Israel and the Arab Peace Initiative – top-down ignorance.

Those obsessed with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are all talking about the fact that the Arab League has once again proffered the Arab Peace Initiative as a starting place for negotiations with Israel.


The API’s basic contours are identical to the basic contours of every other plan ever devised to resolve the conflict: two states, based on the 1967 borders; a shared Jerusalem; a mutually agreed-upon resolution of the refugee problem. The stated goal of the API is a comprehensive, regional peace, and normalized relations with the Israeli people.

What’s a little stunning is that this is the third time the League has tried to launch the API—the first time was in 2002. What’s more stunning is the fact that, short of a brief mention by Ehud Olmert at the 2007 Annapolis Conference (months after the League had reissued its offer), official Israel has largely ignored the Initiative. The only difference circa 2013 is that the League is now willing to openly consider mutually-agreed minor land swaps—and still Prime Minister Netanyahu is hinting that the API is an Arab effort to dictate terms.

What’s perhaps stunning-est, however, is this: Until very recently, the vast majority of Israeli Jews had little to no idea that all 22 members of the Arab League had offered to start talks with their government, with the goal of achieving a region-wide peace.

Late last month, veteran Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar revealed in al-Monitor that

even though the initiative has been on the shelf for over 11 years, 73.5 percent of the Hebrew-speaking public had never heard of it, or had heard just a hint of it but remains unfamiliar with the details. Of these, 20.5 percent were “slightly knowledgeable” about the initiative and only six percent were “very knowledgeable.”

As an Israeli who chose to leave rather than raise my family in a polity so enmeshed in military occupation, I’m often frustrated by my people’s apparent inability to see beyond the fears (genuine though they are) that serve to buttress so many of our politicians’ ideologies.

Currently home for a visit, I happen to be typing these words in a busy Jerusalem café—surrounded by laughter and chatter about birthdays and foreign travel, I watch the delivery of café au lait and pastries, and the cognitive dissonance, the ability of my fellow coffee drinkers to live quiet, coffee-sipping lives even as the people they fear labor under the control of the region’s mightiest military, is deafening. I want to ask the folks one table over how it is that we so often refuse to see the reality in which we live; I’m not sure I want to hear the response.

And yet, I can’t help but consider that statistic: Nearly three-quarters of Hebrew-speaking Israelis had no idea that the Arab world had offered to negotiate peace—not once, not twice, but three times.

When that many people are that ignorant of information that vital, it speaks to something much greater than a simple failure to stay up-to-date. It’s a kind of ignorance that serves those anxious to exploit it, those who have no interest in achieving rapprochement, those for whom fear is a stepping stone to hegemony and ethnic purity. It points to an unavoidable but largely unacknowledged fact: Israel’s elites have not found it in their interests to prepare their people for the possibility of an end to conflict—and so they’ve chosen not to.

Politicians haven’t talked about the Initiative, haven’t responded to the Initiative, haven’t floated the Initiative via influential proxies, and (perhaps most damningly) the press hasn’t paid it much attention, either. Instead, we’ve seen government efforts to cleanse the educational system of any reference to the Palestinian story, government insistence that any and all Palestinian demands are a threat to the Jewish state, and a press that’s too often willing to follow wherever the official narrative leads. After all, no one fails to report Palestinian violence—but nonviolent Palestinian activism? Meh.

So the question has to be asked: To what extent is a people responsible for knowing that which is knowingly kept from them? To what extent do they need to guess what no one is saying?

When the API’s general outline was spelled out, 55 percent of those surveyed said they’d support it to some extent; when asked whether they’d support Netanyahu if he reached a final status agreement based on those same principles, the yeses jumped to 69 percent.

No one has tried to prepare my fellow Israelis for the possibility of peace, and yet when presented with the truth about what’s actually on the table, nearly the same number that expressed prior ignorance expressed support.

We can’t know what the Middle East would look like today if Israel had pursued the API eleven years ago (or five years ago). We can’t know how Israelis would greet the Initiative today if they’d known about it all along.

But surely it matters that they didn’t know. Surely it matters that those with the power to tell them chose not to. And surely it matters that with just a little bit of knowledge, in spite of everything, Israelis say they want what the Arab League has to offer.

The most important question, though, is whether all this will matter to the politicians who kept the information from them in the first place.

Graffiti in upscale Jerusalem neighborhood reads “Those who believe him are afraid,” a play on the popular religious saying: “Those who believe are not afraid.”

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast. (To follow the links embedded in the post – particularly those relevant to Palestinian nonviolence).

Low expectations for lofty goals.

meretzIn an interesting case of idealistic realism, the last bastion of the peace camp in Israeli politics, Meretz, has introduced a party platform that calls for a four-year path to Israeli-Palestinian peace, while simultaneously acknowledging that they don’t stand a chance.

As Haaretz reported yesterday:

The leftist Meretz party on Tuesday unveiled its diplomatic platform – a four-year path to peace based on the Arab League initiative.

The platform calls for immediate recognition of a Palestinian state followed by negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, a freeze on settlement construction, release of Palestinian prisoners and removal of West Bank roadblocks, Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-On said on Tuesday at a Tel Aviv news conference.

The plan would also cancel the Oslo Accords in agreement with the Palestinians, and replace them with a new interim pact. Gal-On said she would be meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah to discuss the plan on Wednesday.

Which is all well and good, and after having spent several weeks reading about how everyone else in Israeli politics appears to be in a race to see who can be the biggest supporter of two-state wrecking settlement construction, is also a real pleasure to see. Despite what statistics are starting to suggest, apparently some Israeli Jews aren’t yet ready to shrug their shoulders over peace.

Yet despite the time-honored tradition of acting like you’re going to win even when you know you’re going to lose, not even the folks at Meretz are spinning their plan’s chances.

The platform was prepared by Ilan Baruch, a former career diplomat who resigned his post to South Africa in 2011 saying he could no longer represent the Netanyahu government’s foreign policy. At the same Tuesday press conference, Baruch said:

[This] is a plan intended to jump-start the process that has gone into deep freeze, [which is] completely the responsibility of the outgoing government and apparently the incoming one. Any plan that pretends to reinvent the peace process is not serious. Our plan is based on existing materials. The first and supreme test is the applicability of such a plan. [emphasis added]

Baruch is right. Any plan that pretends to reinvent the peace process isn’t serious, and at the same time, there is absolutely no reason to believe that the next Israeli government will have any interest in any peace process whatsoever. Meretz will certainly not be a coalition partner.

But it is an honorable tradition for the opposition to stand firm in the political desert and tell the truth, whether or not the people in charge want to hear it.

Oops! I wrote a bunch of stuff.

I forgot to post any of the following! Here are my latest Open Zion/The Daily Beast pieces:

  1. An Equal-Opportunity Curse (August 10, 2012)
    In the wake of the failed Geneva Peace Conference of 1973, Abba Eban famously observed that “the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” It’s a line beloved by those who say neither the Palestinian people nor the Arab nations are partners for peace. But I have to wonder what Eban would think of Israel’s own failure to grasp the opportunities presented by none other than the Arab League.[On Aug 9], Ha’aretz reported that in 2007 “Ehud Olmert rejected an invitation by former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and other Arab leaders to address an Arab League convention and set in motion a regional process based on the Saudi peace initiative….When I look back on the decade since the offer was first made, and the five years since Olmert almost took a chance, I’m frankly moved to tears. The rivers of blood, the mourning families, the entrenchment of Hamas, and the overwhelming helplessness now felt by so many in the region—could it all have been avoided?

    We’ll never know. We can only know that missing opportunities is an equal-opportunity curse.

  2. On Laws and Walls (August 14, 2012)
    This past week, Israel’s Justice Ministry issued new regulations that, if implemented, will make it impossible for many Palestinians and all undocumented immigrants to file suit in Israeli courts.

    What looks like mere bureaucracy would in fact serve to close Israel’s justice system to the people most vulnerable to injustice: Migrants fleeing hunger and oppressive political regimes, and Palestinians who are stateless and (often) paper-less—the latter usually a result of some other Israeli regulation or bureaucratic machination, such as the thousands of Gazan and West Bank Palestinians who happened to not be in Gaza or the West Bank on the day that Israel conducted its first census of the territories, or the quarter of a million Palestinians who had their West Bank or Gazan residency covertly revoked by Israel between 1967 and 1994.

    The new regulations are, then, “new” in word only, not in spirit. The endemic violence and bloodshed get a lot more attention, but the truth is that bureaucracy has long been Israel’s favorite tool of control.

  3. How Will We Sleep Tonight? (August 17, 2012)
    As a writer and activist, I’m forever asking people to consider the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from another perspective—whatever perspective they might happen to have.

    And so today I ask: What would Israel, the Israeli people, and American Jews be doing if the following news reports concerned an Israeli family and three Israeli young men?…

To read the thrilling conclusion of any and all of the above, please click on the links embedded in the headlines.

Huge correction re: Ehud Olmert & the Arab Peace Initiative.

For years now, I’ve written some version of the following words:

“All 22 members of the Arab League, including the Palestinian Authority, offered a comprehensive peace in exchange for a two state solution not once, but twice: in 2002 and 2007. Both times, Israel entirely ignored the offer.”

I wrote these words in good faith, but it turns out I was wrong. Wrong matters.

Late Monday night, while he was speaking to the annual J Street conference, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said this: “Those who say that Israel did not address itself to the Arab Peace Initiative do not speak the truth. Israel was prepared to negotiate within the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative.”

I took note but was busy transcribing the speech for a client, so couldn’t do anything at the moment. By the time Olmert was done, JTA’s Washington bureau chief Ron Kampeas had tweeted:

I tweeted back a question asking for clarification, and he very kindly obliged — and lo, it turns out that at the Annapolis Peace Conference in November 2007, then-Prime Minister Olmert said in his address:

I am familiar with the Arab peace initiative, which was born in Riyadh, affirmed in Beirut [in 2002] and recently reaffirmed by you in Riyadh. I value this initiative, acknowledge its importance and highly appreciate its contribution. I have no doubt that it will be referred to in the course of the negotiations between us and the Palestinian leadership.

So first of all: I was wrong.

This is information that I didn’t have, and I’ve been functioning under, and spreading, a misconception for years.

I can even tell you why I was wrong: I had so little faith that anything would come out of Annapolis (and, in the end, nothing did) that I paid no attention to the proceedings. I have only rarely in my life been paid to pay attention to these things, and when I’m not being paid, my despair will sometimes overcome my curiosity and thoroughness — and that, as we can see, is not helpful. Because aside from anything else, it leads to enormous error.

I apologize for that error.

I didn’t address this yesterday, because I was hoping to find the time to do a little research. The question for me now becomes about the significance of Olmert’s remarks: Israeli officials are forever saying the right thing, and then doing something else all together. Witness my most recent post about the settlements; witness Netanyahu’s verbal insistence that he’s all about a two-state solution, vs his constant and consistent efforts to undermine any progress toward such an agreement. It’s also meaningful that the Israeli public as a whole remains unaware that the Arab Peace Initiative even exists — I believe that if the government had any genuine interest in pursuing the API (or any peace initiative), it would have worked its way into (or, indeed, been purposely introduced to) public discourse. It never has.

But I haven’t found the time I need to really dig into these questions, and at a certain point, knowing that you’re wrong but leaving that fact unremarked (other than a few tweets) is just not ok. So, inspired by my Twitter pal @dotanh, who has issued his own, Hebrew-language correction, I decided to write the above. I’m hoping to write something more in-depth soon, but for the time-being, I will leave it at:

I was really, really wrong. And I am deeply sorry for (and more than a little horrified by) the error.

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