New Caucus

05.20.13

The Arab Peace Initiative Makes Its Way to the Knesset

Most Israelis are familiar with the Arab League resolution from 1967 in Khartoum, Sudan—if not by name, then certainly by its principles. Its infamous “Three No’s”—no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it—made up the strategy of the Arab League for the decades to come, and validated the fears of most Israelis. Those principles meant to the Israeli public that no matter what policy may be adopted for the territories occupied in the Six Day War, Israel’s neighbors would always consider it a tumor on the map of the Middle East. That approach of the Arab world does not justify the expansion of Israeli settlements into the West Bank and Gaza, but it certainly explains in part the dwindled resistance of the moderates in Israel against their creation.

On the other hand, most Israelis are not aware of the Arab Peace Initiative (API). I myself came across it by sheer coincidence, through a PR stunt by the OneVoice Movement. A month later I joined OneVoice, which has been working since to spread the word about it and propel Israeli politicians to give it a chance. The initiative offered to reverse the Khartoum resolution with a triple “Yes.” Yes to ending the conflict, yes to security cooperation, and yes to normalization with Israel. In 2007, U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon urged Israel to restart the peace process based on the API. The Israeli Foreign Ministry, however, had considerable reservations about the initiative. The MFA spokesman, Mark Regev, said that “if the Arab initiative is take it or leave it, that will be a recipe for stagnation.”

Six years later, contrary to the fears of many who deal with the conflict, the API is still on the table. Several things have actually made it even more relevant. Firstly, the API withstood the turmoil of the “Arab Spring,” and was ratified twice in its last two summits in Baghdad and Doha. Secondly, U.S. Secretary of State Kerry has recently pushed the Arab League towards flexing its intransigent position on borders. Accordingly, in a conference in Washington D.C. last month, Arab foreign ministers accepted the principle of land swaps based on the 1967 Green Line.

The Israeli government has yet to issue an official response and, as far as we know, did not even hold a comprehensive discussion about it. How many of the decision makers in Israel can confidently respond to the nuances of API?

The previous Knesset has been disappointing in that regard. In 2011, OneVoice partnered with Members of Knesset from various factions to establish the first-ever caucus for the two-state solution. I was struck by how few of them had even heard of API. Through the corridors of the new Knesset, however, blows a new breeze of hope. The caucus was re-established by Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, Hilik Bar (Labor), in partnership with OneVoice and the Israeli Peace Initiative, another NGO for a regional solution to the conflict. The scope of the new caucus goes beyond the track of direct bilateral Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which has been frozen since PM Netanyahu stepped into office. Instead, it supports the realization of the two-state solution in the framework of a regional solution, through multilateral negotiations.

The caucus reflects a shared understanding of MKs and civil society organizations that the conflict cannot be solved exclusively from the top-down or from the bottom-up. It has to be a collaborative effort. Challenging the freeze in negotiations and outsmarting the settler lobby (Yesha Council) must involve concrete actions. These include endorsing legislative bills, utilizing all available parliamentary tools, and staging major public events. The first step of the caucus is to demand an official Israeli response to the Arab Peace Initiative.

While the vision of MK Ze’ev Elkin is one of eternal occupation of the Palestinian people, we are excited to confront him with the API when he appears today before the caucus in his capacity of Deputy to the Foreign Minister (and Prime Minister) Netanyahu. This is a major step. A full third of the Knesset is part of the caucus, and hundreds of grassroots activists will be there to demand an answer to why the MFA has not taken any concrete steps following the API since its inception in 2002. What will the MFA’s position be now that the API has addressed its aforementioned concerns?

Our skepticism about the hardliners in the government and the apathy of the general public cannot justify inaction. Whereas war can erupt in a split second, creating the momentum and awareness for peace is hard work. The people have a blueprint to follow to get there, and today is yet another step in the right direction.