Posted on June 01, 1998 in Washington Watch

It is well past the time for the Arab states to take a decisive stand to save the Middle East peace process. The current U.S. mediation effort designed to end the stagnation in the process is itself in danger of stagnating.

Thus far, the Netanyahu government has foiled the U.S. plan. It is, by now, an open secret that the U.S. proposals offered to end that impasse strongly favored the Israeli side. The Palestinians have been asked to accept much less than they had a right to expect under the terms of the Oslo Accords. What they were offered instead was a bitter pill to swallow, but having no leverage, they agreed to swallow it.

Still the Netanyahu government has refused to accept even the modest 13.1% withdrawal proposed by the United States. Not only has Netanyahu rejected the U.S. efforts, he has used the past five months to mobilize powerful allies in the United States against the Administration. The recent appalling performance by Republican congressional leader Newt Gingrich is a case in point.

Gingrich’s shocking attacks against First Lady Hillary Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright should not be seen as the mere ravings of a loose cannon or a partisan politician. They are evidence of the degree to which the Likud party and its operatives have succeeded in poisoning the well of political discourse in the U.S. Congress and the American Jewish Community.

Netanyahu and his neo-conservative and fundamentalist allies have preyed on old fears and anti-Arab biases and succeeded in giving new life to old lies. The rhetoric used by political leaders of both parties at the recent AIPAC (the pro-Israel lobby) convention in Washington provides ample evidence of this fact.

Speaker after speaker at the AIPAC event described the Middle East as an arena in which “tiny democratic Israel” was “surrounded by hostile despotic Arab neighbors preaching hatred and destruction of the Jewish state.” Praise of Israel was excessive, negative stereotypes used to describe the Arabs were abusive. Once again, the name of Palestinian President Yasir Arafat has been reduced to a dirty word used to smear one’s opponents.

When Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk (a former AIPAC employee) attempted to introduce some balance to the AIPAC conference discussion by pointing out what efforts the Palestinians have made toward peace and instances of Israel’s non-compliance with the Oslo Accords, he was greeted with boos and shouts of disapproval.

It was as if Oslo, the Casablanca and Amman Economic Summits and the Sharm al Sheikh Peacemaker’s Summit had never occurred. There was no recognition of what the Arabs have attempted to do to move the peace process forward. And there was no appreciation of the fundamental objectives that launched the current drive toward a comprehensive peace.

The process began as an imperative dictated by U.S. national security interests to fulfill UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and move the Middle East toward mutual recognition shared prosperity, justice and security. Today, in the wake of the Likud ideological blitz campaign, the process is seen as having only one objective: security for Israel and an end to Arab hatred and threats against Israel!

While U.S. public opinion does not share this myopic Israeli view, unorganized public opinion is not a political force. On the other hand, Congress, the organized Jewish community and the fundamentalist right wing are serious political forces with which the Clinton Administration must contend.

In this context, the Administration has been somewhat stymied. Clearly they have the power and broad public support to impose themselves more vigorously on the Netanyahu government. But it is equally clear that given the strong opposition from partisan Republicans and a radicalized Jewish leadership, they have not found the political will to do so. Each deadline the United States has set has given way to yet another deadline, and now there is even the denial of any deadline at all. The result is the current impasse and the danger of a collapse of the process or an even more fatal drawn out stalemate during which the Palestinians continue to be squeezed.

At this point, only a strong Arab response can make the difference in saving this ailing peace process. Some facts, however, must be established in order to frame the content of such an Arab response.

It is important to recognize that Netanyahu is extremely unpopular within Israel and his policies are not supported by the majority of American Jews, despite the support he receives from their organizational leadership. Polls show that strong majorities in Israel and among U.S. Jews want the peace process to succeed and strong support also exists for a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu understands this and therefore couches all of his political ploys in language and tactics that suggest that he is continuing the search for peace.

Netanyahu has promised Israelis peace with security. Now as a result of his policies, Israelis have neither. But Netanyahu has succeeded in confusing large segments of Israeli public opinion. While there are hard-line ideological and theologically-based zealots in Israel who oppose the peace process, much of the Prime Minister’s support comes from substantial numbers of new immigrants and other non-ideological Israelis who, despite having fallen prey to his fear mongering rhetoric, want a lasting peace and believe that the Netanyahu government is making a real effort to achieve it.

These elements believe that the Prime Minister’s hard-line tactics are justified and working. They have come to believe that the Arab side is not truly committed to peace and, therefore, the Prime Minister is correct in lowering Arab expectations and limiting Israeli concessions, while, at the same time, maintaining some semblance of continuity in the process itself. From their perspective, Netanyahu may be risking a rupture with the U.S. Administration, but he has won the support of the U.S. Congress. He may have alienated some Arab states, but relations continue with others. He has infuriated the Europeans but he can still do business with others. There may be no direct talks with Arafat, but there are hints of talks and even suggestions of breakthroughs with other Palestinians and if that fails, the possibility of movement on other tracks.

All in all, these mainstream Israeli supporters of Netanyahu feel he has managed fairly well at ducking and dodging U.S. pressure while seeking the best deal for his country.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu has succeeded in buying time, building new settlements, establishing new facts on the ground and making it more and more difficult to return land in a future peace agreement.

The United States, plagued by domestic political pressures, has up until now been unable to significantly alter either Netanyahu’s behavior or the internal Israeli debate. The Europeans cannot get a foothold in the process, since the Israelis will not let them in, and the Palestinians, the weakest and most vulnerable party in the conflict, have little leverage against Netanyahu’s ploys.

A strong Arab response, however, can end the charade that the peace process has become and dramatically alter the internal Israeli debate.

An Arab summit, not unlike the one convened in 1996 should meet at this extraordinary moment and issue two related resolutions.

The first should be an unequivocal statement of commitment to the vision of a new Middle East. The statement should restate in unambiguous terms the Arab states’ support for UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 as the basis for a peaceful negotiated resolution of all aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Arabs should make especially clear their acceptance and recognition of Israel as a neighbor and a partner in the future of the region.

It would be important to provide, within the context of this statement, a balance sheet laying out the potential benefits of peace weighing them out against the negative costs of continued hostility for all parties.

Arabs should paint a picture of the future so attractive and compelling that Israeli and Arab public opinion alike are drawn to it.

At the same time, the summit should issue a parallel statement declaring that while their desire to implement this vision of peace, which includes Israel’s existence with security and peace, is sincere and irreversible, movement toward achieving it must be conditional on Israel’s acceptance of its internationally recognized obligations toward the Palestinian people and completion of a just and lasting peace on the Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian tracks based on the principles of land for peace and mutual recognition of the right of self-determination.

To back up the conditionality of their offer, the Arabs should take immediate steps to strengthen the resolutions of the June 1996 Cairo summit.

Having put their offer on the table in unambiguous terms, in equally unambiguous terms the Arab summit must take concrete steps to economically and politically isolate the state of Israel until it agrees to the establishment of a just and lasting peace.

If the EU can propose to boycott Israeli goods produced in occupied territory, the Arabs must find the political will to incrementally reestablish economic sanctions of their own.

Only when Israelis, who have tasted the fruits of peace, while their government has blocked its implementation, can see: (1) that the Arab offer of peace is real and complete; and (2) that a price must be paid for the intransigence of the Netanyahu government–will they be motivated to challenge their government’s intransigence and demand a change.

This Arab effort to shape the political debate within Israel is critical if the peace process is to move forward. But if this effort is to succeed, both elements of the proposal described above must be implemented. On the one hand the hearts and minds of Israeli opinion must be won, on the other, their pocket books must be effected. At present, their pocketbooks have been fattened, while their fears have been reinforced.

Finally, to be successful, Arabs must engage their allies in the United States and Europe and elsewhere in a multi-pronged campaign to support their initiative. Arab Americans and their pro-peace supporters in the United States must be strengthened and encouraged to engage in the U.S. public debate and international NGO efforts, like that initiated by the Copenhagen group (the International Alliance for Israeli-Arab Peace), must be intensified. While all political contact with the Netanyahu government should be frozen so as to end the charade he has made of the peace process, significant efforts should be made to reach out directly to the Israeli public.

The stakes in this contest are high. The dangers of continued stalemate or collapse of the peace process are all too real: extremism, instability and renewed violence. These will only play into the hands of the Likud and their neo-conservative supporters who actually want to reestablish a Middle East cold war. It is precisely this outcome that the U.S. administration and the vast majority of the Arab states who support peace seek to avoid.

Left alone, the current process, which depends to too great an extent on the United States, will continue to flounder and yield undesirable results. The Netanyahu government’s manipulative ploys have succeeded in changing the terms of the process and the Arab-Israeli discourse as well. It is imperative that the Arab states, who, themselves, have the most to gain and the most to lose, take some control of the process and restore to it both vision and integrity.

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