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Since its inception in March 2002, the Arab Peace Initiative (API) has not been given its proper place in the political strategies of either Israel or the international community. Although the Initiative expressed a fundamental shift in the positions of Arab nations and a historic opportunity for the State of Israel, it largely passed unnoticed in Israel due to a combination of unfortunate timing and a distorted representation of its content and meaning to the Israeli public. This decade-long disregard for the API has caused, and continues to cause, serious strategic harm to Israel.
The Initiative offers a clear deal: Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, an agreed upon solution to the refugee problem, and the establishment of a Palestinian state, in return for “normal relations” with numerous Arab states including their recognition of Israel's legitimate right to exist “in peace and good neighbourliness”. Although the Initiative is not entirely without its problems, all the alternatives to an affirmative response—inaction, bilateral negotiations with the Palestinian Authority or unilateral steps—suffer from similar problems yet benefit from none of its advantages. The Initiative is therefore the most attractive option for peace to date.
This Molad report aims to put the Arab Peace Initiative squarely on the public agenda and present it as a way out of the deep political crisis in which Israel is presently mired. Besides suggesting a solution to Israel’s most fundamental problem—the occupation—and the deterioration of its international standing, the Initiative affords the potential to both improve Israel's security situation and meaningfully strengthen its economy. Moreover, Israeli acceptance of the Initiative would be deeply aligned with one of Zionism's initial historic goals; for neighboring nations, including the Palestinians, to recognize the legitimacy of the existence of the State of Israel.
This report also deals with the aspect of the Initiative which has been portrayed as the central challenge from the Israeli perspective, namely its stipulation on the refugee issue. The Initiative’s adversaries in Israel often claim that it is tantamount to an Arab demand for a full return of refugees to Israeli territory. Molad's analysis reveals that this is an erroneous interpretation at best, and a deliberate distortion of facts at worst. The API doubtless contains a call for genuine Israeli recognition of the problem; but it leaves plenty of leeway for practical solutions.
This report also deals with the region's shifting reality in the years since the Initiative was put on the table—the civil war in Syria, the rise of Islamist movements in some of the Arab states, and the split in the Palestinian leadership—and demonstrates how these transformations only make the Initiative more appealing.
Finally, this paper presents a general outline for an Israeli response to the Arab Peace Initiative. The Initiative’s declarative nature calls for a similarly declarative response. In such a declaration, Israel can respond positively in principle, while stressing the need for negotiations on details. This is a unique opportunity for Israel to redefine its relations with its neighbors.
The likelihood that the current Israeli government will embrace the efforts of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry by responding positively to the Arab Initiative is slim to none. It is therefore the responsibility of the Israeli opposition to turn the Initiative into a cornerstone of its policy. The opposition will thus espouse a reasoned and responsible program that constitutes a clear alternative to the right’s dangerous path. It should furthermore make clear its intentions to formally adopt the Initiative once it regains the public’s trust and forms a government.
One of the central reasons for the Israeli left’s present weakness is that it lost credibility with the public on issues of peace and security. The time has come to relieve ourselves of the stagnant mindset that identifies direct bilateral negotiations as the only way forward and take advantage of the benefits to be found in a multi-lateral, regional approach. As long as Israel’s governments continue to fail in the quest for peace, Israel’s opposition parties ought to affirm this historic opportunity waiting at their doorstep.