John V. Whitbeck: The Five Percent Solution

By John Whitbeck

In an eloquent speech before the US Congress in early March, Jordan’s King Abdallah emphasized the urgent necessity of achieving an Arab-Israeli peace this year. Sadly, there was little sense of urgency evident on July 25, almost five months later, when the Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers visited Jerusalem. The impression conveyed during this rather awkward visit was, rather, one of resignation to further years of drift.

A sense of urgency remains justified, and acquiescence in further years of drift is not. The Arab world is not impotent. It has it within its power to achieve Middle East peace with some measure of justice — not in some distant future but soon and not through enhanced violence but through the intelligent and responsible application of restrained but sustained economic pressure. A concerted, concrete and effective plan of action could take the form of a simple, easily understood and ethically unimpeachable “carrot-and-stick” approach.

The “carrot” has already been on offer, and left dangling, for more than five years. It is the Arab Peace Initiative. First launched at an Arab League summit in Beirut in March 2002 and reaffirmed with great publicity at the latest summit in Riyadh in March 2007, it offers full peace and normal diplomatic and economic relations between Israel and all Arab states in return for a total end to the occupation of all Arab lands occupied by Israel in 1967.

Unfortunately, since this offer, the most generous that Israel can ever hope to receive from the Arab world, has never had a deadline for acceptance attached to it, Israel has been free to ignore it with impunity — and has done so.

If Israel is now showing any interest in the Arab Peace Initiative, it is only because the latest in the long line of “peace plans” exploited to kill time, the American-initiated “road map”, is transparently shopworn. The clear, principled, unambiguous and inherently non-negotiable — but open-ended — Arab Peace Initiative is therefore timely as a potentially useful replacement which could be co-opted, manipulated and deformed and around which Israel (with full American support) could pick, nibble and dance for the next few years, in a “resumption” of the perpetual “peace process” which is the antithesis of peace, while continuing to build more settlements, more bypass roads and more walls and, generally, continuing to make the occupation permanent and irreversible.

To prevent such a manipulation and deformation of the Arab Peace Initiative, the “carrot” must be complemented with a credible and effective “stick”. The Arab League should make it clear that, if Israel does not accept the Arab Peace Initiative, without reservations, by a specific near-term date, it will lapse and be “off the table”. At the same time, the major Arab and Muslim oil producers should state that, if Israel rejects the Arab Peace Initiative, then, until Israel complies fully with international law and UN resolutions by withdrawing from all occupied Arab land to its internationally recognized borders, they will reduce their petroleum exports by increments of five percent each month — month after month after month.

It would, of course, be preferable if the United States, whose unconditional support of Israel has made possible its continuing occupation of Arab lands, were to undergo a moral and ethical transformation and if Americans were suddenly to realize both that Palestinians are human beings entitled to basic human rights and that international law should be complied with by all, not only by the poor, the weak and the Arab. Realistically, after so many years of antithetical attitudes, such a transformation is most unlikely to occur.
However, if Americans cannot be reached through their hearts or minds, they can be reached through their wallets. If oil prices, already near historic highs, were to soar and stock market prices were to plunge, Americans would be certain to start asking why, precisely, Israel should be permitted to continue defying international law and UN resolutions and denying Palestinians their basic human rights and why the United States, alone, should be unconditionally supporting it in doing so — at the cost of both worldwide anti-American rage and sharply higher oil prices for Americans.

Since no American national interests are served by Israel’s continuing occupation of Arab lands, no credible, non-racist answers could be offered, and, with oil prices rising, stock market prices falling and no reversal of these trends in sight, these questions would become more insistent and Israel’s defiant position could rapidly become untenable.

Under pressure even from their only unconditional supporters, Israelis might well recognize, sooner than anyone would dare to hope today, that their own security will never be ensured so long as they illegally occupy any Arab lands and that full compliance with international law and UN resolutions is profoundly in Israel’s own long-term self-interest, has in any event become unavoidable and should therefore be embraced sooner rather than later.

While waiting for economic discomfort to stimulate common sense and produce the result that serves the interests of all, Arab and Muslim petroleum producers would suffer no pain or sacrifices. Each five percent reduction in exports should result in a greater than five percent increase in prices, and moderate but regular reductions in exports, unlike a sudden total embargo, should be technically, politically and psychologically sustainable. Special arrangements could be made to ease the economic impact on poor consuming countries.
Does no one in the Arab world recall the courageous leadership of King Faisal 34 years ago? For a brief, shining moment, the Arab world was respected. "Respect" is not a word anyone would associate with the Arab world today.

Rather, as Western occupation armies rule Iraq and high figures in Washington talk publicly of carving Iraq up into pieces and redrawing the map of the region to better serve Israeli and American interests, the Arab world’s status approaches that of Africa when the imperial powers gathered at the Berlin Conference of 1885 to carve the continent up among themselves.

There is nothing inevitable about this. Impotence is not an unavoidable fact, and despair and resignation are not the only options. The source of the strength which King Faisal wielded so effectively is still there. All that is needed is the courage and leadership to use it wisely.

John V. Whitbeck, an international lawyer who writes frequently on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is author of “The World According to Whitbeck”. (This article appeared in counterpunch.org – August 1, 2007)

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