The approval of the Saudi peace proposal by the 22-member Arab League last week is historic. It marks the first time that the world has heard a clear articulation that they would “consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended, and enter into a peace agreement with Israel, and provide security for all the states of the region.” In essence, what the Arab states did together last week was to take a major positive step toward Arabizing the Israeli-Palesinian conflict.
Three prerequisites have been put forward to end the conflict for good: “full Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied since 1967; the achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194; and the acceptance of the establishment of a sovereign, independent Palestinian state on the Palestinian territories occupied since the 4th of June 1967 in the West Bank and Gaza strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.”
These three conditions undoubtedly pose a tall order for Israelis. Many would like the Arabs to compromise and water them down. Some, for example, would opt for an Israeli withdrawal only from the largest Palestinian population centres and the insistence that Jewish settlements remain under Israeli army protection. As for implementing UN resolution 194 and respecting expatriate Palestinians’ right-of-return, both issues are considered a threat to “the Jewishness” of Israel. And finally, many Israeli government leaders consider any idea of giving up East Jerusalem tantamount to political suicide.
But to consider things from the other side, the Arabs have offered Israel the maximum concessions possible. These concessions are both reasonable and fair: 80% of the land once belonging to historical Palestine, the normalization of relations with Israel, and above all, an open door to longterm healing and reconciliation — not only between Israelis and Palestinians directly involved in conflict, but between Jews, Arabs and Muslims everywhere. I believe these proposals are wholly genuine, reasonable and fair.
Despite extremist Zionist views to the contrary, Arabs in the Middle East now accept the Jews who live among them as part of the local cultural mosaic. Former slogans about driving the Jews into the sea, or liquidating the state of Israel, were born of political attitudes that most Arabs now repudiate. They are seen as counterproductive to the development of the region and of its human and natural resources.
Israel, for its part, used to label the Arabs and their leaders as a self-sabotaging people who repeatedly miss opportunities. They cite the rejection of the UN partition plan of 1940s, and then 30 years later, Anwar Sadat’s peace plan. I am not alone in hoping now that Israel’s leaders don’t commit the same fatal mistakes.
Today’s Arab nations and citizens are different too. They are begging for peace with justice and have offered a peace plan whose refusal Israel could live to regret. For the Arab nations understand only too well how easily the Israeli-Palestinan conflict could spill over into their entire region. As the current 18-month-old Intifada has so tragically demonstrated, there will be no clear winner.
Arab leaders also know that satellite television has beamed the gory details of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into every Arab home, every day. So far, they have resisted all appeals to support the Palestinians — apparently terrified, until now, of risking a full-scale military confrontation with Israel, and thereby incurring the forceful wrath of America. But they also know that it is only a matter of time — perhaps very little time — before the Intifada overflows into a serious and unstoppable confrontation with their own people over their reluctance to support the Palestinians as a kindred nation.
Last week’s Arab consensus in supporting the Saudi peace initiative was impressive. Yet some Israelis may perceive this generous step as a consensus arising out of weakness and desperation instead. They must be convinced that the plan and its objectives are too good to reject. Plainly stated, there is nothing better being offered that has any real chance of breaking the current Middle East peace deadlock; I repeat, nothing.
Arab League Secretary General Amir Moussa summed up the collective position last week when he stated: “This is what we are offering. We are trying to clarify the Arab position towards peace in the Middle East and, accordingly, we are being very clear about what is required for peace. We do not want to waste any more time on theatrics, ceremonial meetings, and photo sessions.”
The crucial question is, if the Saudi plan truly represents what the Arab world is offering (and I believe it does) then what, if anything, has the current Israeli government done comparably to serve the cause of peace in the Middle East?
Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.