No one should think that all peace agreements lead to an end to violence. They don’t. As the recent killings in Northern Ireland demonstrate, the 1998 Good Friday peace accord, engineered by former Maine Senator George Mitchell to lessen Protestant/Catholic tensions in the Ulster counties, is now under threat.
So what can we expect, with Mitchell once again thrust into the middle as President Obama’s negotiator in the tension-fraught Middle East, from any peace agreement he might work out there?
Mitchell has taken on the formidable task of reconciling Jews and Arabs. Both Obama and Mitchell consider Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah’s April 2002 Middle East peace plan a building block toward peace. This document may instead prove to be a stumbling block. To their credit, the Saudis persuaded 21 other Arab states to agree to conditions under which all would recognize the state of Israel. The Saudi initiative thus has great merit, but only if it’s a bargaining position subject to further negotiation. As it now stands, the proposal contains elements that will only prolong regional instability.
The Saudi plan proposes that Israel withdraw to the borders that existed just prior to the June 1967 Six Day War. Those “Auschwitz borders,” in the words of Abba Eban, Israel’s foreign minister at that time, would have given Arab states the opportunity to attack Israel and destroy Jewish religious sites. For 19 years after Israel became a state in 1948 the Arabs demolished synagogues, schools, homes and other relics of two thousand years of Jewish residence in Jerusalem’s walled Old City. They fired in the direction of West Jerusalem’s densely populated downtown residential neighborhoods, and Syria launched artillery barrages at farms of Central Galilee.
The Saudi proposal implies that indefensible borders and desecrated religious sites would not be a problem if Israel would only enable the Palestinians to establish their own state in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The Saudis fail to mention that on at least three occasions Israel has offered to recognize a Palestinian state in virtually all of the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
The first offer came at the moment of Israel’s birth in 1947-48, pursuant to a United Nations partition plan calling for separate Jewish and Arab states in what had been British colonial Palestine. The Arab response was to attack the fledgling Jewish state. Egypt and Jordan seized precisely the territories the United Nations had set aside for a Palestinian state, namely the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
In 2000 and 200l the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, repeated the recognition offer but did not even get a counter-proposal from the Palestinians. Instead Israel received a barrage of kamikaze-style bombings, which escalated into rocket attacks against two of Israel’s most densely populated cities, Ashkelon and Ashdod. When extrapolated over a population of seven million, those attacks were even more devastating, proportionally, than the tragic attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
The Arab rejection of Israeli offers to recognize a Palestinian state makes clear the most serious flaw in the Saudi proposal. No political or territorial compromise on the part of Israel, including diplomatic recognition of a Palestinian state, retreat to indefensible borders or relinquishment of protection of synagogues and Jewish religious sites, will satisfy extremist Islamic groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
These Islamic groups reject recognition of the Jewish state and pledge continued violence against Israel. But unlike Irish Republican Army renegade thugs, these Islamic factions are part and parcel of the Lebanese and Palestinian Authority governments and enjoy extensive state sponsorship from Iran. The Saudi plan resembles Mitchell’s Good Friday accord in that both fail to deal adequately with different types of renegade elements.
A peace agreement between Israel and its Arab neighbors should be a result of negotiation, not a list of stipulations which one side must accept or reject. It should involve significant concessions from both sides and not only from Israel as the Saudis now require. Although called a peace initiative, the Saudi proposal promotes conflict rather than peace in the region.
It would be well for Obama and Mitchell to reject the Saudi proposal as it now stands as a building block toward peace. Otherwise, Israelis and Palestinians may be headed toward increased rather than diminished violence as a result of a flawed agreement.
Dr. Jonathan Goldstein is a professor of history at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton and a writer for the History News Service.