One day after the Israeli foreign minister met with the president of Egypt to set the stage for a more formal discussion of the peace plan proposed by Saudi Arabia and endorsed by the Arab League, the Lebanese prime minister, Fuad Siniora, has an op-ed in the New York Times illustrating why peace in the Middle East can be so elusive.
The Arab League peace initiative is a promising framework for negotiations. It calls upon Israel to withdraw from the territories occupied in the 1967 war (Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, as well as East Jerusalem), to accept a "just settlement to the Palestinian refugee problem," and to accept the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital. In return, the Arab states pledge to sign peace agreements and open normal relations with Israel.
Not all of this is likely to occur. Specifically, it's almost unthinkable that Israel will return all of the occupied territory, as there are several huge settlements very close to the Green Line that Israel will hold on to for security and demographic reasons. Also, handing over the Old City of Jerusalem is a non-starter, although East Jerusalem itself is certainly possible. Perhaps the most important breakthrough from the Arab side is on the question of the Palestinian refugees. The plan does not insist on the right of return for the refugees, which would scuttle any chance for a negotiated end, but rather a "just settlement," which is likely diplomatic speak for "huge cash payoff." All in all, the plan is pretty close to what most observers assume will be the ultimate end game, give or take a few details to be worked out (how much of the West Bank will Israel return? Will Israel cede Israeli territory to compensate for the retained land? How can Israel guarantee its access to the holy places in the Old City?)
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora's editorial calls on Israel to give the plan a chance, arguing that "military action does not give the people of Israel security," that "Arab states are not seeking to wipe Israel off the map," and that Israel's refusal to pursue a negotiated end to the Palestinian crisis creates a festering issue that undermines regional stability and the security of Israel as well as the Arab states.
Much of this is true. And yet, this is something unsatisfying about Siniora's piece. Siniora's hook for the op-ed is the report of the Winograd Commission, the highly-critical self-examination of the war in Lebanon released by Israel last week. Sinoria seizes on the criticisms of the report to point out to Israel how the country needs to change its approach to solving the Palestinian problem.
But where is the Winograd Commission for Lebanon? For Hezbollah? For Hamas? Thomas Friedman recently ran a column detailing what such a report might look like. Yes, there are certainly things Israel can and should do differently to help advance the peace process, such as stopping the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, and even pulling back some of the more egregious ones. But there is much that needs to be done by the Arab states as well.
Siniora does not mention the role of Hezbollah in undermining regional security, and more specifically, the inability and unwillingness of Lebanon, and now the UN, to rein in the militia whose ill-conceived kidnapping of an Israeli soldier triggered last year's war that was so damaging to Lebanon. And while the Arab states may no longer want to wipe Israel off the map (although perhaps only because they know that they can't), the governing power of the Palestinian territories, Hamas, most certainly does. There is no mention of the on-going near-civil-war between Hamas and Fatah that results from Arab states playing both sides and refusing to allow one side to win out. These problems are just as damaging to the peace process, perhaps even more, because they make it impossible for the Arabs to present a unified and coherent position.
Siniora's glaring omissions and complete lack of self-awareness is disheartening. The Arabs need to recognize that blame cannot fall only on Israel. The peace plan suggested by the Arab League is an excellent start, and will hopefully form the basis of a settlement. And while it's true that Israel has some work to do and some changes to make, so do the Arabs.