The Arab Peace Initiative: Now or Never

by Alon Ben-Meir Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. Email: Web: 05.05.2010

It has been almost a year now since President Obama set out for Cairo to deliver what has been seen as one of the largest overtures by the US to publicly engage the Middle East. Unfortunately, despite the high hopes that this new administration garnered and the continuous efforts of high level American officials to put an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, there is little fruit to bear on the ground. More often than not, the diplomatic breeches and hurdles to even get to the negotiating table have consumed the headlines, and one year later the multilateral relations in the region seem tepid at best. The repeated failures of the bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and Syria may be attributed to a number of factors, including a deep seeded mistrust that has not been addressed, concerns over the long-term security and domestic political constraints to make the required concessions to reach an agreement. Yet while all of these elements contributed to the despondent current state of affairs, the one critical missing ingredient has been the absence of a comprehensive framework for peace representing the collective will of the Arab states.

Now more than ever, the Arab Peace Initiative (API) offers the best possible chance of achieving an inclusive peace, provided that all parties to the conflict understand its significance and historic implications that have eluded all parties for more than six decades. The likelihood that the current lull in violence will continue if no progress is made on the political front is slim. If the Arab states want to show a united front, especially as the Iranian nuclear advances threaten the regional balance of power, they must finally and publicly resolve to promote the API in earnest.

Historical significance against a dim reality

The API represents a monumental historical transformation, especially when compared to the famous Arab League Khartoum resolution of 1967 known for its three no's; no peace, no negotiations and no recognition. Given the critical importance of the API, why then have the Arab states and Israel failed, thus far, to appreciably advance the Arab-Israeli peace process? The answer lies in four interrelated reasons. First, it should be noted that the API was launched in the midst of the second Intifada, while intense violence was raging and scores of Israelis and Palestinians were losing their lives daily. The Israeli government, then led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was determined to apply an iron fist to deal with the indiscriminate violence, while the Arab governments were faced with public outrage instigated by graphic images of death and destruction. As a result, one might appreciate the fact that under such circumstances, active promotion of a comprehensive peace with Israel under the banner of the API would have prompted even greater public outrage. The reoccupation of all territories previously evacuated by Israel in the West Bank further eroded any modicum of trust left. It was not until 2005 that relative calm was restored, but by then the Arab Peace Initiative had lost any wind left in its sails. The Israelis took hardly any notice of its existence, while the Arab states made no substantial legwork to promote it between 2000 and 2005.

It was not until the meeting of the Arab League in Riyadh Saudi Arabia in March 2007 that the Arab states resolved to promote the Initiative in the US, EU and in Israel in order to persuade their respective governments and public of its historic dimension. Unfortunately though, other than a brief visit by the foreign ministers of Jordan and Egypt to Israel in 2007, no other effort to advance its merit took place anywhere. Instead, in subsequent Arab league gatherings, threats to rescind it were echoed by several member states presumably because of Israel's refusal to adopt it. The irony here is that while the API is transformational by its very nature, it was perceived by even the limited number of Israelis who knew about it as a trap due to the language concerning the solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees. Thus, rather than exposing the Israeli public to its far-reaching significance for normalization in the region, Arab officials retreated and blamed Israelis for their laissez-faire attitude. The fact that Saudi Arabia or any of the other leading Arab states made no concerted efforts to promote it to the Israeli public made it much easier for Israel's leadership to reject it in its entirety.

From the moment the API was launched in Beirut Lebanon in 2002, not a single change was introduced in the political narratives by Arab officials to indicate that Israel is a reality and that a way must be found to reconcile Israel's legitimate requirement for peace with API. The mention of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 in the official document-which calls for the right of return of any Palestinian refugees to their original homes in Israel proper-was never explained in the context of all previous negotiations and what all governments knew would be a more realistic solution. Allowing Israel to reject the API on the grounds of the non-binding UNGA 194, despite the fact that the Initiative calls for a "just solution" to the refugees, based on the United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 which preceded UNGA 194, showed a level of political pandering to the Arab street who often uses the plight of the refugees to symbolize their frustration with Israel. Moreover in every recent negotiation between Israel and Palestinian officials, the Palestinian representatives have agreed that only a token number of refugees would in fact return to Israel under a family unification if Israel accepts the principle of the right of return. For Israel, this clause in the Initiative represented the single most objectionable provision, and unfortunately the language of UNGA 194 trumped the call for a realistic solution and thus Israel could not accept it.

Finally, the failure of the Arab states to persuade the United States, in particular, to officially embrace the API has severely undermined its currency. The generally unsettled relations between Washington and other Arab capitals such as Damascus throughout the Bush presidency also made it somewhat politically awkward for the Bush administration to adopt the Initiative, choosing instead a different venue in the Quartet to promote the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Certainly the US preoccupation with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan further shifted the focus from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, leaving the API with no support while Israelis and Palestinians were left to their own devices. Although President Obama has shown a general support of API, he has yet to adopt it as the principle frame of reference to all future Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.

The Quartet - a poor substitute:

The establishment of the Quartet, consisting of the US, EU, UN and Russia, and the Annapolis conference, that in November 2007 was meant to create a credible mechanism to promote the peace process, proved incapable of enforcing any real implementation by the parties involved. The Bush administration, with only one year left in office, did not allow the time or commitment to iron out all the details that the Clinton administration had worked so fastidiously on for two terms. The singular most important achievement of the Quartet however was the consensus around the establishment of a Palestinian state to co-exist peacefully side-by-side with Israel. Yet ultimately the Roadmap for Middle East peace could not be force-fed to Israel or the Arab states, and it too was unable to sustain momentum. Unlike the Quartet though, which is composed of diverse power centers outside the region, the API represents the collective Arab will. It represents the consensus of the Arab governments, and therefore naturally resonates better among the Arab populace. Moreover, whereas the Quartet focuses on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the establishment of a two-state solution, the API offers a broad Arab-Israeli peace that must also provide solutions to all outstanding conflicts, including those with Lebanon and Syria. In addition, the API promises a formal peace treaty between Israel and all the Arab states with security guarantees and normalization of relations, which are critical requirements for any Israeli government who will agree to relinquish the vast majority of the territories. One other critical element in the API is that its formal adoption by the United States and Israel in particular would have, and still can, put enormous pressure on radical Arab groups including Hamas and Hezbollah to join the Arab fold. Instead, the members of the Quartet remain stuck with the requirement that Hamas recognizes Israel and accepts all prior agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, which at this point is highly unrealistic. Now that there are increased efforts by Egypt and other actors to include Hamas in the political process, as well as a toning down of rhetoric on the US front, the time is ideal to include these players into the overall peace strategy.

Why now more than ever

To be sure time is a concerning factor, as the prevailing conditions on the ground strongly support the need for immediate action to move the peace process forward toward a comprehensive peace under the framework of the API. To begin with, for more than sixteen months there has been a general state of calm devoid of violence. No one can or should take this condition for granted. Indeed, regardless of why Hamas or Hezbollah have refrained from shelling rockets, the existing calm must be built upon to demonstrate that the prerequisite of a non-violent atmosphere to advance the peace process is taken very seriously. It serves Israel's best interests to alleviate the intolerable conditions of the Palestinians-especially in Gaza-to demonstrate to the world that the Israelis will reward non-violent behavior. Otherwise, the notable progress, prosperity and security the Israelis experience today will be in jeopardy if they do not show movement when there is moderation. Continuous calls for a one state solution, either by Israelis who believe in "Eretz Yisrael" and delegating the Palestinians to Jordan, or by Palestinians who feel if they wait long enough they can overwhelm the Jewish majority demographically, are only perpetuating

the myth that either side can simply wish away the other over time. The governments of Israel and the Arab states should dispel such notions whenever they gain momentum, as they only serve to distract the public away from the realities on the ground.

Israel has long-term national security concerns that top its domestic agenda, many of which can be addressed only in the context of the API because the Palestinians themselves cannot offer a sustainable framework for regional security. Moreover, since other regional actors have a stake in the outcome of any peace agreement, they would want to insure that such an agreement satisfies their needs and territorial requirements. Whereas Iran, for example, will do anything it can to undermine Israel, it would be hard pressed to go openly against the collective Arab will should the Palestinians strike a deal with Israel under the API principles. The lack of a comprehensive frame of reference allows other political groups such as Hezbollah to pursue their own agenda operating at the behest of non- Arab states such as Iran. Each holds different view of how to achieve their objective, which often runs contrary to the Arab states' collective interest. This also applies to other rejectionist groups such as Islamic Jihad which still wish to see the destruction of Israel but will be pressured not to sabotage the collective Arab security arrangements with Israel. Indeed, the ultimate intentions of the extremist groups remain central in Israel's domestic debate. Only the Arab states together speaking with one voice and supported by all Muslim states that embraced the API provide the kind of international legitimacy needed for longevity.

Finally, the greatest advantage of the API is the acceptance of Israel as an integral part of the Middle East. If there is currently one overarchingimpediment to peace, it is the prevailing mindsets among the Israeli and the Arab masses about one another. Promoting the API directly and effectively remains indispensable to changing the mindsets of the masses, without which very little if any progress can be made. No piece-meal approach can mitigate the embedded lack of trust, cynicism, and scepticism which is consuming Israel and the Arab states. The API is the singular framework that can change the dynamic of the conflict and create new and more compelling conditions on the ground demonstrating what is possible.

Promoting the API

Promoting the API on a take it or leave it basis will not achieve its intended purpose. Whereas the Arab states cannot convey that every clause in the Initiative is subject to an open-ended negotiation, Arab officials can use quite diplomatic channels to express that while the Initiative upholds certain pillars, like the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, there is room within these principles to reconcile Israel's requirements for peace with the API. In particular, since the Israelis have legitimate long-term security concerns, these concerns must be allayed in unequivocal terms. The Arab League must emphasize that the API should be seen as the singular frame of reference for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace and that Israel's national security will be collectively assured and that any mutually accepted agreement will be final and permanent. In particular, the Arab states should categorically state that they will enforce, by whatever means necessary, such an agreement on any Arab radical groups as long as they are part and parcel of the Arab body politic and occupy an Arab land. This will not only alleviate, at least in part, the Israeli concerns over national security matters, but it will rally the Israeli public to exert greater pressure on their government to seriously engage the Arab states on the basis of the API.

The general framework for a comprehensive peace to the Arab-Israeli conflict has been hashed and rehashed ad nausea. The two-state solution, a fair resolution to the Palestinian refugees through a combination of resettlement and compensation, and the return of the Golan Heights to Syria provides the only viable solution. The API is very clear on all of these issues, what the Arab states must do now is actively and relentlessly promote these solutions. But to do so successfully, they must begin to change their political narratives and openly state to the Arab masses that peace with Israel is in the Arab states' best collective national interests. The academic community and the Arab media in particular must write about and analyze the importance of the API, and why peace with Israel under its framework should be pursued.

Finally, it is critically important to note that the greatest impediment to peace between Arabs and Israelis is not territory. Israel will have to, in one form or another, relinquish the bulk of the territories captured in 1967 with some limited land swap. The real impediment is the complacency with the status quo, and the psychological hurdles involved in taking risks to change it. Both the Israeli and Arab public must at some point recognize the inevitability of peaceful coexistence and advocate that if there was ever any benefit to prolonging the conflict, it has outlived its usefulness. Neither side can improve their position regardless of how much longer the conflict persists. At this point the longer the conflict continues, the greater diminishing the return will be.

The geopolitical conditions in the Middle East have dramatically changed since the API was initially introduced in 2002. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have drastically altered the regional power equation, as have the new administrations in power. Iran, who has benefited the most from the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime, poses a serious threat to both Israel and the Arab Sunni states. It is plausible that the Obama administration will roll out its own Middle East peace plan in the coming year, which may well include the Syrian and Lebanese tracks as well as the Palestinian. Yet unless this plan is conducted under the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative, with the backing of leading Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Syria, it will not bolster long-term normalization and peace in the region.

If there is any time when such an initiative should be taken to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is now. The Arab League must seize the opportunity to promote the Arab Peace Initiative, and remain relentless until it is fully implemented.

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