Apr 25th 2013

Resurrecting The Arab Peace Initiative

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

The resurrection of Arab Peace Initiative (API) by the United States, which was initially introduced by the Arab League in Beirut, Lebanon in 2002, is a strategic and timely move. Sadly, however, the API should have all along constituted the basis for a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement which was, and still is, the pre-condition for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

This is not high insight; for years I have been preaching that the Israelis and the Palestinians could have forged a bilateral agreement had Israel accepted the API as the framework of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

Israel’s national security concerns (real and imagined) could have dramatically been allayed had the Arab states, and by extension all Muslim countries, been at peace with Israel. By rejecting the API, successive Israeli governments have made a mistake of historic proportions.

For the Palestinians, given their political factionalism and their approach to the conflict with Israel, only a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace could have ended the occupation and established a Palestinian state. Here too, the Arab states failed to aggressively promote their own initiative and left the Palestinians to their devices.

Why now? There are a number of compelling reasons behind the US’, the Arab states’, and Israel’s lukewarm desire to resurrect the only peace initiative that provides the basis for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. This will still take supreme efforts by the US in particular because of the pervasive apprehensiveness, especially in Israel, regarding the unquantified change that will of necessity occur.

The failure to engage Israel and the Palestinians in productive negotiations during President Obama’s first term and the growing concerns and frustrations over the continuing stalemate forced the US to look into other viable options. The API stands out singularly as the most viable framework, especially because it was the initiative of the collective Arab political body.

The sweeping upheavals in the Middle East and the concerns over renewed Israeli-Palestinian violent confrontations resulting from the continuing stalemate are making the Arab states increasingly concerned. Thus, settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which they view as the main source of regional instability, has assumed greater urgency. The API provides the vehicle around which all Palestinian factions can coalesce with the full backing of the Arab states in search for an equitable solution.

Finally, in the wake of the Iranian threat and the uncertain outcome in Syria’s civil war, the Arab states are looking to engage the US in a meaningful effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From their perspective, only the US can bridge the gap between Israel and the Palestinians at a time of extreme uncertainty.

What would it take to succeed?

First, although the Arab states refuse to make any changes in the language of the API, the Secretary General of the Arab League (AL), Nabil El-Arabi, should publicly announce that the Israeli acceptance of the API would of necessity require negotiations to iron out the details for any potential accord. That is, the API was never presented on a take it or leave it basis, albeit the various components of the Initiative must be dealt with and agreed upon in any peace agreement.

If such a statement is made following the meetings between the Arab League representatives(Foreign Ministers from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan, a Palestinian Authority representative, and the Secretary General of the AL) and John Kerry in Washington next week, it will go a long way toward persuading the Netanyahu government to accept the API in principle.

Second, the API offers Hamas, which must be an integral part of future negotiations, the opportunity to accept the API (joining the Arab states) without requiring it to recognize Israel in advance and without accepting prior agreements as stipulated by the Quartet.

That said, the Arab states, especially Egypt, must exert every effort to persuade Hamas to formally forsake violence and focus on a political solution as required by the API. Hamas’ leaders, including Khalid Mashaal and Ghazi Hamad, have already stated on more than one occasion that they will accept a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. According to Hamad, “all factions in the movement agree to this and are prepared to accept it.”

Third, Israel should offer goodwill gestures by releasing Palestinian prisoners, which is an extremely sensitive issue for President Abbas, and declaring a temporary halt on building new and expanding old settlements in sensitive areas. In addition, as suggested by Secretary of State John Kerry, Israel should release all tax revenues collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority (PA) from Palestinian laborers.

Fourth, although the API calls for the return of all territories captured in the 1967 war, the Arab states should not demand, at this phase, that Israel relinquish the Golan Heights (GH). Given the civil war in Syria and the uncertainty that will surely follow the ouster of Assad, it would be impossible for Israel to consider withdrawal from the GH. The eventual Israeli withdrawal from the GH will have to follow an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and a stable Syria, which will provide Israel further assurance of what lies ahead.

Fifth, the US must lean on Ankara to not muddy the waters, as intimated by John Kerry, by making unreasonable demands on Jerusalem in connection with lifting the blockade over Gaza. Instead, Ankara should adopt a balanced approach by first restoring full diplomatic relations with Israel (especially now in the wake of the Israeli apology) and exert its substantial influence on Hamas to refrain from any violent provocation to encourage further easing of the blockade by Israel.

Sixth, Secretary General El-Arabi should reiterate publicly that the API clearly affirms that the Arab states will recognize Israel and establish full diplomatic relations once an accord with the Palestinians is achieved. This public statement will have a profound psychological impact on the Israeli public who doubt the ultimate intentions of the Arab states.

The Israelis require these public assurances to engender grassroots support for the API, especially following Obama’s visit to Israel and his appeal to Israeli youth to lead the march for peace. Any Israeli prime minister, including Netanyahu, will find himself in a difficult position not to embrace the API under such circumstances.

Seventh, Israeli think tanks, the academic community, youth movements, labor organizations, synagogues, the media, and all political parties that seek an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should engage in new public narratives about each conflicting issue between Israel and the Palestinians. All options should be aired out so that the general public understands the imperatives they face and the concessions needed to reach a comprehensive solution.

Finally, it is not far-fetched to suggest that Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the emir of Qatar, who is politically progressive and open to new ideas, invite Israeli President Shimon Peres to visit Doha. Al-Thani, in a meeting with President Obama, has already voiced his support for the peace process, stating that “it’s very important for us to see peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and to see also a good relationship between Arab countries and Israel once a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement is reached.” Peres is a staunch supporter of the API and such a visit to an active Arab country in the pursuit of peace will send a clear message to Israelis and Palestinians alike that the Arab world is determined to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This will not be the first time that an Israeli official is invited to Doha. Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (currently the Justice Minster) was invited to speak at the Doha conference in April 2008. A state visit by President Peres will go a long way to demonstrate to skeptical Israelis that the Arab world is serious about peace.

Resurrecting the API offers the most promising prospect for a breakthrough; it will take however, the collective resolve of the Arab states, the Palestinians, Israel and the US to see it through.

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