May 5th 2010

The Arab Peace Initiative: Now or Never

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

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.


Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Sep 24th 2021
EXTRACTS: "We have found that 47 million American adults – nearly 1 in 5 – agree with the statement that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.” Of those, 21 million also agree that “use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency.” Our survey found that many of these 21 million people with insurrectionist sentiments have the capacity for violent mobilization. At least 7 million of them already own a gun, and at least 3 million have served in the U.S. military and so have lethal skills. Of those 21 million, 6 million said they supported right-wing militias and extremist groups, and 1 million said they are themselves or personally know a member of such a group, including the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys." ----- "..... the Jan. 6 insurrection represents a far more mainstream movement than earlier instances of right-wing extremism across the country. Those events, mostly limited to white supremacist and militia groups, saw more than 100 individuals arrested from 2015 to 2020. But just 14% of those arrested for their actions on Jan. 6 are members of those groups. More than half are business owners or middle-aged white-collar professionals, and only 7% are unemployed."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "That long path, though, has from the start had within it one fundamental flaw. If we are to make sense of wider global trends in insecurity, we have to recognise that in all the analysis around the 9/11 anniversary there lies the belief that the main security concern must be with an extreme version of Islam. It may seem a reasonable mistake, given the impact of the wars, but it still misses the point. The war on terror is better seen as one part of a global trend which goes well beyond a single religious tradition – a slow but steady move towards revolts from the margins."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Is it not extraordinary that in a country that claims to be as enlightened and advanced as ours, the combined wealth of three individuals – Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and investor Warren Buffett – exceeds the total wealth of the bottom half of Americans? One has to return to the days of the pharaohs of Egypt to find a parallel to the extreme wealth inequality that we see in in America today." ...... "The top tax rate remained above 90 percent through the 1950s and did not dip below 70 percent until 1981. At no point during the decades that saw America’s greatest economic growth did the tax on the wealthy drop below 70 percent. Today it is somewhere around 37 percent. President Biden’s American Families Plan would increase the top tax rate to 39.6 percent – a fairly modest alteration, albeit in the right direction. It is true that there was a time when the top marginal tax was even lower than it is today: in the years leading up to the Great Depression it hovered around 25 percent."
Sep 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "But Biden can’t be blamed for the rise of the Taliban, or the fragile state of a country that has seen far too many wars and invasions. The US should not have been there in the first place, but that is a lesson that great powers never seem to learn."
Sep 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "The world is only starting to grapple with how profound the artificial-intelligence revolution will be. AI technologies will create waves of progress in critical infrastructure, commerce, transportation, health, education, financial markets, food production, and environmental sustainability. Successful adoption of AI will drive economies, reshape societies, and determine which countries set the rules for the coming century." ----- "AI will reorganize the world and change the course of human history. The democratic world must lead that process."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Although the Fed is considering tapering its quantitative easing (QE), it will likely remain dovish and behind the curve overall. Like most central banks, it has been lured into a “debt trap” by the surge in private and public liabilities (as a share of GDP) in recent years. Even if inflation stays higher than targeted, exiting QE too soon could cause bond, credit, and stock markets to crash. That would subject the economy to a hard landing, potentially forcing the Fed to reverse itself and resume QE." ---- "After all, that is what happened between the fourth quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, following the Fed’s previous attempt to raise rates and roll back QE."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Today’s economic challenges are certainly solvable, and there is no reason why inflation should have to spike."
Aug 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, they have focused on their agenda, which is totally misguided—not by our own account but by the account of the majority of the American population, who view the Republican party as one that has lost its moral footing to the detriment of America’s future generations, who must now inherit the ugly consequences of a party that ran asunder."
Aug 21st 2021
EXTRACTS: "Now that so many sad truths about Afghanistan are being spoken aloud, even in the major media – let me add one more: The war, from start to finish, was about politics, not in Afghanistan but in the United States. Afghanistan was always a sideshow."--- "....the 2001 invasion was fast and apparently decisive. And so it rescued George W. Bush’s tainted presidency,..." --- "Bush’s approval shot up to 90% and then steadily declined,..."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Taliban’s virtually uncontested takeover over Afghanistan raises obvious questions about the wisdom of US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US and coalition forces from the country. Paradoxically, however, the rapidity and ease of the Taliban’s advance only reaffirms that Biden made the right decision – and that he should not reverse course. ...... The ineffectiveness and collapse of Afghanistan’s military and governing institutions largely substantiates Biden’s skepticism that US-led efforts to prop up the government in Kabul would ever enable it to stand on its own feet. The international community has spent nearly 20 years, many thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars to do good by Afghanistan – taking down al-Qaeda; beating back the Taliban; supporting, advising, training, and equipping the Afghan military; bolstering governing institutions; and investing in the country’s civil society. .... Significant progress was made, but not enough." ....... "That is because the mission was fatally flawed from the outset. It was a fool’s errand to try to turn Afghanistan into a centralized, unitary state. "
Aug 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "But even in the US, which is more lenient than most countries, the principle cannot be absolute. Inciting imminent violence is not permitted. Donald Trump’s speech on January 6, urging the mob to storm the US Capitol, certainly came close to overstepping this boundary. It was a clear demonstration that language can be dangerous. What the internet media has done is raise the stakes; “fighting words” are spread around much faster and more widely than ever before. This will require a great deal of vigilance, to protect our freedom to express ourselves, while observing the social and legal bounds that stop words from turning into actual fighting. "
Jul 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to the Chinese economy, I have been a congenital optimist for over 25 years. But now I have serious doubts. The Chinese government has taken dead aim at its dynamic technology sector, the engine of China’s New Economy. Its recent actions are symptomatic of a deeper problem: the state’s efforts to control the energy of animal spirits." ---- "... the Chinese economy, no less than others, still requires a foundation of trust – trust in the consistency of leadership priorities, in transparent governance, and in wise regulatory oversight – to flourish. --- Modern China lacks this foundation of trust ."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "It seems that they are, as the last 18 months have seen a remarkable expansion of the central banks’ fields of activity, largely driven by their own ambitions. So they have moved into the climate change arena, arguing that financial stability may be put at risk by rising temperatures, and that central banks, as bond purchasers and as banking supervisors, can and should be proactive in raising the cost of credit for corporations without a credible transition plan. That is a promising new line of business, which is likely to grow. ---- Central banks are also trying to move into social engineering, specifically the policy response to rising income and wealth inequality, another hot button topic with high political salience."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "The EU’s ambitious unilateral climate strategy will transform Europe into a trade fortress, encourage green protectionism worldwide, and give other regions the opportunity to develop using cheaper energy. And without China, India, and the United States on board, other countries will be careful not to follow the EU in its self-appointed role as the world’s green guinea pig. If Europe is not careful, it will risk finding itself in a climate club of one. "
Jul 9th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... ruminants belch and fart methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. As a result, rearing beef cattle brings about, on average, six times the contribution to global warming as non-ruminant animals (for example, pigs) producing the same quantity of protein. ..... if projected to 2050 [beef production], would use 87% of the total quantity of emissions that is compatible with the Paris climate agreement’s objective of staying below a 2° Celsius increase in temperature."
Jul 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " .... while China’s leaders never mention it, they are just as embittered over Russia’s theft of Chinese territory in the nineteenth century as they are over the West’s imperial predations. With Western imperialism having been largely rolled back, it is Russia’s continued occupation of historic Chinese territory that stands out the most to ordinary Chinese observers. For example, the city of Vladivostok, with its vast naval base, has been a part of Russia only since 1860, when the tsars built a military harbor there. Before that, the city was known by the Manchu name of Haishenwai." ---- "There is also a demographic argument for Putin to consider: the six million Russians spread along the Siberian border face 90 million Chinese on the other side. And many of these Chinese regularly cross the border into Russia to trade (and a good number to stay)."
Jul 7th 2021
EXTRACTS: "According to a new analysis by researchers at Brown University, America’s two-decade war in Afghanistan cost it nearly $2.3 trillion. Now, Afghanistan’s neighbors – Pakistan, Iran, China, India, and the Central Asian countries – are wondering just how much it will cost them to maintain security after the United States is gone." ----- "After clandestinely supporting the Taliban as a means to undermine the US war effort, Russia now fears broader destabilization in Central Asia and beyond." ---- "Similarly, after having made nice with the Taliban, China also now fears the greater regional instability that the US withdrawal may incite. In addition to disrupting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Eurasia-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, a revitalized Taliban could re-energize the Islamist extremist threat in China’s western Xinjiang province."
Jul 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "When former Fed Chair Paul Volcker hiked rates to tackle inflation in 1980-82, the result was a severe double-dip recession in the United States and a debt crisis and lost decade for Latin America. But now that global debt ratios are almost three times higher than in the early 1970s, any anti-inflationary policy would lead to a depression, rather than a severe recession. ---- Under these conditions, central banks will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and many governments will be semi-insolvent and thus unable to bail out banks, corporations, and households. The doom loop of sovereigns and banks in the eurozone after the global financial crisis will be repeated worldwide, sucking in households, corporations, and shadow banks as well. ---- As matters stand, this slow-motion train wreck looks unavoidable."
Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "