There is good news and bad news on the Arab-Israeli peacemaking front this week. The good news is that the United States and the Arab League’s ministerial committee seem energized to restart Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. This culminated a few days ago in the Arab clarification that the 2002 Arab peace plan that offered Israel a comprehensive and permanent peace can include minor and mutually agreed land swaps around the 1967 borders. The bad news is that we seem to have returned to the failed old formula of the United States pressuring the Arab side to make concessions that in turn will entice Israel, usually unsuccessfully, to negotiate seriously. Much as I support any opportunity to restart peace negotiations, I doubt that we will make any progress on this front if we stick to an approach that has repeatedly failed and now seems to be replaying itself. This is captured in the Arabs unilaterally making a substantive gesture or concession, and the Israelis adding new demands that ensure that no progress will be made.
Just as soon as the Arab side signaled its willingness to make minor and mutual land swaps around the 1967 border, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came up with two new demands: He wanted any peace agreement sent to a referendum of the Israeli people (not such a bad idea, actually, given that the Palestinians also have said they want any agreement submitted to the Palestinians in a referendum); and he also said that the conflict was not about land but rather about “the lack of willingness of the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.”
Several problems in this exchange make it unlikely that this new American effort to reignite diplomatic negotiations among Israelis and Palestinians will succeed. The most serious is the continued emphasis on the Arab side making concession after concession in order to entice the Israelis to negotiate seriously, without ever getting the Israelis to negotiate seriously.
Sure, Israeli leaders speak often about their desire to negotiate unconditionally, anytime, anywhere, but the reality is different and contradictory. The reality is that Israel persists in the massive, continuing precondition of being allowed to expropriate Palestinian land and build Israeli settlements and colonies at will, and adds a new precondition that Palestinians must accept maximalist Zionist ideological demands before any serious talks can ever take place.
A second problem is that the latest concession by the Arab League occurs without any credible consultation of the Palestinian people whose land is the object of the negotiations and possible swaps. This perpetuates a problem that has long plagued the Palestinians: the absence of a credible national leadership and the total lack of consultations among the dispersed Palestinians throughout the world.
The absence of Palestinian institutions of state – especially the Palestine National Council, or parliament in exile, and a credible executive committee, or government – means that other methods must be used to canvass popular sentiments. Modern technology makes it very easy to organize a meaningful discussion of the issues at hand, but the lack of a unified, legitimate national leadership makes this option difficult to implement.
Difficult does not mean impossible, though, and this is a case where the Palestinians should use the referendum idea to pre-empt Israeli maneuvers and as a constructive tool in their continued quest to achieve their national rights and end their condition as refugees, their people dispersed and in exile.
It would not be difficult to organize a referendum among a large majority of Palestinians that asks the question: “Would you support minor and mutual land swaps to the 1967 borders if this were part of a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel that resulted in the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem alongside a recognized Israeli state, and resolved the refugee status of the Palestinians on the basis of the provisions of international law and U.N. resolutions that give both sides the right to live in peace within secure and recognized borders?”
My guess is that such an effort – which captures the essence of the 2002 Arab peace plan, and could be done on a pilot basis in one or two places, such as the West Bank-Gaza and refugee camps in neighboring Arab countries – would achieve several useful things. It would clarify the national position of the Palestinian people, strengthen the hand of negotiators who speak in their name, and perhaps – if the result is affirmative – prod a more dynamic peace movement in Israel, a more robust commitment to negotiate from the Israeli government, and more effective mediation by the U.S. and others.
These are ambitious ideas, I realize. But they strike me as a lot more sensible than merely replaying failed old attempts to make peace on the basis of continued Palestinian and Arab concessions without a reciprocal Israeli response.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.