Failure Of The Israeli Establishment

06.14.13

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.