PA PRESIDENT Mahmoud Abbas (front right) and Qatar’s prime minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al-Thani arrive at a meeting of the Arab Peace Initiative Committee in Doha in 2013..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Arab Peace Initiative proposed by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and endorsed by the Arab League in 2002, and then re-endorsed in 2007, was never debated seriously by the Israeli government. The proposal, which has undergone several revisions, calls for Israeli withdrawal from the Arab territories occupied since 1967 with the option for mutually agreed territorial swaps; the establishment of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital; and a “just” and “agreed upon” solution to the Palestinian refugee question in accordance with UN Resolution 194.
In exchange, 57 Arab and Muslim states would establish “normal relations” with Israel. Received in Israel with indifference under the claim that the proposal offered Israel nothing new, the Initiative was placed in some metaphorical attic, probably in the hope that it would be forgotten forever.
The time has come shake off the dust from the Arab Peace Initiative and examine its merit as a basis for negotiation for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Not as a take-itor- leave-it document, but as a basis for negotiations. This was the general theme of a conference on “The Arab Peace Initiative: Opportunities, Likelihood and Risks” that was held last week at the IDC Herzliya by the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) headed by Prof. Alex Mintz.
Speakers at the conference, which included a host of Middle East experts, scholars and researchers, and two former heads of the Mossad, were more or less of one opinion: the Arab Peace Initiative actually does offer Israel something new, in fact dramatically new: the opportunity to reach a settlement with the Palestinians that is supported by the Arab world, alongside the forging of diplomatic relations with 57 Arab and Muslim countries.
A successful Arab Peace Initiative would resolve the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and open up a host of new diplomatic and economic relations in the region.
The main Arab players in the region, in particular Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both of which enjoy special status in the Arab and Islamic worlds, are crucial to the success of an Israeli-Palestinian deal. Any agreement between Palestinians and Israelis will require first and foremost their explicit stamp of approval. Moreover, they possess the necessary leverage to push the Palestinians toward an agreement they themselves support. One need only look to the recent past to see the influence of Arab states over the Palestinians.
In 1995 when Yasser Arafat was slow to sign the Oslo II Accords, Mubarak forced him – using highly undiplomatic language – to the table. In the Camp David talks in 2000 Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and president Mubarak opposed prime minister Ehud Barak’s proposals regarding Jerusalem and went so far as to threaten Arafat with political excommunication if he accepted the offer. We know how these incidents ended – both times in Palestinian compliance with their larger Arab brothers.
Therefore the Arab Peace Initiative warrants serious consideration by Israel, not because its proposals regarding the core issues in dispute are favorable to Israel. Favorable terms are a goal to be achieved through negotiations based on the document. Rather, the initiative deserves serious consideration because a process based on a document endorsed and supported by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other member states of the Arab League would enjoy legitimacy in large parts of the Muslim and Arab world.
Second, Arab states will be more committed to negotiations based on a proposal they have endorsed and more prepared to invest time and resources in order to obtain a successful outcome. Third, with their reputation on the line, they will be committed to upholding an agreement reached. Finally, and most importantly, the Arab states have greater ability, or moving-power, than any other party, including the United States and Europe, to influence the Palestinians to cooperate.
Certainly, Israel is skeptical about the prospect of involving Arab states, friends of the Palestinians, as mediators in negotiations. Yet, one might learn here from the experience of Egypt, which was the first Arab state to accept Israel’s friend, the United States, as a mediator in its conflict with Israel. For Egyptian president Anwar Sadat this was certainly a way to improve Egypt’s relations with Washington. Yet more importantly, Sadat understood that US mediation, not the Egyptian army, could restore the Sinai to Egypt. He understood that the United States, because of its close relationship with Israel, was the only country with sufficient leverage to pressure Israeli leaders to agree to significant concessions. This line of thought went against the commonly held belief among Arab states that the United States’ bias toward Israel prevented it from serving as an acceptable and effective mediator.
Studies on mediation in international conflicts have shown that in negotiations where a mediator is closer to one side than the other, the favored side tends to make the larger concessions. Thus, involving moderate Arab states through the Arab League-endorsed proposal may not only help put the Israeli-Palestinian peace process back on track, but might also provide the necessary pressure on the Palestinians to make certain concessions as well as the legitimacy to do so. Currently, given the dangers entailed in continuing the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, and given the alignment of interests between Israel and such heavyweights in the Arab world as Egypt and Saudi Arabia vis-àvis more radical and dangerous forces in the region, now is an opportune moment to revisit the Arab Initiative as a basis for talks on an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
The author is a researcher and lecturer on negotiations and mediation in international relations at IDC Herzliya.