Why the Arab Peace Initiative Is Good for the Israeli Public
The Arab Peace Initiative, signed by all Arab countries, presents a new perspective on the peace process and deals with most of the problems that have led to a lack of faith in peace in Israeli society in general and the "disappearance" of the peace camp in particular. Public information campaigns to clarify the issues could help increase support for the Initiative.

What Is Peace?

Over the years different polls have shown that a large portion of Israeli society is willing to make far-reaching concessions in return for true peace. Even the non-ideological settler is willing to give up his home in return for peace - but he is willing to do so only in return for true peace, an unattainable idea for many Israelis. At least 60 years of biased education, media and leadership have created a reality in which it appears inconceivable that it might be possible to reach a situation where the Arab-Israeli conflict no longer exists. One might even say that most residents of Israel cannot imagine the state of "end of conflict" any more than they can comprehend the infinity of the universe.
The Arab Peace Initiative provides an answer to this problem. The Initiative, approved by the 22 Arab countries, does not only offer peace but something much more concrete: an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict and normalized relations with the Arab states.
The hope for real peace cannot be quantified. Normalization, on the other hand, can be explained: Arab tourism, a railway line to Damascus, import and export, a flourishing economy and a state no longer surrounded by enemies. It is no coincidence that the Arab states consider normalization to be the big prize that Israel will receive if it agrees to the three major conditions of the Arab states: full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories; a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, based on United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194; and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as the capital. It is also no coincidence that these three demands are identical to the demands of the Palestinian leadership. If Israel declares that it will negotiate on the basis of the Initiative, it can definitely get a lot more for the same price that it has considered in the past and is currently considering paying for an agreement with the Palestinians.

No Partner?

The idea that there is no partner has been well established in Israel, based on the following arguments: The late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat did not really want peace; President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) may want peace but is too weak; and Ismail Haniyeh, the dismissed Hamas prime minister, has the power but not the will. At the same time, it could also be said that Israel did everything in its power to create the concept of "no partner."
When then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak said that he had offered "everything" and Arafat had refused, few in the Israeli media and society questioned what Barak had actually offered. Today the Israeli public perceives Abbas as wanting peace but being too weak to reach an agreement, not to mention upholding one. Yet it is the Israeli government that has contributed to his weakness by not meeting his demands for the elimination of checkpoints, sufficient prisoner releases and progress in the negotiations that will eventually lead to the creation of a Palestinian state.
The "Mecca Agreement" signed in early 2007 between Fateh and Hamas led to discussion of Hamas' acceptance of previous international agreements signed by the PLO. Although this tacit understanding has been broken, a breakthrough could be reached by securing some form of support from Hamas for the same. Saudi or Egyptian involvement may promote Abbas' ability to carry out his part of the agreement, and considerably ease internal tensions within the West Bank and Gaza. It would also allow the Palestinian street to better accept any agreement reached.
In order to promote such an intervention, and possibly even an intervention by other Arab countries, Israel should accept the Arab Peace Initiative as a basis for negotiations. This move would pass some of the responsibility to the Arab states and make them into a kind of framework that could be presented to the Israeli society as a partner that can be trusted and that would strongly support Abbas.
All this, of course, does not change the fact that the negotiations themselves and the agreement signed would be carried out first and foremost between the Palestinian leadership and the government of Israel.

The Core Issues

There are a number of sensitive core issues that have to be dealt with to achieve an agreement. Among the most crucial are Jerusalem and the question of the right of return.

Jerusalem. Without a solution in Jerusalem, there will be no comprehensive solution. There is an urgent need for a public information campaign to clarify that Jerusalem is not united and that large parts of Jerusalem today were annexed, to be used as bargaining chips in future negotiations and to create a "security belt" around the city. Different models for dealing with Jerusalem have been offered that can and should be discussed, including a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. It is also possible to decide, quite courageously, that Jerusalem indeed needs to be united, and to understand that the only way to keep it united is by giving up exclusive claims over it and turning it into a city for everyone and a city of no one, through internationalization or other means.
A peace agreement that includes normalization with the Arab countries and the declaration of the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict are a great prize. Concessions on Jerusalem, which are in actuality not concessions but rather acts of recognition of the sad situation in Jerusalem and identifying the situation as it is - these are prices worth paying for such a prize.

The right of return. The Israeli public perceives the right of return to be the end of the State of Israel as it exists today; it is a demographic danger and will mean millions of Palestinians knocking at our doors demanding their houses back. More than the issue of Jerusalem, the question of refugees and the right of return is considered the greatest obstacle to the acceptance of a peace offer, even among the Israeli left.
The Arab Peace Initiative was worded with Israeli society as the audience, and the clause dealing with the refugee issue calls for "a just solution to the refugee problem to be agreed-upon." The reference to UN Resolution 194 and other additions to this statement attempts to deal with pressures from several countries within the Arab League. But they do not change the fact that what is required from Israel is to reach an agreed-upon solution, that both we and the Palestinians agree upon.
It is true that the dream of full and complete return still exists, especially among refugees still living in the camps; however, some senior Palestinian and Arab officials claim that the right of return implies no more than an Israeli recognition of the right as a matter of principle. Such recognition would in fact require reparations (but these would undoubtedly be paid mostly by the United States and European countries) in addition to an agreed-upon number of refugees allowed to return to Israel, for example, 100,000 refugees within 10 years. A public information campaign detailing the specific numbers and facts of the right of return will make it less threatening, and clarify that it is a price well worth paying for normalization.
In addition to a peace agreement, the recognition of the right of return will also provide a beginning for a process of regional healing. The history books are written by the victors, and the injustice done to those who were the inhabitants of this land is not told in the textbooks. But the conquered have not vanished. They are here among us and in our neighboring countries. For us, peace is to be made mainly with them, and such recognition will help the Israeli population understand the distress of the other side, and will perhaps give the refugees a new start. This may be a far-reaching goal and may even be naive, but if it were to come true, we could hope for a new generation with completely different mindsets.

The Occupied Territories

Many Israelis would be willing to give up the occupied territories in return for real peace. Just as the peace camp temporarily supported former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, it would even more powerfully support any prime minister who presents a comprehensive agreement.
Many of the settlers, too, would be ready to evacuate the settlements in the territories in return for compensation, and it would be appropriate to encourage an organized and less traumatic evacuation in the early stages of the negotiations.
Strangely enough, the question of the occupied territories is the least of the obstacles that a comprehensive peace process faces. Over the years the understanding that a Palestinian state will be created and that the occupation of the territories is temporary has changed the question of returning the territories to the Palestinians: It is no longer a question of if, but of when and for what purpose.

The Arab States

All 22 Arab states have signed on to the Arab Peace Initiative, reconfirming this commitment at the Arab League's 2007 summit in Riyadh. The presence of the secretary general of the Arab League and foreign ministers of the member states at the Annapolis conference was an important step forward.
While, ideally, Israel should have addressed the Initiative in a comprehensive manner from the start in 2002, the Arab League members' inability to back their commitment through more concrete steps has allowed the Initiative to effectively slide off the public and media radar in Israel.
There are two ways in which the Arab League could promote the Initiative in 2008. First, recognizing that Israeli public support is crucial, the Arab states could accept offers from Israeli civil society organizations to open a dialogue on the basis of the Initiative. This would serve to revive the largely moribund Israeli peace camp, which can then move forward with efforts to mobilize the public behind the Initiative. Second, the Arab states could unite in inviting Israel to participate in marathon talks based on the Initiative with direct Quartet support, with the aim of establishing the basis for a comprehensive resolution of the conflict.

Explaining the Initiative to the Israeli Public

The Israeli public has a key role to play in accepting the Initiative. No prime minister will be able to carry out such a far-reaching agreement without widespread support from Israeli society.
An effective campaign would succeed in selling the Initiative also to people from the center and moderate right-wing from the perspective of cost and impact, political gain and personal gain. Additionally, the campaign would explain, through people in the security sector, former generals and Middle East experts, the way in which the Initiative would contribute to the security of the country's citizens. Above all, such a campaign would transform the concepts of comprehensive peace, normalization and "end of conflict" to accessible concepts that can be imagined, accepted and aspired to. <