Normalization Doesn't Advance Israeli/Palestinian Peace

Palestinians wait to cross an Israeli army checkpoint on July 3, 2016 at a road next to the Palestinian town of al-Fawwar south of al-Khalil (Hebron) in the occupied West Bank, as Israeli soldiers stand guard. (AFP)

For as long as I can recall, Israelis have sought recognition and acceptance from the Arab World without reciprocity. At times, they have made the argument that if the Arab States simply recognized them as a normal state in the Middle East then they would feel secure enough to make accommodations with the Palestinians.

In 2002, in an effort to test Israel's commitment to achieving a comprehensive peace that would result in its recognition and acceptance, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced an Arab Peace Initiative. The API,  which was later unanimously endorsed by the Arab League, contained the following elements:

If Israel were to agree to a full withdrawal from the occupied territories to the pre-June, 1967 borders and the establishment of a Palestinian State in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem and an agreed upon solution for the Palestinian refugee problem; in exchange, the Arab States will consider the Arab-Israeli conflict over and will sign a comprehensive peace agreement and establish normal relations with the State of Israel.

Giving lie to their interest in finding a peaceful and just solution to the conflict, Israel has repeatedly rejected the  API, insisting that the Arab States normalize without preconditions. Not only the Israelis have pushed this line, but key figures from various US administrations have also encouraged Arab leaders to turn the API "upside down" and move toward recognition and normalization first. In making their case, US policy-makers have used the Israeli argument that if  the Israelis felt more secure they would be more open to compromise with the Palestinians.

Time and again, however, we have seen clear evidence that this is simply not true—normalization with Israel doesn't advance peace. It merely emboldens them to consolidate their annexation of Palestinian land. Each time a concession has been made by the Arabs, what the Israelis have done is "pocket it," refuse to reciprocate, and continue on their merry way, while demanding still more concessions.

A few examples come to mind:

During the lead up to the Madrid Peace Conference, the Bush Administration proposed to the Arab States that they a offer a "sweetener" to the Israelis which they hoped might entice the Israelis to be more accommodating. What they suggested was that if the Arabs agreed to end their secondary boycott of businesses that did business in Israel, then the Administration would press the Israelis to accept a freeze on settlement construction in the occupied territories. I know about this first hand, since I had discussions with several Arab Foreign Ministers at that time. Several key Arab governments informed the US Administration that they would do so. The secondary boycott was ended. The Madrid Peace Conference happened.   But the settlement freeze never materialized.

I remember, in 1994, making my first trip with a delegation of Arab American and American Jewish business leaders to Israel/Palestine as Co-chair of Builders for Peace, a project launched by Vice President Al Gore. On that visit, I saw visual evidence of the betrayal that had occurred at Madrid. As we passed Tel Aviv on our first night in the region, one of the Jewish members of our group marveled at the signs on buildings in the city advertising Korean and Japanese companies now doing business in Israel. He noted that just a few years earlier none of those companies had been there. Madrid and the end of the secondary boycott had brought them to Israel.

The next day as we left Jerusalem heading toward Ramallah, we could see on hill after hill settlement construction taking place at a feverish pace. When I commented on this, an American Jewish leader responded defensively that he had been told by the Israelis that this wasn't settlement expansion, it was merely "natural growth" of existing settlements—even though the new construction was taking place on different hills and was completing a ring of "Jewish-only" housing that was circling East Jerusalem severing it from the rest of the West Bank. The secondary boycott ended, the settlements had not.

Later that same year, I went to Casablanca to chair a session on the Palestinian economy at the first region wide economic summit—one of the fruits of the Oslo Accords. The Israeli business delegation was there in full force. They were so obviously delighted to be in an Arab country mingling with business leaders from across the Arab World. At times, it was almost embarrassing to watch as they a little too eagerly sought to have their pictures taken with any Arab they saw dressed in a thobe and kafiyya.

The following year's summit took place in Amman. But there was a difference. Palestinian political leaders were there, as were the representatives of the American and Israeli governments and their business communities.  But Palestinian businessmen and women from the occupied territories were not present. Israel had denied them exit permits and so they were not allowed to cross the Allenby Bridge to attend the summit that had been only made possible by the Palestinian endorsement of the Oslo Accords. It was as if the Palestinians had opened the door to the Arab World allowing the Israelis to enter. The Israelis entered and then promptly shut the door behind them.

While in Amman, I fought back and insisted that if the Palestinians couldn't come to us, then we would bring our group of business leaders to them. We met a few days later in a hotel in Jerusalem. Present were representatives of our business delegation, and US and Israeli government representatives. We waited for more than an hour and a half for the Palestinian business leaders to come. Finally, we received a call from the Palestinians who informed us that they were stuck at a check point because the occupation authorities were refusing them permission to enter the city. The Israeli government officials who were present apologized. The planned meeting adjourned. And that was the end.

What comes through so clearly from these examples and others is that the Israelis have simply never operated in good faith vis a vis their dealings with the Arab World, and most especially with the Palestinians. They take and they do not reciprocate. That is why I say "Don't be fooled. Normalization doesn't advance peace and it most certainly doesn't advance Palestinian rights."

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