Hopes the ATFP Gala May Have Signaled a Renewed U.S. Commitment to Peace

Getting Out of the Box
IPF Friday
By CALME Luminary M.J. Rosenberg
13 October 2006

It becomes clearer every day that Prime Minister Olmert needs to take some dramatic action to reverse Israel’s current predicament.

The Lebanon war is over, for now, but Israeli soldiers remain in Hezbollah’s hands. The tenuous cease-fire is holding but Hezbollah remains an armed force with the ability to hit Israeli cities when it chooses. In Gaza, progress toward a unity government has stalled with no interlocutor apparently able to convince Hamas to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept agreements previously negotiated by Israel and the PLO. With Palestinian living conditions deteriorating rapidly, it would not take much to spark a Palestinian civil war and reignite the intifada.

There is, of course, a vocal minority in Israel that prefers that Israel not have a viable Palestinian negotiating partner. These people worry that because successful negotiations inevitably lead to mutual compromise, it is best when the Arab side is represented by its most extreme elements. Then the “no partner” mantra can be employed and everything will stay the same.

But most Israelis and Palestinians do not cherish the staus quo. According to the polls, some 70% of Israelis want to see the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians toward the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

Polling data from the West Bank and Gaza demonstrate similar sentiments.

In fact, on Wednesday I personally witnessed the strength of Palestinian support for the two-state solution at an event I attended in Washington.

It was a gala sponsored by the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), an organization based in Washington that works for the two-state solution.

Its founder, Dr. Ziad Asali, a visionary physician from Palestine and, more recently, Illinois, and his savvy executive director, Rafi Dajani, fight strenuously for Palestinian rights, and do so without hostility to Israel. In Washington, they have become the Palestinian counterparts pro-Israel moderates have long been seeking and ATFP has become the first Palestinian group that Jewish organizations can and do work with. ATFP is also, not coincidentally, the first Palestinian group to have achieved significant successes on Capitol Hill and within the administration.

It was an exciting event. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke as did Senators Carl Levin, John Sununu, Ambassador Afif Safiyeh, Head of the PLO Mission to the United States and Saudi Ambassador Prince Turki Al-Faisal.

For me, the most striking aspect of the evening was the strong commitment to peace with Israel on the part of the audience which was almost entirely composed of Palestinian-Americans and Palestinians from the region itself. It responded with applause to every reference made by any of the speakers to a Palestinian state living in peace with Israel, and there were dozens of those references.

There was not, as far as I can recall, a single suggestion that peace with Israel is not a goal Palestinians should strive for. Nor was Israel criticized although the occupation of the West Bank most certainly was. But there was no hostility to Israel per se, which is something that I, and other Jews and Israelis in the audience, were alert to.

No, this was an audience that wants peace; it is desperate for it.

Unfortunately, at this point, there is apparently little movement on the Israeli-Palestinian front. In her address, Secretary Rice eloquently committed the United States to the establishment of a Palestinian state, alongside a secure Israel, by 2009 but announced no concrete steps. There are, however, rumors that the administration is about to announce a new Israeli-Palestinian initiative, a possibility that seemed plausible considering the passion of Rice’s remarks.

Saudi Ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal was even more emphatic than Rice about the urgency of achieving an agreement, particularly after the war in Lebanon demonstrated how easily and suddenly violence could erupt.

He said: “In Saudi Arabia, we believe that the path to peace begins with peaceful coexistence between a Palestinian state and an Israeli state, and peace between Israel and the entire Arab world.”

He then re-stated his government’s commitment to the so-called Saudi plan, which was adopted by he Arab League in 2003. “If Israel and the Palestinians can find a peaceful territorial compromise along the lines of UN Resolutions 242 and 338, under which Israel would withdraw from the lands it occupied in the 1967 War, including [East] Jerusalem, and make peace with a Palestinian state, then the Arab world would not only accept Israel’s existence, but have normal relations with it.”

The Saudi plan, as described by the ambassador Wednesday, would not be acceptable to Israel in that form because of the reference to East Jerusalem. But it is close enough to what Israelis would accept that it is worth negotiating over — as would be any plan that offers Israel peace and normalization of relations with the Arab world.

Besides, the Saudis are not offering their plan as a treaty they simply expect Israel to sign. It is a document, an opening offer, which they would like to see Israel respond to with its own ideas. This back and forth is called negotiations.

Similarly, Gideon Sher, a former Israeli diplomat who played an instrumental role in the Camp David negotiations of 2000, wrote in Yediot Ahronot this week that Israel should seriously explore the signals coming out of Damascus these days.

President Bashar Assad told Der Spiegel last week that he favors a comprehensive peace settlement with Israel in exchange for the Golan Heights. Rather than demand the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, he said they should be permitted to assume citizenship in a West Bank/Gaza Palestinian state. He also said he would not rule out a meeting with Prime Minister Olmert to discuss outstanding issues.

Is he serious? Who knows. One day Assad is a dove and the next the hawk of all hawks.

But Sher says: so what.

“A resumption of talks is a far cry from achieving an agreement, but it can provide us with a sense as to what Assad’s intentions are. Therefore, Israel must not reject Assad’s hints outright but, rather, it must begin a cautious, measured and pragmatic process in which Assad’s willingness is analyzed. If it is all merely a ruse, we will know as much very quickly….After all, one can always say, ‘no’.”

And that’s the point. There is no way of knowing what the other side will offer until you engage it in negotiations. What’s the worst that can happen? You fail to reach an agreement and you are back where you started. But the best that can happen is something very good indeed.

Those who will read this as naiveté might do well to consider the words of a rather hardheaded political scientist from Stanford who is now Secretary of State.

This is what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the ATFP: “I know that sometimes a Palestinian state living side by side in peace with Israel must seem like a very distant dream. But I know too, as a student of international history, that there are so many things that once seemed impossible that, after they happened, simply seemed inevitable. I’ve read over the last summer the biographies of America’s Founding Fathers. By all rights, America, the United States of America, should never have come into being. We should never have survived our civil war. I should never have grown up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama to become the Secretary of State of the United States of America.

“And yet, time and time again, whether in Europe or in Asia or even in parts of Africa, states that no one thought would come into being, and certainly not peacefully and democratically, did. And then looking back on them, we wonder why did anyone ever doubt that it was possible.”

Those are sentiments Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism would definitely relate to. It is Rice’s way of saying, as Herzl famously did, “if you will it, it is no dream.”

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