Now or Never for the Arab Peace Initiative

By Alon Ben-Meir | 2010-07-01 01:00:00

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, there is little to show for the high hopes that this new administration garnered and the continuous efforts of high-level American officials to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. The diplomatic breaches and obstacles to negotiating have consumed the headlines, and one year later, multilateral relations in the region seem tepid. The repeated failures of bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and Syria, may be attributed to the deep-seated mistrust, to concerns over long-term security, and to domestic political constraints blocking concessions.

Yet while all of these elements contributed to the current stalemate, the critical missing ingredient is 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 for peace, if all parties to the conflict understand the historic implications that have eluded them for more than six decades. If the Arab states want to show a united front, especially as the Iranian nuclear advances threaten the regional balance of power, they must promote the API in earnest.

Historical significance

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 advance the Arab-Israeli peace process?

There are four interrelated explanations. First, 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, used an iron fist against the indiscriminate violence, while the Arab governments were faced with public outrage in response to the graphic images of death and destruction. Under such circumstances, to promote 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 the modicum of remaining trust. It was not until 2005 that relative calm was restored, but by then the wind was out of the sails of the Arab Peace Initiative. The Israelis took hardly any notice of it, nor did the Arab states promote it between 2000 and 2005.

Not until the meeting of the Arab League in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in March 2007 did the Arab states resolve to promote the Initiative in the US, EU, and Israel or to persuade their respective governments and publics of its historic significance. Unfortunately, other than a brief visit by the foreign ministers of Jordan and Egypt to Israel in 2007, no effort was made to advance it 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 is that while the API is transformational by its very nature, it was perceived by even the few Israelis who knew about it as a trap. This was caused by its 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 effort to promote it to the Israeli public made it much easier for Israel’s leadership to reject it altogether.

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 with legitimate requirements for peace that must somehow be reconciled with the API. The mention of 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 principal 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 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. Also, 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 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

It serves Israel’s interests to alleviate the intolerable conditions of the Palestinians—especially in Gaza—thereby proving to the world that the Israelis will reward nonviolent behavior. The Israelis’ security will be in jeopardy if they do not show movement when there is moderation.

Calls for a one-state solution (either by Israelis who believe in “Eretz Yisrael” and who would relegate 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. The governments of Israel and the Arab states should dispel such notions.

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. 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 possible 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. Such approaches often run 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 intentions of 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 overarching impediment 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 those mindsets, without which very little if any progress can be made. No piecemeal approach can mitigate the cynicism and skepticism which are 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, 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 diplomatic channels to express that. While the Initiative upholds certain pillars, such as 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. 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 is the singular frame of reference for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, 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 alleviate, at least in part, Israeli concerns over national security and will rally the Israeli public to press their government to engage the Arab states on the API.

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 to relentlessly promote these solutions. But to do so successfully, they must change their political narratives and tell the Arab masses that peace with Israel is in the Arab states’ best interests. The academic community and the Arab media in particular must analyze the importance of the API, and show why peace with Israel under its framework should be pursued.

The greatest impediment to peace between Arabs and Israelis is not territory. Israel will have to relinquish the bulk of the territories captured in 1967 with some limited land swap. The real impediments are complacency with the status quo and the psychological hurdles involved in risking change. Both the Israeli and Arab public must see peaceful coexistence as inevitable. Neither side can improve their position, however long the conflict persists. Indeed, the returns diminish with time.

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, which has benefited most from the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime, poses a threat to Israel and the Arab Sunni states alike.

The Obama administration will probably 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.

The Arab League must seize the opportunity now to promote the Arab Peace Initiative, and remain relentless until it is fully implemented.

Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at New York University.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2010

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2010, page 22. Some rights reserved.

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