What Arabs Can Do to Support Peace

In 1991, as part of its overall approach to post-Gulf War peace-making, the Administration of George H. W. Bush secured an Arab agreement to suspend their secondary boycott against companies doing business with Israel, in return for an Israeli commitment to freeze settlements.

Three years later, in 1994, as Co-Chair of Builders for Peace, a US private sector initiative launched by then Vice President Al Gore, I made the first of many visits to Israel/Palestine accompanying Mr. Gore, Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown or delegations of Arab American and American Jewish businessman.

We had just arrived in Ben Gurion Airport and were heading to a meeting in Tel Aviv. I was riding with an American Jewish colleague, who, it turns out, had in the past, been a frequent visitor to Israel, but who had not been there in three years. As we approached Tel Aviv, looking at the city’s night lights–”neon signs aglow, advertising a broad array of products, my companion noted with delight “these signs are the first fruits of peace. Because of the boycott, many of these businesses weren’t here three years ago. Now they are.”

The next day, we left our hotel in Jerusalem traveling north to Ramallah. On our way, we passed massive construction sites of new housing up and down the hills surrounding the Holy City, encapsulating tiny Palestinian villages now trapped in their shadows. “Are these new settlements?” I asked. “No,” was the reply, “this is just an extension of Ramot”–”pointing to another large aggregation of homes, on an entirely different hill.

These were impressions. Here is the hard data.

In 1991, Israel’s per capita GDP was $14,000. Three years later, after the ending of the secondary boycott and Madrid and Oslo, Israel’s per capita GDP had risen to almost $16,000. Palestinians did not fare as well. In 1991, their per capita GDP was $900. Three years later, new Israeli restrictions on Palestinian labor and continued control over all access to and egress from the territories, resulted in the Palestinian per capita GDP only increasing to $1,100.

Meanwhile, at the beginning of 1991 there were 243,000 settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem. By the end of 1994, they were nearing 300,000. (Note: most recent figures show Israel’s per capita GDP at around $25,000, in contrast to a stagnant $1,300 for the Palestinians. And there are now almost 500,000 settlers in the occupied lands!)

This history bears repeating if only to understand why some Arab states may be reluctant to offer new concessions to Israel in return for the same settlement freeze that was to have been implemented 18 years and 250,000 settlers ago.

This being said, I believe that there are good reasons for the Arab side to find a careful but creative approach to elaborating on their 2002 and 2007 Arab Peace Initiatives.

It is clear that the Obama Administration is making a real effort to press Israel to suspend all settlement construction–using, at times, language not heard since the time of President Carter. In this context, positive Arab gestures should not be seen as a reward for Israel (which they have not earned and do not deserve), but rather as a sign of support for the US effort and as a further Arab commitment to peace-making.

Thirdly, up until now, with only the US and Israel doing the talking, the nature of the expected Arab response is being defined by them. Given all that has transpired in recent years and given, as well, current regional tensions, many of the ideas proposed may be viewed as problematic in much of the Arab world.

Nevertheless, should the Obama Administration succeed in securing a complete and verifiable halt in all construction, a positive response, by those Arab states able to do so, would be in order, both to support the US effort, as well as to ensure that no further so-called “facts on the ground” are put in place. Stopping E1, before it starts, and aborting other expansion and “thickening” projects, are goals worth supporting. But the Arab gestures offered must be carefully considered, so as to be calibrated (not turning the Arab Peace Initiative on its head by providing recognition and normalization before peace) and conditioned on Israeli performance (unlike with the end of the secondary boycott, which produced benefits for only one side).

While these limited steps may be taken by some Arab states, there are other avenues open to the Arab consensus that would both make clear their intentions to seek peace, while not enflaming their publics or compromising the only remaining leverage available to them.

Here’s what the Arab states could propose. First, there should be the insistence Israel meet the following initial conditions (all of which are either called for in the Roadmap and/or supported by the Obama Administration): a total freeze on all settlement construction; removal of outposts, internal check points and roadblocks; an end of the blockade on construction goods and other needed supplies to Gaza; and the beginning of serious negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. With these conditions met, the Arab League could authorize a representative delegation to participate with the Israeli and Palestinian teams in a series of Track II negotiations on critical issues of regional importance: water, energy, Jerusalem, refugee resettlement, and the establishment of an economic development fund/plan for a future Palestinian state.

These talks and the plans they develop should run in tandem with the Track I Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese talks, and be implemented, as agreed by the parties, at times deemed appropriate to support the implementation of the Track I talks.

Such an Arab consensus effort, complimentary to the more immediate and limited gestures made by some, will support US peace efforts, allowing the Arab States to define, for themselves, their elaboration of the Arab Peace Initiative, while making clear their intention to participate as full partners in a comprehensive Middle East peace.