By Tobais Buck in Jerusalem and Roula Khalaf in London
Financial Times, November 27 2008
A group of former senior Israeli security officers has launched a campaign to promote the Saudi-sponsored Arab peace initiative, in a fresh effort to help end six decades of conflict in the Middle East.
The rare Israeli appeal, in a full-page newspaper advertisement this week, was signed by more than 500 former Israeli generals, diplomats and intelligence, military and security officials.
It urged the country not to “ignore a historic opportunity which a moderate Arab world presents us with”.
Last week the Palestinian Authority also published full-page adverts in the Israeli press calling for support for the peace plan.
The attempt to breathe life into the Arab initiative, first proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002 and endorsed by an Arab League summit, comes amid hopes in the region that the election of Barack Obama may refocus US attention on resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Arab initiative offers Israel peace and normal relations with all Arab states in return for a full withdrawal from all land occupied in the 1967 war, including Palestinian territories and Syria’s Golan Heights.
The plan calls for creation of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital, and a just solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees, who fled or were expelled during the 1948 war between Israel and neighbouring Arab states. But its intention is to provide a general framework, leaving the details of negotiations to the parties directly involved.
The initiative, however, was ignored by Israel and the Bush administration, and poorly marketed by Arab states. Now it appears to be winning praise from Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, and some marketing muscle from Saudi Arabia.
A report published today by the Oxford Research Group, a UK think-tank, calls on the US and the European Union to put the peace initiative at the centre of Middle East policy. The report was drafted following a meeting between influential Israelis and Arabs, including Prince Turki al-Feisal, a prominent member of the Saudi royal family and the kingdom’s former spy chief.
In a foreword to the report, Prince Turki says that as “Israelis become more aware of the quid pro quo offered by the initiative they will see the great opportunity that this vision of a final and definitive peace between Israel and the Arab world offers”.
Danny Rothschild, a retired major-general in the Israeli army and chairman of the group behind the Israeli advert, said this week’s appeal was only the start of a broader campaign.
“There is a need to show the Israeli public that, even though a peace deal will be bilateral [between Israel and the Palestinians], the peace dividend will be much broader than that,” he said.
According to Mr Rothschild, the initiative should now form a flanking measure to the current bilateral peace talks between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority.
Launched just a year ago in Annapolis in the US, the talks have so far made little headway, not least because of the domestic weakness of Ehud Olmert, Israel’s outgoing prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. Mr Abbas’ authority extends only to the West Bank, while the Islamist Hamas group rules the Gaza Strip.
Any peace effort now will also have to wait for the Israeli elections in February and the new US administration.
“The Israeli public today needs to see something that will encourage them to finalise a deal with the Palestinians and Syrians,” Mr Rothschild said.
“From the Palestinian side I believe there are a few issues on the table that they cannot deliver unilaterally. They have to get the support of the Arab countries on issues like the holy basin [the location of sites holy to Muslims, Christians and Jews] in Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.”
Prince Saud al-Feisal, Saudi foreign minister, said last week the Arab initiative remained the only path to resolving the conflict. He warned that without progress in negotiations, increasingly cynical Arab public opinion could force governments to rethink the negotiating -strategy.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008