By Jonathan Cook
Washington’s reputation as an “honest
broker” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in tatters after four
years of indulging Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s
intransigence. The Obama administration desperately needs to resurrect a
credible peace process.
Faced with a diplomatic impasse
between Israel and the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas, John
Kerry, the US secretary of state, seized his chance last week. He
extracted from the Arab League an agreement to dust off a decade-old
regional plan, the Arab Peace Initiative, declaring the move “a very big
Unveiled by Saudi Arabia in 2002, the
plan promises Israel normal relations with the whole of the Arab world
in return for its acceptance of a Palestinian state based on the
pre-1967 borders, or 22 per cent of historic Palestine.
The new Arab overture, like its
antecedent, has raised barely a flicker of interest from Israel. Tzipi
Livni, Washington’s sole ally in Netanyahu’s cabinet, predictably lost
no time in praising the plan. But the prime minister himself has
studiously avoided mentioning it, leaving his aides to dismiss the
initiative as a “trick” designed to ensnare Israel in injurious peace
His oblique response serves as a
rejoinder to one of the conflict’s most enduring myths. Even before
Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza in 1967, it
presented itself as eager for acceptance from the Arab states. This
fiction, which continues to shape western perceptions, rests on two
The first assumes Israeli fervour to
engage diplomatically with the Arab world. Or, as Israel’s then-defence
minister Moshe Dayan famously told the BBC just days after the end of
the Six Day War: “We are awaiting the Arabs’ phone call.”
The second, articulated most clearly
by Abba Eban, when he was foreign minister in the early 1970s,
castigates the Arabs for “never missing an opportunity to miss an
opportunity” to make peace with Israel.
And yet the historical record suggests
the exact opposite. After their humiliation in 1967, the Arab states
quickly conceded — at least, privately — that Israel was here to stay
and began considering ways to accommodate it.
As Shlomo Ben-Ami, an Israeli
historian who was foreign minister during the 2000 Camp David peace
talks, observed: when the Arab states called, “Israel’s line was busy,
or there was no one on the Israeli side to pick up the phone.”
Such obduracy was confirmed in last
month’s disclosure by WikiLeaks of classified US diplomatic cables from
that period. In late 1973, a few weeks after the end of the Yom Kippur
War, the Arab League quietly offered Israel a regional peace agreement
that would recognise its pre-1967 borders. But the Arab states were
According to a cable from January
1975, US diplomats in the Middle East concluded that Israel’s leaders
demonstrated “an extraordinary lack of understanding” of Arab
intentions, preferring instead to gird “their loins for the fifth,
sixth, seventh Israeli-Arab wars”. The cables describe Israel as
hellbent on self-destruction, suffering, in the words of US officials,
from a “Masada or Samson complex”.
This context should be borne in mind
as Israel’s current opposition to peace talks is ascribed solely to the
hawkishness of Netanyahu’s government. In truth, this is a pattern of
behaviour exhibited by Israel over many decades – or what former
Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad termed last week Israel’s
The Saudi peace initiative of 2002
arrived at a time early in the second intifada when Israelis were
terrified by a wave of suicide bombings and the Israeli economy appeared
close to collapse. Nonetheless, the then military chief of staff —
today’s defence minister — Moshe Yaalon advised that Israel’s highest
priority was not negotiations but a military campaign to “sear defeat
deep into the Palestinian consciousness”.
At least, the newly revived Arab peace
initiative has the advantage that it appears — unlike its predecessor —
to have the enthusiastic backing of the White House.
Another difference, doubtless due to
pressure from Kerry, is a concession from the Arab states that an
agreement on Palestinian statehood will not require Israel to return to
the 1967 lines. Approval of “minor” and “comparable” territorial
exchanges brings the Arab League into line with the diplomatic positions
of Abbas, US President Barack Obama and, ostensibly at least, several
previous Israeli prime ministers.
But Netanyahu seems to be opposed even
to testing the sincerity of the Arab initiative. His main objection —
beyond a general antipathy to any proposal for Palestinian statehood —
is reportedly that “minor” land swaps will not be generous enough to
ensure Israel keeps all of its settlements.
Netanyahu’s inflexibility is being
advanced even as he insists that there must be no preconditions on talks
and warns that, without a peace agreement, Israel faces a future as a
Kerry, meanwhile, has proffered his
own warning: there is a two-year deadline to finding a solution to the
conflict. Then the Obama administration’s lame-duck period begins.
What follows next is left unstated.
But presumably once the US formally abandons the peace process, the
current status quo intensifies: a single state ruled over
apartheid-style by Israel, with a Palestinian Authority consigned to
irrelevance or oblivion.
Whatever his protestations, none of
this will overly worry Mr Netanyahu. After all, this is a government
that last week found grounds for complaint in Google’s decision to
confer the status of “Palestine” on a search engine designation.
The reality is that another round of
failed peacemaking will do far more damage to the Palestinians and
Washington’s reputation than to an Israel that never intended to pick up
the phone in the first place.
won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books
are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to
Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine:
Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His new website is www.jonathan-cook.net.
A version of this article first appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi.