Israel and the Arab States

What would Arab states need to do in order to move the ever more gruesome Israeli-Palestinian conflict towards a solution? According to New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman, the Arab League should “pass a resolution saying to Israel that in return for a complete Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967, lines — in the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem and on the Golan Heights — we offer full recognition of Israel, diplomatic relations, normalized trade and security guarantees.” (Feb. 6)

David Makovsky, writing in the Los Angeles Times argues that the Arab states “bear responsibility” for the current impasse because they refused to put sufficient pressure on Yasir Arafat to crackdown on opposition and accept former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak’s conditions for a final settlement, which he misleadingly asserts would have given them 97% of the West Bank (Palestinians would have had not independence, but autonomy in a truncated entity entirely dominated and surrounded by Israel). (Feb. 8)

These increasingly fashionable arguments are in fact a dusting off of the view propounded by Israeli prime miinister Menachem Begin in the 1970s that Israel would have peace when potential military threats like Egypt and Syria were neutralized with treaties and the Palestinians starved of their bases of support.

This was always either a wilfull misreading of the situation, or a deliberate attempt to distract attention from the basic core of the conflict: the fact that in order for the state of Israel to be created, nearly a million Palestinians had to leave their homes against their will, and that while they and their children live under military occupation or as refugees there will not be peace.

Two decades of Arab-Israeli peacemaking have underlined that only a just and permanent solution to this core issue can ever lead to peace and security for Israel and its neighbors. In contrast to the 1960s, when Israel felt itself surrounded by hostile countries all in a state of war, today Israel is entirely surrounded by states that have made peace with it or declared their intentions for doing so. Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, and Jordan, the country with the longest shared border, have maintained treaties despite strong internal and external opposition. Syria has negotiated with Israel on the clear basis that it will make a full peace in exchange for the return of all its territory—just as occurred with Egypt. Lebanon will follow Syria’s lead. All of these developments occurred while Israel still occupied the territory of at least three Arab states.

Despite these historic and many believe irreversible changes in the positions of key Arab states, no Israeli government has formally recognized any Palestinian right to self-determination and independence, and all have continued to build settlements not only in occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but also in Syria’s Golan Heights. Are we now to believe that Israeli bulldozers have continued tearing down Palestinian homes while settlers move into the West Bank only because Tunisia, Oman, or Qatar—none of which have any capacity at all to harm Israel—have not opened embassies in Tel Aviv? Even if Iraq can still launch a few scuds at Israel, how would that justify or explain Israel’s continued occupation?

If Arab states are not doing enough to put pressure on the Palestinians to accept Israel’s terms in the view of some Israelis, then they are certainly not doing very much to aid the Palestinian Intifada as far as many Palestinians and Arabs are concerned. They have essentially fulfilled Israel’s longstanding goal of allowing the Palestinian issue to be dealt with by Israel alone, while they make occasional statements from the sidelines or worry about pleasing Washington. And yet even though Arab governments are less involved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict than at any time since Israel was created, the conflict has only intensified. Meanwhile, the United States has become ever more closely involved, aligning itself entirely with Israel while continuing to fuel the fire with limitless injections of financial aid and weapons to one side.

There is a disturbing tendency among supporters of Israel to seek to distract from the core issues of the conflict. One strategy has been to try to reduce the entire 120 year conflict between Zionism and Palestinian national rights to what one old man, Yasir Arafat, will or won’t do or say. A new-old strategy is to blame the Arab states. Friedman’s demand that the Arab League pass yet another resolution endorsing the formula of full withdrawal for full peace smacks of the repeated demands that the PLO alter its charter to omit any clauses incompatible with Israel’s existence, long after that act was already taken. Every Arab state with a direct stake in the conflict has already accept the formula contained in UN Resolutions 242 and 338 of Israeli withdrawal for full peace.

While we have seen peace established with several Arab states, we have yet to see any Israeli commitment to full withdrawal, and many acts on the ground that suggest quite the opposite.

Ali Abunimah is vice-president of the Arab-American Action Network and a well-known media analyst, Abunimah regularly writes public letters to the media, coordinates campaigns, and appears on a variety of national and international news programs as a commentator on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is one of the founders of The Electronic Intifada. Ali Abunimah contributed to “The New Intifada: Resisting Israel’s Apartheid” (Verso Books, 2001).