Have Israeli-Arab ties revived the 2002 Peace Initiative? - analysis

Unless Tuesday’s signing reveals documents with clear references to the two-state solution, the West Bank and or settlement activity, clarity will not be achieved in one day.

Israeli and U.S. officials fly to UAE to cement "normalization" deal. (photo credit: REUTERS/CHRISTOPHER PIKE)
Israeli and U.S. officials fly to UAE to cement "normalization" deal.
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced the death of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative already on Monday, just one day before the historic signing of normalization deals between Israel and two Gulf states; the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Shtayyeh’s Twitter eulogy for the plan that guided regional peacemaking for 18 years was so obvious that he could have spared himself the dramatic pronouncement that it had been “killed.”
Two Gulf states, members of the Arab League, are now clearly willing to publicly celebrate formal ties with the Jewish state, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rages on. Clearly, therefore, the 2002 deal that offered normalization with Arab states only after resolution of the Palestinian conflict has effectively been rendered meaningless.
But has the 2002 deal, which had sought to offer Israel incentives for an agreement for a two-state resolution based on the pre-1967 lines, truly died or have the Arab states simply changed tactics as they continue to pursue that goal?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had long argued that Israel must first make peace with the Arab world and only then could the conflict with the Palestinians be resolved.
US President Donald Trump concurred and set in motion a regional Israeli-Arab peace process that has appeared to leave the Palestinian peace for the last phase.
The breakthrough in an 18-year Israeli-Arab stalemate, at the end of the day, likely has little to do with Netanyahu’s doctrine of peace-making. It is probably more reflective of the shifting regional power alliances to combat an increasingly aggressive Iran, bolstered by the economic incentives of such alliances.
Still, does the new regional US-brokered ties automatically mean the abandonment of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative’s territorial resolution of the conflict?
Trump’s peace plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict published in January clearly rendered the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative obsolete by creating his own map that ignored the pre-1967 lines. In the end, the US is in the lead here.
Despite this, the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative has not had an easy death, and in some ways it has had a sudden revival.
Former Mossad head Efraim Halevy told the Jerusalem Press Club this week that Israel would have to be prepared to revisit the 2002 Arab peace plan if it wants to uphold normalization deals with Arab states. This would be particularly true, he said, if it wanted public ties with Saudi Arabia.
“The Saudis have stated that from their point of view the solution of the Arab-Israel problem should be based on [2002 initiative]. Even Bahrain has said they believe the [initiative] is a road map for the solution of the Palestinian problem. In this context, Israel would have to be prepared to revisit [the initiative],” Halevy said.
He noted that Israel would have to bend here.
“You don’t get something for nothing,” Halevy said.
Bahrain and UAE officials have also clarified repeatedly, including on Tuesday in Washington, that normalization with Israel was the best method to advance the Palestinian cause and the two-state solution.
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash assured reporters on Tuesday that this promotion of the Palestinian cause included 2002 the Arab Peace Initiative, which he said was still viable and lay at the heart of his country’s efforts to ensure a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Fundamentally, the Arab Peace Initiative remains really at the heart and cornerstone of our collective approach to the resolution of the two-state solution,” Gargash said.
But the text of the Abraham Accord made no mention of the 2002 initiative. It spoke vaguely of the need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but ignored the parameters the Arab Peace Initiative had set for the conflict. There was no reference in the accord to the pre-1967 lines or east Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. The most glaring omission was the absence of any reference to a Palestinian state.
One had to wonder what exactly Gargash meant when he made it seem as if the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative had been resurrected.
The public comments of the Emirati and Bahrain foreign ministers referenced a two-state resolution, but ignored the pre-1967 lines or in fact any reference the contours of what a Palestinian state would look like.
It was an unusual moment for two countries that have been previously wedded to the idea of an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines.
One could almost imagine that Gargash held the press conference to make it sound just as if the UAE and Bahrain had not abandoned the notion.
But the Abraham Accord and their impact appear to cast a much wider net than the written text.
The UAE might have signed on a document that ignored the pre-1967 lines, but it linked the accord itself to that boundary by insisting that Israel must halt all attempts to expand its sovereign borders in the West Bank. It’s a move that forces Israel to maintain its sovereign borders at the pre-1967 lines in the West Bank, save for east Jerusalem, which had longed ago been annexed to Israel.
That suspension of annexation is coupled with a sudden absence of advancements and approvals for settler building plans; in short, a de facto freeze. The Higher Planning Council for Judea and Samaria, which approves such projects, has not met since February. It is almost as if as a trust building measure, Israel silently agreed to a de facto freeze to show the UAE that it was committed to a peace deal between the two countries.
At first flush, it would seem that the strategy of Israeli-Arab ties first increased the stakes for Israeli settlement activity – just when it had appeared that the link between peace and the settlements had been severed.
The more ensconced a military and economic alliance between Israel and the Arab states, then the more incentive Israel would have to adhere to a freeze.
Settler leaders might sound dramatic when they threaten Netanyahu politically from a West Bank hilltop, but the political threat they pose pales in comparison to a stronger anti-Iran strategy or regional economics.
Gargash noted as much in talking with reporters Tuesday. “The more the Arab countries have leverage, the more the Israelis will understand that for them, to be part and parcel of the region, they will need to understand the region’s concerns and heed its advice,” he said.
But the Abraham Accord is not a one-way street and this kind of logic works both ways. The Arab states have agreed to formalize ties because they stand to benefit from a relationship with Israel. The onus is on them as well, to sustain ties and not endanger a regional anti-Iran alliance for an extra Jewish apartment in the West Bank.
What is likely to follow now is a careful, cagey dance, by two parties with much to lose, who will try to otherwise advance wildly different agendas when it comes to the drawing a future map to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.