Allan Massie: Arab League’s olive branch is worth grasping

Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: Getty
Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: Getty
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ISRAEL denies that the bombing last weekend of four sites west of Damascus means it is intervening in the Syrian civil war, or represents an internationalisation of that grisly conflict.

Not at all, they say; their intention is only to prevent Iranian missiles from reaching Hezbollah in South Lebanon by way of Syria. This may be true. Israeli Intelligence, which is usually good, may have acquired what seemed to be reliable information about the movement of these missiles.

Yet, for two reasons, it is hard to believe that the facts are just as represented by Israel. First, the Syrian civil war may yet go either way. One would think that the Assad regime needs all the missiles it can lay its hands on. Why would they pass them on to Hezbollah? Second, doing so, and encouraging Hezbollah to use them against Israel, would be very dangerous for Assad. It would surely invite Israeli retaliation, not only against Hezbollah, but against Syria. It certainly isn’t in Assad’s interest to provoke Israeli intervention and widen the war. He would have to be very stupid to do that.

Whatever the true reason for the Israeli bombing raids, they have diverted attention from what might otherwise have been – and may yet be – an important development in Israel’s relations with the Arab world. There was a meeting last week between the Arab League and the American secretary of state, John Kerry, who seems to have brought a new and welcome energy to attempts to secure a settlement of the Palestinian question. The meeting led Qatar’s foreign minister, Hamad bin Jassim, to declare that the League was now ready to approve “comparable and mutually agreed minor exchanges of land” as a means to securing the agreement which would bring about what is known as “the two-State solution”. This represents an advance on the Arab League’s declaration in 2002 which promised recognition of Israel, if Israel withdrew to its 1967 borders, surrendering the control of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, all occupied by Israel after the Six-Day War. That declaration, re-affirmed at an Arab League summit in Riyadh five years later, was a huge step forward, a reversal of the determination expressed immediately after that war, that there should be “No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel”. It meant that the Arab League now accepted that Israel was a legitimate state and that the only outstanding question was its borders.

Israel did not pick up the olive branch the League was holding out. There were several reasons for this, some of them good. Neither Hezbollah nor Hamas, the two groups or movements regarded by the Israelis, and their American and other Western allies, as terrorists were associated with this implicit recognition of the Israeli state; both were still pledged to destroy it (though neither has the means to do so). Moreover, both were backed, financed and supplied by Iran which is not of course a member of the Arab League, and which continues to regard Israel as illegitimate. So the Israelis did not believe that the Arab League could deliver, and – quite probably – had little confidence in their good intentions.

This wasn’t all. A return to the 1967 borders was unacceptable to Israel because of the Jewish Settlements in the West Bank, the largest of them quite close to the old 1967 frontier. Dismantling them, and returning East Jerusalem to a Palestinian state was unthinkable. (When Ariel Sharon’s government withdrew from Gaza, Israeli troops had to remove settlers from their new homes there; trying to evict Israelis from the far more numerous and much larger settlements in the West Bank would be unpopular and difficult.)

The new Arab League proposal implicitly recognises this as a fact. This is a step forward. There’s a Sicilian expression “to swallow a toad”, employed when you have to accept something utterly unpalatable, and the Arab League has at least taken the toad in its mouth, even if it has not yet got it down. Will Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu respond?

He has reasons not to. There are always reasons not to respond to such overtures. One such may seem cogent. Hamas has denounced the Arab League’s proposal, so vehemently that the Egyptian Foreign Minister almost immediately seemed to be back-tracking.

Nevertheless Netanyahu should be more welcoming. For one thing, acceptance of at least the principle that negotiations should begin on the basis suggested by the League would isolate Hamas from its Arab supporters, and strengthen Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, with whom it may be possible to do a deal on the lines envisaged by the Arab League. If he doesn’t at the very least indicate that he is responsive to the offer, then it will be difficult to believe that he is interested in finding any solution, but is content that things should remain as they are.

He has his political difficulties of course. Elements of the Israeli Right are suspicious of any negotiations, even hostile to the idea that they should take place. Some call for the incorporation of the West Bank to re-create the Biblical Land of Israel. But this would not be a Jewish State, or to the extent that it was a Jewish-dominated one, it would be an apartheid State. It is impossible to believe that would be in Israelis’ long-term interest.

Others say that this is not the time for any negotiations, the whole region being in a condition of fevered uncertainty, following the Arab Spring, the coming to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the unpredictable outcome of the civil war in Syria. So it would be rash to make “concessions” to the Palestinians.

The counter-argument is that it would be still more rash not to do so. The two-State solution is in Israel’s interest. Only by satisfying the Palestinians’ desire for the State to which they are surely entitled can Israel secure a lasting peace and a stable future. The Arab League has held out the hand of peace, however tentatively. If Netanyahu brushes it aside, he will serve his country ill.