Where Dayan Goes Wrong on the Arab Peace Initiative

05.09.13 10:10 PM ET

On Open Zion earlier this week, Dani Dayan argued that excitement over Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani’s declarations agreeing to land swaps as part of the Arab Peace Initiative was misplaced. According to Dayan, the correct Israeli response to the Arab proposal should be to dismiss the very idea of land swaps. Taking land swaps off the table would function to punish the Palestinians for their historic sins and as a mechanism that would enable the continuation of the settlement project, which Dayan deemed “rightful and “irreversible.”

First, it’s worth dismissing Dayan’s digressions into the realm of historical and political fantasy out of hand—most settlements are not “rightful” according to various national and international laws nor are they at all “irreversible,” given that the Israeli government continues to function as the primary driver sustaining them. Moreover, contrary to Dayan’s claims, this is not a new Arab demand. The Palestinian position has long been that swaps must be both “minor” and “comparable” in size. More interesting than what Dayan got wrong is what he got right: the “new” Arab position regarding land swaps was, in and of itself, not terribly exciting and the Arab Peace Initiative (API), in the way it moderated its language, already implied the notion of land swaps. What was new was the Qatari PM’s timing.

The API called on Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders, making no explicit call for modifications to that line. But it also made no mention of water allocation between Israel and Palestine, how holy sites should be managed in Jerusalem, or any number of other detail-specific questions that will be resolved in a final status agreement between Israel and Palestine. In this context, it was clear that the Initiative aimed to set skeletal parameters for regional peace and wasn’t meant to hammer out minutiae such as where and how modifications to the 1967 lines should be made—that is, which lands would be swapped.

Claiming that the Arab position has always been pro-land swaps might look like reading history backwards through the lens of the Qatari PM’s recent statements. It’s not. A research team at the Israeli think tank “Molad” (of which I was privileged to be a part) has been working over the past few months on decoding the Arab Peace Initiative to understand it in depth. In a comprehensive study [Hebrew, soon to be available English] published a day before the Arab delegation’s visit to Washington, the team assessed that the Arab League would indeed accept land swaps as both desirable and in line with the API.

What Dayan completely missed (or intentionally overlooked), was that the import of last week’s announcement was in the fact that it was given. By announcing even the most trivial of concessions to Israel, or even just the appearance of such concessions, Arab governments exposed themselves to a much harsher tribunal than Dayan’s. They risked, and duly received, the admonitions of the Islamic and nationalist political opposition at home. They took this beating because they believe that the Palestinian-Israeli political stalemate destabilizes their governments and that joining an American effort, spearheaded by Secretary Kerry, towards a regional approach will best serve the stability and the security of the Middle East. They may also have an eye towards Iran, in the hopes that a positive Israeli response might help create a coalition to face the strategic threat from Tehran.

Luckily, Israeli decision-makers have not and will not take Dayan’s recommendations—they have not rebuked the Arab world for reaching out once again. On the other hand, Israel’s current leadership is regrettably neither brave nor visionary enough to grasp the hand extended last week. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni responded in a way that was only vaguely positive, and was promptly sent, along with PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal envoy, Itzchak Molcho, to meet with Kerry to discuss how “they see more disadvantages in it [the Arab League announcement] than opportunities.”

Israel has wasted another opportunity for progress on the peace front. This opportunity for real entre into dialogue with the Arab world was not the first, nor was it the largest, and it will (hopefully) not be the last. Israel has time yet to make good on one of its most basic aspirations—to be fully and honestly acknowledged as a legitimate political presence in the region. This is the reflection of a dream boldly put to words by the intellectual founding father of the Israeli right wing, Ze’ev Jabotinsky: “then shall the moderates come to us with offers of mutual concessions… And I believe and hope that we will be able to give them such assurances that will calm them and that the two peoples will be able to live side by side in peace and fairness” (The Iron Wall, 1924).