorsement of the Arab peace initiative and a call on all parties to show some audacity in moving toward a final peace agreement. If the new Israeli government were to extend a true olive branch to Arab countries on the basis of their peace initiative, the effect on the Palestinian side would also be transformative. A further pledge to work on the basis of what has already been agreed and move straight on to the finer details may be all that is needed to spur forces for peace into action across the board. This may seem like a lot to ask from Israel’s next government, but all parties to the conflict have come to recognize that their policies have reached a dead end, and that time is running out for a peaceful solution. Contrary to what we are sometimes told, Israelis want peace as much as we do. They want to hear our reassurances, that we accept their existence as a respected neighbor and that we take their need for security seriously.

By calling on Arabs to negotiate via the Arab League, the Palestinian Authority or a select group of Arab countries, the new Israeli government would send a powerful message to the Arab world, allowing Arabs also to get their divided house in order. Our approach should be one of building each other’s capacities for peace and demonstrating the benefits we all stand to gain. With that prospect, Arabs and Palestinians will come together and we will all bring out the best in each other. Instead of waiting for the ideal circumstances or leaders for peace, it is time we all built on what we already have and on the transformative power of a dialogue between parties who, despite widespread mistrust, all want the same thing.

By engaging and opening up to the other side we will solidify each other’s capacities and public credentials for peace. That is where the real road to peace lies. A groundbreaking declaration from Israel’s new government on the Arab peace initiative could be all we need to get that process going.

Let us be frank with each other and not miss another opportunity for peace, because every minute that goes by and every child that is killed in this conflict can only make prospects for peace recede further. We hereby call upon Israel’s new prime minister to seize existing initiatives for peace and to carry not the heavy weight of war, but the feather-light power of ideas and sincere dialogue. Let us help each other along that noble road and work together for peace.

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