The news published this morning in Ha’aretz newspaper regarding a secret back channel of unofficial Israeli-Syrian talks that produced a “non-paper” agreement for full Israeli-Syrian peace with the full knowledge of both governments joins together with the formal statements made by the legal advisor of the Syrian President last week at the “Madrid+15” conference. Syria is ready for real peace with Israel. The Israeli intelligence chiefs have been reporting the same thing over the past weeks — albeit catching up with reality quite late, as the Syrian peace overtures have been coming out of Damascus for at least a full year (and there are those who even say for two years — so much for intelligence!).
The same Ha’aretz newspaper reported several months ago following the last Arab League Summit in Khartoum in March 2006 that the Arab countries were preparing a “peace offensive”. The story appeared at the bottom of an inner page of the newspaper. When I saw the headline about an “Arab peace offensive,” I, as an Israeli, had to clear my eyes to make sure that I read it correctly. I did, and then I couldn’t comprehend why this was not the lead story on the front page of the newspaper. In 1967, the same Arab League in the same capital declared its famous “three NOs” policy — no recognition (of Israel), no negotiations and no peace. In 2006, the Arab League unanimously ratified the Arab League Peace Initiative that was originally unanimously passed in March 2002 at the height of the intifada. Had the Arab States issued the same call for peace in 1948, Israelis would have danced in the streets. They (the Arab League) didn’t do it then, but they are doing it now.
At the “Madrid+15 conference” last week, marking 15 years since the beginning of the peace process, one Arab spokesperson after the other called on Israel, the U.S. and the rest of the world to support the Arab League’s peace initiative. Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League said “the Arab League, at its summit in Beirut, extended to Israel the hand of peace based on full recognition and normalization on the basis of mutual and parallel implementation of the obligations ascribed to them by the international community through the Security Council resolutions and the Madrid principles of land for peace. We, on the Arab side, have yet to see any peace initiative by the other side. I seize the opportunity of this meeting to invite Israel not to be afraid of peace and to extend the hand of peace as we have done.” Quite remarkable!
While the new Israeli-Syrian “non-paper” has the attribute of deniability, the Arab League peace initiative does not. The Arab States and the Palestinian leadership under President Mahmoud Abbas continue to declare that there is no better way to advance peace at the present time. The 15th anniversary of Madrid affords us the opportunity to look back and to actually learn some of the lessons of past failures. One lesson is more than clear — there is no more room for partial measures, for interim agreements and for road maps to nowhere. The majority of Israeli and Palestinian citizens prefer a negotiated process on permanent status. Both peoples and their leaders know that the formula for Israeli-Palestinian peace is the two-states for two peoples solution based on the Clinton parameters. The Israeli-Syrian “non-paper” demonstrates that the formula for peace on the northern front is clear and agreed and all that remains is for Israel to turn the Shebaa Farms over to the UN to determine to whom they belong. These three steps fulfil the conditions of the Arab League peace initiative and would guarantee Israel peace and normalization with all 22 Arab States.
What stands in the way of advancing a new and genuine peace process are two dysfunctional governments — one in Ramallah-Gaza and one in Jerusalem, and obstacles placed on the road to peace by the Bush Administration. Enlisting and engaging the Israeli government must be undertaken by a three-pronged offensive: (1) by the Arab League and by the Arab states that have peace with Israel — Jordan and Egypt; (2) by the Israeli civil society, peace organizations and prominent Israeli opinion makers; and (3) by the European Union or member states of the EU. The EU or a group of EU member states (such as Spain, Italy, France, Sweden and others) have a similar and essential role vis-à-vis President Mahmoud Abbas in providing assurances that a full fledged peace offensive would lead to bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on permanent status and not on interim agreements and Road Maps. The EU must also indicate its commitment to bolster a real peace process by providing on-the-ground monitors and verifiers as well as peacekeeping troops in the occupied territories both during the process and once agreements are reached and Israel begins to roll back its occupation. Israel should agree to extend the Gaza ceasefire to the West Bank as well in order to create a more positive environment for negotiations. What is required from the US government is to move aside and to provide the space for a genuine peace process to ensue; they can join in later once agreements are reached.
In the meantime, President Abbas must advance the internal Palestinian negotiations with Hamas on the formulation of a national unity government. Even if he fails, he has the legitimacy to negotiate and the agreement of Hamas that any future Israeli-Palestinian agreement would be brought to the Palestinian people to decide on. It is quite clear that any agreement that will fulfil the majority of the aspirations of the Palestinian people for freedom and statehood will win their support. The major obstacle in the negotiations on the Palestinian side will be the refugee issue and if a genuine process begins and advances, Palestinian leaders will have to finally declare in public what most of them declare in private — the right of return of refugees will be to the Palestinian state and not to Israel. The sooner the Palestinian leadership makes that public declaration the easier it will be to resolve the other main issues — borders, security and Jerusalem.
There is a great sense of urgency about moving the process forward now. There is a sense that time is running out on the two-state solution. There is also a growing sense that there are new opportunities for moving forward. As such, now is not the time for reservations or for trepidation. Now is the time for the Arab League, for Jordan and Egypt, for the EU or several of its member states to take the initiative to bring the parties to the table. Israel is fearful of another Madrid-type international conference, certainly without U.S. direct engagement and control. We cannot depend on the Bush Administration to back this process, and that is more than a shame. The U.S. is unlikely to provide any real constructive “good offices” for a peace process for at least two years and we cannot afford to wait for two years with only “maintenance visit”” by Secretary Rice and Elliot Abrams. There is almost nothing left to maintain as a result of so much back-tracking over the past six years.
It is well known in the Middle East if you are not moving forward, you are moving backwards. There is no standing in place and too much at stake to wait for the next U.S. Administration. Israel and the Arabs cannot do it alone; there must be international backing and commitment to see the process through. In the interest of long term security for Israel, it would be wise for all those genuinely concerned for Israel’s future to encourage and support the international community in fully backing the Arab League’s peace initiative.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.