December 11, 2008

President Peres with Jordanian FM Abdul-Ilah Khatib, left, and Egyptian FM Ahmed Aboul Gheit, right (AP)

"They don’t ask extra concessions of Israel, only that we end the conflict with the Palestinians, an end toward which we are working on anyway, but they offer us extra benefits."

The Arab League first adopted the Saudi Peace Initiative as a proposed formula for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict in Beirut in March 2002 and endorsed it again five years later in 2007. How would you describe the initial reaction to the Initiative in 2002 among the Israeli public and Israel’s leaders?

You know, sometimes weird things happen. This was an important initiative and Israel ignored it. It was neither ruled out nor accepted, but simply ignored. The reason probably was that all the attention back then was diverted to the Palestinian track and to the terror attacks in Israel, such as the suicide bombing on Passover eve at the Park Hotel in Netanya.

How do you think the idea was received in the Arab world?

The Arab world is not unified. There are Sunnis and Shiites, moderates and extremists. Also, public responses do not always reflect what people really think. Several countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia obviously, the Gulf states, as well as numerous newspapers and scholars supported and still support the Initiative. Others either protested against it or ignored it. In my opinion, however, and based on my conversations with Arab leaders, most of the Arab world supports it, even if only silently. They are also tired of fighting and don’t want their children to risk their lives in wars.

In your view, what accounts for the renewed discussion of this Initiative in Israel in the past year?

At least in my case, this renewed discussion followed a study of the Initiative’s details and the realization that it presents Israel with a good opportunity that should not be missed. In addition, Arab colleagues told me explicitly: end the conflict with the Palestinians and get peace and normalization of relations with all of us. They don’t ask extra concessions of Israel, only that we end the conflict with the Palestinians, an end toward which we are working anyway, but they offer us extra benefits.

What are the greatest challenges in the Middle East today and how can implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative advance their solution?

In my view, the Middle East today is immersed in three conflicts that are interwoven with one another. First, of course, is the Israeli-Palestinian and broader Arab-Israeli conflict. Second is the Sunni-Shiite rift. The Sunnis are the majority but extremist Shiites under the auspices of Iran are using territorial colonialism to establish bases in several countries, as in the example of Hezbollah in Lebanon. They are also trying to shift the masses to their side in Sunni countries such as Syria, Saudi Arabia and other countries. Although not always successful, the danger of extremism is a real source of concern for many Arab states. Extremists don’t need much. Ten thousand guns, if used, would have greater impact on regional stability than a million people.

Arab leaders think that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would lead to comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, which would in turn undermine extremists, end the regional turmoil and pave the way toward a different Middle East.

Third, there is the conflict between traditionalism and modernization. Not everybody is interested in moving forward and becoming part of the new world. This element is connected to the other two conflicts because once the people of the region benefit from the economic dividends of peace, they will support integration into the global economy.

Do you share your Arab colleagues’ understanding according to which solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is crucial for stability in the Middle East?

Absolutely. There is no doubt that if this conflict is removed from the agenda, it will be possible to reach peace with all the Arab states and build a newly structured Middle East. Since 1948, Israel fought seven wars. Today there is another way. There is no choice but to end this conflict and move forward. We have to define diplomatic borders in order to open up economic borders, but to get there we first need to solve the conflict with the Palestinians. My Arab colleagues and I agree on this point.

What about the negotiations with Syria?

Bashar Assad will have to make a decision. Currently, it seems that he would like to get the Golan Heights back and at the same time keep the relations with Iran as well as Syria’s involvement in Lebanon through Hezbollah. That is impossible. Even if Israel accepted this situation, neither the Arab world nor the United States would agree to the presence of an extreme Iranian base on Lebanese land.

How do you see the key components of the Arab Peace Initiative fitting with your vision of a New Middle East?

Despite the current financial crisis, the driving global force is the economy. The economy changed China, India, Europe and even the United States. For the Middle East to enjoy full regional integration and assimilation in the world economy, peace and stability are first needed. From the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives, diplomatic borders are first needed so that we can benefit from cross border economic cooperation. This is not to say that we need economic peace, but that the economic component has to be cultivated in parallel with the diplomatic process to improve peoples’ daily lives and rally public support for diplomacy.

The Initiative would enable broad economic cooperation in the region that could improve the lives of millions of people and thus shift popular support from extremism to moderation and hope.

In addition, environmental concerns cross borders and do not limit themselves to one country or another. Water does not require a visa to move from one place to another nor do flies. The shrinking Dead Sea, water, energy and environmental issues in general all necessitate regional cooperation that implementation of the Initiative may bring along.

What are the drawbacks of the Initiative? What parts of it remain unclear and merit further explanation and discussion?

A few items in the Initiative remain unclear, for example the refugee issue, security arrangements and borders, but these should and can be discussed. The key is accepting the Initiative in principle, rather than the specific details, and then negotiating its details.

Given Israel’s experience in the 1990s dealing with multiple tracks of negotiations, including separate tracks with Syria and the Palestinians, as well as the multilateral talks, what is the best way that Israel might move forward on multiple tracks in the coming years? What are the key lessons learned from the 1990s that might be helpful for any possible talks in the future?

There is no average of lessons. Every process is different. Looking back, it is clear that the peace treaty with Egypt, the largest and most important Arab nation, was essential for future negotiations and diplomacy in general with other Arab states. Then Jordan followed. In the negotiations with the Palestinians, we were not the only ones who made mistakes. Their handling of the process and the internal divide did not help advance the process. Similarly, Syria’s behavior did not contribute to successful negotiations. Israel also made mistakes, starting in 1967, when we failed to turn the victory of the Six Day War into a peace treaty from a position of strength.

I believe that with our eyes open and with much more knowledge today, we can successfully move forward.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently published an ad in the Israeli press calling for Israel’s endorsement of the Arab Peace Initiative. What is the significance of this act?

That was a welcome step. Our negotiations are with the other side and when we ignore their voices by writing in our own papers and then reading what we write, we fail to understand their position. We should do the same as Abbas on the other side.

In your view, what are the most important things the incoming administration in the United States can do to help facilitate progress on the Middle East peace front?

Ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reaching regional peace is a mutual Israeli-American interest. It is important to note that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and accepting the Arab Peace Initiative are not mutually exclusive and should be done simultaneously.

As for how exactly the United States should be involved, whether by appointing a special Middle East envoy or what have you, it is mostly a technical question. However, it is essential that the United States keep supporting an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. At the same time the United States can promote the Arab Peace Initiative as a means to achieve comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab states. How to implement the Initiative remains to be examined but this can be done quietly without big conferences and summits. Lastly, the United States should provide the economic piece of the puzzle that would enable the Palestinians and the rest of the region to reap the fruits of peace. Only the full package, i.e., diplomacy and strengthening the economy, would improve people’s day-to-day lives and win their support for peace.

If there is one lesson that can be learned from the current peace process it is that according to the Road Map, advancement to the second phase is conditioned upon the completion of the first. It is crucial that we get to the second phase, meaning the establishment of a Palestinian state that will live peacefully side by side with Israel, but it is obvious to everyone that we are experiencing difficulties in implementing the first phase. Therefore, we must come up with a better strategy to create the conditions for the completion of the first stage so that we can move forward.

You’ve had a long and distinguished career serving the state of Israel and promoting a vision of Middle East peace. Looking back on your decades of service, what do you consider your greatest accomplishments? What are your greatest regrets?

Let others answer that. I don’t think I am the most suitable person to boast about my achievements or reproach myself for my failures. I can only say that until 1973, when there was no option of peace, I had worked on building Israel’s power. Since ‘73, when the option of peace presented itself, I’ve been building Israel’s power base for peace.

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“We knew at the outset that the task would be difficult. We acknowledged that publicly and privately. We knew this would be a road with many bumps— and there have been many bumps—and that continues to this day. But we are not deterred. We are, to the contrary, determined more than ever to proceed to realize the common objective, which we all share, of a Middle East that is at peace with security and prosperity for the people of Israel, for Palestinians, and for all the people in the region. We will continue our efforts in that regard, undeterred and undaunted by the difficulties, the complexities or the bumps in the road.”—George Mitchell, special envoy for Middle East peace, remarks with Prime Minister Netanyahu, September 29, 2010

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