As US Secretary of State John Kerry is about to unveil his proposed framework for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, there may not be a more opportune time than now to reinvigorate the Arab Peace Initiative (API) in support of Kerry’s efforts. Certainly the geopolitical conditions in the Middle East have dramatically changed since the API was first introduced at the 2002 Arab League Summit in Beirut, Lebanon. Paradoxically, at this juncture of turmoil sweeping the region, the API is more relevant than ever before to generate badly-needed new momentum for the peace process.
The meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo on March 10 called for the establishment of an independent sovereign Palestinian state in line with the API; they further reinforced the “continuing Arab commitment to the initiative as a strategic option.”
Although the Arab ministers’ reference to the API as a strategic option and their call for an end to the conflict based on a two-state solution is positive and necessary (regardless of their merit), their outright rejection of Israel as a Jewish state or their demand that Jerusalem must become the capital of two states preempts and may well undermine Kerry’s arduous efforts.
Instead of rehashing old slogans and making new demands on Israel, the Arab states should utilize the platform the API provides to push the peace negotiations forward rather than establish new red lines that can only harden the Israeli as well as the Palestinian positions.
The efforts Kerry has and continues to exert to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process toward a comprehensive peace agreement may well be the last attempt by the Obama administration. Given the regional instability and the growing tension between Iran and the Arab states, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in particular have special interests in pushing for an Israeli-Palestinian peace and no longer need to obscure that with unhelpful public narratives. Here is why.
First: It is now an open secret that relations between Arab Sunni states and Israel have never been closer because of the perceived common threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. Israel and the Arab states are consulting each other, exchanging Iran-related intelligence, and developing a joint strategy to effectively deal with Iran’s nuclear program.
Even if the proxy Shiite-Sunni war currently being waged in Iraq and Syria -- led by Iran and Saudi Arabia -- subsides, the long historic rivalry between the two sides will not be mitigated by Iran’s current charm offensive. There is no love lost between them where centuries of enmity and hatred still looms high, which makes Arab-Israeli rapprochement not only desirable but also a strategic necessity.
Second: As Kerry is preparing to disclose his framework for peace, demonstrable support by the Arab states along the lines of the API (which is consistent with Kerry’s framework) will send a powerful message to both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that the whole Arab world stands behind Kerry’s initiative.
For the Israelis, it will be a reassuring message that the Arab states are now more than ever before, committed to backing the peace efforts and providing the incentive to compromise. The Israeli and Palestinian governments know they must make significant concessions to reach an agreement. They also know that regardless of the inevitable changing regional dynamics in the years to come, the fundamental concessions required now to reach an agreement will not drastically change.
Third: Given the turmoil in Syria, Israel would not need to grapple, at least not at this juncture, with the API’s requirement to withdraw from the Golan Heights. This was one of the main impediments behind Israel’s refusal to embrace the API in the first place.
Interestingly, in their formal statement from Cairo, the Arab ministers made no reference to the Golan Heights. In an earlier meeting with Kerry in April 2013, the Arab foreign ministers agreed to a “comparable and mutual agreed minor swap of the land,” which the Israelis found to be very helpful.
In addition, an Israeli-Palestinian peace will be seen as another phase toward the establishment of a comprehensive Arab–Israeli peace, following the examples of the Egyptian and Jordanian peace treaties with Israel.
Notwithstanding semantics and public protestations to the contrary, both Israel and the Arab states face a fateful crossroad, and Kerry’s efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace stand in contrast to any similar attempt in the past.
Time is their worst enemy; if the current negotiations fail, the Palestinians should not assume that turning to the UN by joining various agencies and seeking justice through the International Criminal Court will bring an end to the Israeli occupation. At the end of the day, they must still sit face-to-face with the Israelis to find a mutually acceptable solution.
For Israel, the situation is even more acute because of the changing demographics in relation to the Palestinians, Israel’s growing isolation from the international community, and the US’ weariness to pursue an elusive peace while losing much of its credibility and undermining its strategic interests.
Indeed, ahead of Netanyahu’s visit to DC during the first week of March, President Obama warned that the United States may not be able to protect Israel if a two-state solution with the Palestinians fails.
For these reasons, it is not enough for the Arab states to provide Kerry with lukewarm public support; they need to become active participants both publicly and privately and show solidarity with the US-led efforts to send a clear message to the Israeli and Palestinian public where they really stand. Renewing the API as part and parcel of Kerry’s initiative would create a new atmosphere conducive to accommodations, knowing that the future holds no better prospect.
Time and circumstances have changed; the balance of power in the region is being transformed, regional stability is elusive at best, Islamic militancy is on the rise and the US and Russia seem engaged in another “cold war,” all of which add to the region’s travails.
Given this state of affairs, the failure to achieve an agreement now could unwittingly plunge the Israelis and Palestinians into a new violent confrontation and drag the US and the Arab states into a new conflict that they desperately want to avoid.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University and is also a Senior Fellow and the Middle East Project Director at the World Policy Institute. Dr. Ben-Meir is an expert on Middle East politics and affairs, specializing in peace negotiations between Israel and the Arab states. For the past 25 years, he has operated as a liaison between top Middle Eastern officials and has been directly involved in various high-level negotiations.