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The Arab League: Analysis of the Arab League "Peace Plan"

by Mitchell Bard

Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah presented a vision of peace that was subsequently revised and adopted by the Arab League as a peace initiative that offered Israel "normal relations" in exchange for a withdrawal to the 1967 borders and resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue.

In fact, the "new" initiative is nothing more than a restatement of the Arab interpretation of UN Resolution 242. The problem is that 242 does not say what the peace plan calls on Israel to do. The resolution calls on Israel to withdraw from territories occupied during the war, not "all" the territories in exchange for peace. In fact, the Arab delegates lobbied to have the word "all" included in the resolution and this idea was rejected.

In addition, Resolution 242 also says that every state has the right to live within "secure and recognizable boundaries," which all military analysts have understood to mean the 1967 borders with modifications to guarantee Israel' security. Incidentally, the resolution does not say that one comes before the other, rather, they are equal principles. Israel is under no obligation to withdraw before the Arabs agree to live in peace.

The Arab plan calls for Israel to withdraw specifically from the Golan Heights and the Israeli government has offered to do withdraw from most, if not all the Golan in exchange for a peace agreement; however, Syrian President Hafez Assad was never prepared to trade peace for the land. Assad's son, Bashar, who succeeded his father as president, has so far been unwilling to negotiate at all with Israel.

The demand that Israel withdraw from "the remaining occupied Lebanese territories in the south of Lebanon" is not only ingenuous, but at odds with the UN conclusion that Israel has completely fulfilled its obligation to withdraw from Lebanese territory.

The Arab initiative also calls for a just solution to the Palestinian Refugee problem base on UN General Assembly Resolution 194. Once again there is a difference between what that resolution says and how the Arabs have traditionally interpreted it. The relevant passage of that resolution says:

that refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which under principles of international law or in equity should be made good by Governments or authorities responsible. Instructs the Conciliation Commission to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of refugees and payment of compensation... (emphasis added).

The emphasized words demonstrate that the UN recognized that Israel could not be expected to repatriate a hostile population that might endanger its security. The solution to the problem, like all previous refugee problems, would require at least some Palestinians to be resettled in Arab lands. At the time the Israelis did not expect the refugees to be a major issue; they thought the Arab states would resettle the majority and some compromise on the remainder could be worked out in the context of an overall settlement. The Arabs were no more willing to compromise in 1949, however, than they had been in 1947. In fact, they unanimously rejected the UN resolution.

The UN discussions on refugees had begun in the summer of 1948, before Israel had completed its military victory; consequently, the Arabs still believed they could win the war and allow the refugees to return triumphant. The Arabs demanded that the United Nations assert the "right" of the Palestinians to return to their homes, and were unwilling to accept anything less until after their defeat had become obvious. The Arabs then reinterpreted Resolution 194 as granting the refugees the absolute right of repatriation and have demanded that Israel accept this interpretation ever since.

Today, the UNRWA says that 3.7 million Palestinians are refugees. The current population of Israel is approximately 6 million, 5 million of whom are Jews. If the Palestinians all returned, the population would be nearly 10 million and the proportion of Jews and Palestinian Arabs would be nearly 50-50. Given the higher Arab birth rate, Israel would soon cease to be a Jewish state and would de facto become a second Palestinian state (along with the one created on the West Bank and Gaza Strip). This suicidal formula has been rejected by Israel since the end of the 1948 war and is totally unacceptable to all Israelis today.

Israel has agreed to allow some Palestinian refugees to return on a humanitarian basis and as part of family reunification. Thousands have returned already this way. In the past, Israel has repeatedly expressed a willingness to accept as many as 100,000 refugees as part of a resolution of the issue. In fact, it was recently disclosed that Israel has already accepted 140,000 refugees just since the Oslo agreement of 1993.

The refugee issue was not part of Abdullah's original proposal and was added at the summit under pressure from other delegations. Also, it is important to note that Resolution 242 says nothing about the Palestinians and the reference to refugees can also be applied to the Jews who fled and were driven from their homes in Arab countries. Another change from Abdullah's previously stated vision was a retreat from a promise of full normalization of relations with Israel to an even vaguer pledge of "normal relations."

The Arab demand that Israel accept the establishment of a Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital has been part of the negotiations since Oslo. Israel's leaders, including Sharon, have accepted the idea of creating a Palestinian state in part of those territories. In fact, Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to return more than 90% of the territories and give the Palestinians control over much of East Jerusalem at the Camp David negotiations in 2000, but these concessions were rejected out of hand by the Palestinians who offered no counterproposal.

It is also worth noting that most of the Arab League nations have no reason not to be at peace with Israel now. Israel holds none of their territory and is more than willing to make peace with the members of the League. Several members of the League had already begun to normalize relations with Israel before the latest outbreak of violence, and their principle critic was Saudi Arabia.

For the plan to have any chance of serving as a starting point for negotiations, the Saudis and other Arab League members would have to be prepared to negotiate directly with Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon even said he would go the Arab League summit to discuss the plan, but he was not invited. The Saudis have also been invited to Jerusalem to discuss their proposal, but they have rejected this idea as well.