Beer-Sheeva, Israel: In the wake of the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, eight Arab heads of state met in Khartoum, Sudan, to decide how to react to the humiliating defeat. The leaders’ message was straightforward: There would be no peace with Israel, no recognition of and no negotiations with the Jewish state. Following the summit, most Arab countries adopted the three no approach as their official policy, and for many years Israel was considered to be an illegitimate entity.
Much has changed in the Middle East since that fateful summit, and just last week, during the Arab League’s meeting in Riyadh, one got a sense of just how radical the change has been. Leaders from almost all of the League’s twenty-one member countries (as well as the Palestinian Authority) attended the meeting, and together they agreed to “reaffirm their call to the government of Israel and all Israelis to accept the Saudi peace initiative and seize the opportunity to resume the process of direct and serious negotiations on all tracks.”
The Saudi plan recognizes Israel and offers it permanent peace with all Arab countries in return for an Israeli withdrawal from lands captured in the 1967 war, the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a just solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees.
Thus, the Arab states have replaced the three no approach with a three yes approach: yes to negotiations, yes to recognition and yes to peace. In the summit’s concluding remarks the Arab countries underscored that “they have chosen peace since it is the only strategic option” and proceeded to condemn all forms of terror and violence, and urged all countries to desist from a nuclear arms race. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal went so far as to say that even if Israel does not accept the initiative immediately the doors for peace and negotiations would be left open.
Ironically, the two key actors that are unenthusiastic about the Saudi initiative are Hamas and Israel.
Hamas, as is well known, is unwilling to recognize Israel and therefore remained uncommitted to the summit’s decisions, choosing instead to adopt an ambiguous position. A spokesman for the organization told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that “although we do not accept the Saudi initiative, we will not counteract the Arab consensus.”
Along similar lines, Israel’s official response to the summit was lukewarm, ignoring the content of the Riyadh resolution while focusing on the Arab call to begin a dialogue. “Israel believes in peace, and seeks to establish peaceful and neighborly relations both with the Palestinian people and with all the states of the region,” the official statement read, with an addendum that “Israel is sincerely interested in pursuing a dialogue with those Arab states that desire peace with Israel, this in order to promote a process of normalization and cooperation.”
Diplomatically speaking, Israel’s response is brilliant, since it gives the impression that the government supports the Saudi plan, while, in fact, it rejects the central principles underlying the initiative. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert underscored Israel’s rejectionist position only a few weeks ago when he said that any future negotiations would be informed by a three no approach: no to dividing Jerusalem, no to a withdrawal to the 1967 borders, and no to a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.
Israel’s position, in other words, is not only closer to Hamas’s than it is to the stance taken by Arab states and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, but is also counterproductive. The members of the Arab League understood that a rejectionist stance will only lead the region into more strife and bloodshed and therefore decided to make a historic compromise. Instead of adopting ambiguous language to conceal its three no approach, Israel should embrace this opportunity with open arms since peace is indeed the only strategic option. It is high time to seize the day.
Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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