To return to the new Peace Now website click here.

Hard Questions, Tough Answer with Yossi Alpher - November 24, 2008

Q. Significance of PLO ad on the Arab peace initiative in Israel's major dailies? Q. If elected, what will be Likud's attitude on peace process?

Q. Last week, the PLO's Negotiations Department published the Arab peace initiative in Israel's major dailies. What is the significance of this initiative?

A. First of all, this is the first time that I can recall when an Arab government or leading institution like the PLO published a "peace ad" in the Israeli press. It represents a step forward in terms of Arab readiness to actively solicit peace with Israel, and particularly reflects Arab acknowledgement that Israelis must be educated about the content of the Arab peace initiative and the Arab and Islamic states' readiness to reward a successful Arab-Israel peace process with normalization.

The Arab peace initiative (which can be read at www.bitterlemons.org/docs/summit.html) was first adopted in March 2002 at an Arab League summit in Beirut and was reconfirmed in Riyadh five years later. It offers Israel normalized relations, including a security component, with all Arab countries, in return for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and peace with Syria and Lebanon. The peace agreements must be based on the 1967 lines, there must be a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and there must be a just and agreed solution to the refugee problem based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194 from 1949.

The initiative is unique in terms of the comprehensive "payoff" it offers Israel and, with regard to refugees, both the absence of any direct mention of the right of return and the recognition that Israel's agreement to a solution must be solicited. It represents huge progress from the days in 1967 when the Arab League, in response to the Six-Day War, delivered to Israel its famous "three nos": no to recognition, no to negotiations and no to peace.

The PLO ad in the Israeli press, which is being reciprocated by Peace Now in the Palestinian press, appears also to constitute a response to a growing recognition in Israel of the advantages of engaging the Arab world over the initiative. I discussed the positions of leading Israeli politicians regarding the initiative three weeks ago in the Q & A of November 3. Essentially, politicians like Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak (echoing comments by President Shimon Peres) and Ehud Olmert see the initiative, with reservations, as an opportunity to recruit broader Arab support for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations within the framework of closer Israel-Arab cooperation on regional security issues like Iran and terrorism.

In addition, the Council for Peace and Security, made up mainly of former senior security personnel (in the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of the organization's executive), is launching a campaign to frame Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian peace within the context of regional security and the unprecedented incentives the Arab world is offering.

But there had been little overt Arab response to these approaches until last week's PLO ad. This general Arab reticence to back up the Arab peace initiative was echoed in the criticism leveled by Arab radicals at the PLO for daring to appeal directly to Israelis through their media. Thus, Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal: "The rights of Palestinians can be achieved only through resistance, not advertisements." He could not be more mistaken.

This increasingly amplified discussion in Israel of the Arab peace initiative leads also to a variety of initiatives in the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps aimed at drawing the Obama administration into involvement. A direct and hands-on endorsement by Obama could be very helpful in terms of persuading the Arab League, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to abandon its "take it or leave it" approach to the initiative and agree to engage Israel--assuming its next government is willing--in discussion of ways in which the Arab world can not only reward but also facilitate the peace process. An Obama role in shepherding the Arab peace initiative could also influence Israel's elections, insofar as Israelis want their next prime minister to be "persona grata" in Washington, and only those on the left and center have spoken favorably of the initiative.

Q. And if the polls are right and the next Israeli government is formed by the Likud, how "willing" will it be? What will be its attitude on peace process issues?

A. According to the most recent polling results from last week, the Likud under the leadership of Binyamin Netanyahu will win the next elections and could be at least theoretically capable of forming either of two very different governments, each of which would have a different approach to peace process issues in view of the compromises mandated between Netanyahu's approach and that of his coalition partners. So there are two issues of interest here: Netanyahu's personal approach and the outcome of policy compromises mandated by different coalition agreements.

Netanyahu's approach appears to be little different in essence from his peace process initiatives and responses during his earlier tenure as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999. He will agree to negotiate on all fronts, but offer far too little, particularly in terms of territory, to bring about successful peace processes. Hence it is hard to imagine him endorsing the Arab peace initiative, which embraces the 1967 lines.

Nor will Netanyahu take serious steps to curtail settlement activity. Here, however, it must be acknowledged that the end result, given likely American and European pressures, might be little different than under, say, prime ministers Ehud Barak or Ehud Olmert, who may have wanted to curtail settlement activity (without being pressured) but were too weak politically to do so.

On the Palestinian front, Netanyahu's "economic peace" will emphasize economic development of the West Bank as a higher priority than what he would characterize as fruitless negotiations with an inept Palestinian leadership, particularly over final status issues. On the Golan, Netanyahu will likely revert to his proposals of 1998-9, when he offered to withdraw from about 75 percent of the territory while holding onto the escarpment overlooking the Sea of Galilee, the Hermon peak (for Israeli intelligence early-warning purposes) and a land bridge linking them. (Notably, both Olmert and Barak argue that they have information according to which Netanyahu ultimately offered the Syrians nearly 100 percent of the Golan, but Netanyahu and his close advisers deny this vehemently.)

How will Netanyahu propose bridging the obvious territorial gaps between his proposals and the demands of the PLO and Bashar Assad, particularly in the era of Barack Obama and the Arab peace initiative? Here he invokes a new regional or international dimension: Egypt and Jordan will be solicited to help develop the Palestinian territories, while the US, Europe and the wealthy Arab states will be brought in to make Assad an economic development offer he simply can't refuse.

Needless to say, this is where Netanyahu's views fail the test of reality. It is almost certain that the PLO, Assad, the wealthy and not-so-wealthy Arabs and the West will all balk at these proposals as long as they don't satisfy Arab territorial demands that have formed the basis of negotiations for nearly two decades now.

These assessments are based on my understanding of Netanyahu's peace approach after speaking to perhaps his closest adviser on strategic issues. But what happens when he enters a coalition in which (according to current polls, which give the Likud 35 mandates) the Likud constitutes barely half of the minimum 61 members of Knesset he needs to form a government?

One option would be a national unity government, to which Netanyahu claims to aspire. It would presumably include Kadima, which according to current polls would finish a close second to the Likud, and a Labor party that has shrunk to around 10 mandates. A right wing party like Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu might be brought in for "balance". (Such a government, incidentally, could be overwhelmingly secular, raising interesting possibilities for legislating long-needed liberal laws regarding marriage, divorce and conversion.)

Labor and/or Kadima would certainly not join unless the coalition agreement calls for ongoing peace processes. The most likely compromise outcome between Netanyahu's approach and that of his coalition partners to the left--factoring in presumed American pressures as well--would probably be a less-than-energetic approach to negotiations with the PLO ("conflict management") coupled with a more vigorous undertaking to move toward progress with the Syrians.

This assessment assumes, based on Netanyahu's record in his previous premiership and his sensitivity to American pressures, that ultimately he would be prepared to give up all of the Golan in return for a dramatic move by Syria away from the Iran/radical camp. Such a move would satisfy both Netanyahu's heavy emphasis on the primacy of the Iranian threat and his desire to hold onto the West Bank, while providing the Obama administration with distinct advantages in its dealings with Iran and Iraq--its highest Middle East priority.

Netanyahu's alternative coalition option would be a right/religious government in which the Likud is on the left and its partners to the right include Lieberman, Shas and HaBait HaLeumi (the new union of the National Religious Party and the National Union). Netanyahu could be forced into such a coalition if Kadima and Labor refuse to join his government, or if he chose not to invite them.

Such a government would be powerless to act meaningfully on peace process issues on either front and would almost inevitably put Israel on an eventual collision course with the Obama administration. Eventual, because Obama's Middle East agenda will likely be heavily loaded with issues related to Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan during his first year in office, and here he will find a compliant partner in Netanyahu, despite the latter's bluster regarding Iran.