Why President Sisi was right – and wrong By ZALMAN SHOVAL/Former Ambassador to the US.
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Sisi in his important speech a few weeks ago to the Donor’s Conference on Gaza was right when he emphasized the correlation between the Arab world’s geopolitical interests – many shared by Israel – and the quest for a solution to the Palestinian problem. In fact, this is also the point of view of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. He was wrong, however, in citing the so-called “Arab Peace Initiative” as a possible mainstay in achieving normalization between Israel and the Arab and Muslim worlds, or even Israel-Palestinian peace.
Like Lord Palmerston’s famous quip about the Schleswig-Holstein question, i.e. that “only three people had really understood the business – including himself, who had forgotten all about it” – this “initiative” not only has undergone numerous changes since it first appeared in Thomas Friedman’s New York Times column, but also has been an object of a plethora of sometimes ill-informed, more often disingenuous misinterpretations – while others have simply forgotten its details.
As I wrote at the time (The Jerusalem Post, March, 2002): “The ‘initiative’ can be compared to a Salvador Dali painting – a few beautiful, albeit distorted vistas – but scant touch with reality.” However, then Saudi crown prince Abdullah’s original wording, expressing, at least in spirit, a willingness to declare an end to the conflict and aiming at establishing normal relations with Israel – was changed at the 2002 Beirut “Arab League” meeting, mainly at the behest of Syria and its Lebanese client – with the result that the final document instead of being a genuine step toward reconciliation in effect became a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum to Israel.
One of its main faults was that while calling on Israel to withdraw unconditionally to the pre-’67 armistice lines, including in Jerusalem, it deliberately omitted UN Security Council Resolution 242, the universally agreed basis for Arab-Israeli peace – which had specifically related the location of future borders to the question of security. As a former American Ambassador to the UN put it, to ask Israel to withdraw to the former vulnerable line of separation (the “Green Line”) would be” incompatible” with said resolution. Furthermore, the comprehensive term “normalization,” being anathema to the Syrians, was also dropped – adopting “normal” or “normal peaceful” relations in its place.
The most objectionable part of the “initiative,” however, is its reference to the issue of the Palestinian refugees.
The Beirut summit calls for the matter to be resolved on the basis of UN General Assembly resolution 194, whose language reads: “The refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.” The Arab interpretation of said resolution is the unequivocal “right of return” to Israel proper, while other appraisals, especially by the Israeli Left, are mostly based on wishful thinking – or on distorting reality.
So that there shouldn’t be any doubt about this question, a final document accompanying the formal Beirut resolution and elaborating its meaning with regard to this and other issues included a clause insisting on the realization of “all the Palestinian people’s ‘inalienable rights,’ including the ‘right of return’” – emphasizing the complete refusal of the Arab leaders to resettle the refugees outside their “ancestral homes.”
The explicit rejection of Palestinian “patriation,” i.e. permanent settlement and integration in the countries in which they or their descendants are living, is a clear indication of what 194 means in Arab eyes. There are those who prefer to fudge this issue by claiming that Resolution 194 and “right of return” mean settling the refugees (if one can still talk about “refugees” after three generations) in a future Palestinian state – but besides the point that this is not the way the Palestinians see it, there is also the question whether there is a realistic possibility in economic, demographic and cultural terms to increase the present population of the West Bank, let alone of Gaza, by several hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of immigrants.
Significantly in this context, former American national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, in a joint article in The Washington Post some years ago, proposed several alterations in the Arab Peace Initiative, including a specific denial of the “right of return,” as well as “strengthening steps to address Israel’s security concerns.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in the meantime, is pursuing the traditional Palestinian policy of achieving Palestinian statehood without peace. His total rejection of any sort of compromise during the recent well-meaning but futile negotiations conducted under the aegis of US Secretary of State John Kerry, is sufficient proof of that – as the late Yitzhak Rabin had experienced in his dealings with Yasser Arafat.
The way toward an independent Palestine for Arafat was a combination of cheating and violence – and for Abbas it is to play the UN card. Peace doesn’t come into it, certainly not if that were to be contingent on concessions on such items as refugees, Jerusalem, borders, etc. Thus for Abbas it isn’t “peace now,” but “state now” – with peace, whatever its contours, later – or not at all. If the Arab Peace Initiative had been presented, as Jordan’s esteemed foreign minister, Marwan Muasher, suggested at the time, as a straight-forward “simple and powerful explanation of the Arab position” and not as an “either or” dictate, it could perhaps have served as a suitable platform for meaningful negotiations.
In its present form it is not. Since the toppling of the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood regime, Egypt under Sisi has again become an important factor for regional peace and stability, as well as in the fight against terrorism. In light of this, Egypt – perhaps jointly with other Arab moderates with whom Israel has more than a few common interests, including the threat of a nuclear Iran and the nuisance of a neo-Ottomanist Turkey, as well as shared concern about the growing chaos in the Middle East as a whole – could indeed play a key role in making it clear to Abbas that the road to Palestinian statehood must lead through a genuine commitment to peace with Israel.