Then and Now

With the Middle East increasingly locked in a struggle between Iranian-led radicals and Saudi- and Egyptian-led moderates, the idea behind the Arab Peace Initiative remains relevant today.

Livni 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Livni 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
IN MARCH 2002, THE ARAB League adopted an initiative calling for peace with Israel. On the face of it, the initiative was a shift of tectonic proportions.
Three and half decades earlier, in the aftermath of the Six Day War, the league had set the tone for Arab rejectionism with the notorious “Three No’s of Khartoum”: no recognition, no negotiations and no peace with Israel. True, in between there had been peace moves involving the Arab states and the Palestinians, peace with Egypt in 1979, the Madrid Conference in 1991, the Oslo process in its wake, and peace with Jordan in 1994.
But none of these had been wall-to-wall Arab initiatives. On the contrary, most of the Arab world had kept a critical distance. Indeed, in the late 1970s, the Arab League had even temporarily expelled Egypt for its peacemaking.
And then, in March 2002, all 22 Arab states, in an official document initiated by them, were offering Israel the comprehensive peace and recognition it had always craved.
“Only within the context of true peace can normal relations flourish between the people of the region and allow the region to pursue development rather than war,” Saudi Arabia’s thencrown prince and subsequently King Abdullah, the driving force behind the Arab Peace Initiative (API), declared on the day the plan was announced.
The plan, unanimously approved at an Arab League Summit in Beirut, called on Israel to make three major commitments: To withdraw from all Arab territory captured in 1967, to agree to a just solution of the Arab refugee problem based on United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, and to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital.
In return, the Arab countries would consider the Arab-Israeli conflict to have ended, conclude a peace agreement with Israel, provide security for all states in the region and normalize relations with Israel.
The demands made of Israel would have been tough for any Israeli government to swallow: return of all the territories, Jerusalem as a shared capital and acceptance of the 1949 UN General Assembly Resolution (UNGAR) 194 on the refugees, which envisioned a return of refugees to Israel and from which successive Israeli administrations had steered well clear.
But the prize – peace and normal relations with all the Arab countries – was huge. Surely Israel might have been expected to snap up the Arab offer, at least as a point of departure for negotiation? Eight years on, however, there has still not been any formal Israeli government response. Nor has there been any specifically oriented cabinet discussion of the issue or any specific debate in the Knesset.
Even Israeli academia has given the initiative scant attention, and a late June conference organized by the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben- Gurion University in Beersheba, with Israeli and Arab participants from Egypt, Jordan and the West Bank sitting around the same table to discuss the initiative, is a first of its kind.
IN THE CONFERENCE HALL THE atmosphere is electric, as if the debate could decide the future of the Middle East.
Before the first session gets underway, participants mill about the coffee table, exchanging views in a Babel of English, Hebrew and Arabic. There is a consensus among them that with the Middle East increasingly locked in a struggle between Iranian-led radicals and Saudi and Egyptian-led moderates, the basic idea behind the Arab Peace Initiative remains as relevant today as it was eight years ago.
Indeed, some of the participants insist that it could lead the way out of the current diplomatic morass. In this context, speakers in the first session raise several key questions. Why was the initiative virtually ignored by Israel at the time? Was the API a tactical maneuver by the Arab side or a strategic choice that is still valid? In other words, was it a trap for Israel or a missed opportunity? More importantly: What traction does the initiative have today? And could it still provide a comprehensive framework for Middle East peacemaking? Most of the participants are of the mind that the initiative is not a ruse or a take-it-or-leaveit package and that Israel has nothing to fear from its refugee clause and much to gain from making a counter-proposal of its own.
Opponents of this view argue intently that the API was presented in take-it-or-leave-it terms, and that the onus is now on the Arab side to modify the proposal in ways that make it more palatable to Israel.
A first key point to emerge is the nexus between Israel’s initial failure to respond and the initiative’s abysmal timing. It came just five months after the September 11 attack on America, in which 15 of the 19 assailants were Saudi nationals. To many Israelis, Crown Prince Abdullah’s sudden foray into peacemaking looked like an exercise in public relations, designed to divert attention from the Saudi connection to international terror. Worse: The API was launched a day after the “Passover Massacre” – the suicide bombing at a Passover Seder in Netanya’s Park Hotel in which 30 people were killed and 140 wounded – and a day before the IDF embarked on Operation Defensive Shield, a sweeping month-long land operation against Palestinian terror in the West Bank. In the face of the suicide bombings and Israel’s vigorous countermeasures, the API had a hollow ring.
Timing was not the only problem. Thenprime minister Ariel Sharon saw the API as a trap, a cunning maneuver to force Israel into accepting the Arab position on all the key issues. His subsequent initiative for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was partly an attempt to preempt peace plans he thought undermined Israeli interests – such as the Quartet’s peace road map, the dovish Israeli-Palestinian Geneva Initiative and the API. Moreover, Sharon argued, the Arabs were presenting their plan as a take-it-or-leave-it diktat, not as a basis for negotiation. And, in that it case, he said, Israel had no choice but to leave it.
After the Second Lebanon War, Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, considered using the API to bolster his well advanced negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his incipient peace feelers with the Syrians, but he left office before doing so.
For the hawks in the current Israeli government, the API is anathema. Just weeks after coming to office in April 2009, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman characterized it as “a dangerous proposal, a recipe for the destruction of Israel.”
ACCORDING TO CONFERENCE participants, the plan fared much better with the international community, where the initial reception was nothing short of euphoric. As early as March 2002, the Saudi initiative was welcomed by the UN Security Council and a year later the Quartet’s Road Map mentioned the API in the same breath as UN Resolutions 242, 338 and the Madrid Conference. “This is amazing. A document adopted by one side of the conflict is endorsed by both the Security Council and the Quartet and put on equal footing with other milestones in Middle East peacemaking,” Oded Eran, head of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies tells the spellbound audience.
But after the initial enthusiasm, there was a major decline in the international community’s attitude toward the initiative. According to Eran, this was due mainly to the fact that it was never accepted by Israel, but also because it was overshadowed by regional events such as the Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza wars and Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. The initiative also suffered from the fact that the Arabs did very little to market it. It was only in July 2007 that the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan, Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Abdelelah al-Khatib, went to Jerusalem to promote the initiative, and there was little follow-up after that. “If you look at recent international statements by the Quartet, the G-8, the US or the EU, you see hardly a mention of the Arab initiative.
International interest declined dramatically, partly as a result of the apathy towards the initiative in the Arab world itself,” says Eran, a former head of Israel’s peace team when Labor leader Ehud Barak was prime minister from 1999-2001.
In Eran’s view, the international community now sees the API more as a beginning the Arab world needs to build on than as a dramatic breakthrough Israel needs to accept.
Moreover, whereas the API implied that normalization with Israel would only come after it signed a peace treaty, the Americans, the EU and the Quartet now advocate moves towards normalization as part of the peacemaking process. For example, meeting in Moscow in March, the Quartet, while recognizing the importance of the Arab Peace Initiative, urged regional governments “to take steps to foster positive relations throughout the region in the context of progress towards comprehensive peace.”
Still, the current American Administration’s attitude to the API seems ambivalent. During a campaign trip to the Middle East in July 2008, Obama reportedly commented: “The Israelis would be crazy not to accept this initiative. It would give them peace with the Muslim world from Indonesia to Morocco.” But as president he has only given it qualified backing, and his chief Middle East negotiator George Mitchell has spoken merely of “incorporating” it as part of a wider American Middle East policy.
For Americans and Israelis alike, the most fundamental question is whether the API is merely a tactical maneuver, designed to win the Arabs PR points, or whether it really reflects a strategic Arab choice for peace with Israel. At the conference Samir Ghattas, the Palestinian head of the Cairo-based Maqdis Center for Political Studies, vigorously argues the case for genuine strategic choice. According to Ghattas, the API is part of a historic evolution in Arab thinking about Israel since 1967. Before 1967, there was a blanket cultural rejection of Israel as a Crusader-like foreign body, destined to disappear. Arab states competed with each other over who was doing more for the Palestinian cause, and the Cold War exacerbated the already confrontational situation. But, after 1967, there was a cultural acceptance of the other and Israel became part of the Arabs’ regional discourse. In 1982, Saudi King Fahd came out with an 8-point peace plan adopted verbatim by the Arab League in Fez, which served as a precedent for the 2002 initiative.
“The Arab Peace Initiative is therefore part of an evolving shift in Arab strategic thinking, not, as many Israelis think, a trap to suck Israel into making peace in order to destroy it,” Ghattas declares, noting further that the API has been reaffirmed year after year at Arab League conferences, that there is now a moderate Arab camp with some shared regional interests with Israel, that Arab regimes today are more concerned with their domestic problems than with the Palestinian issue, and that there is no great power rivalry for the Arabs to exploit.
“All this adds up to an Arab strategic choice.
The API is genuine. It affords Israel a golden strategic opportunity. Don’t miss it,” he insists.
THE MOST INTRIGUING PAPER AT the conference comes from Eyal Benvenisti, a Tel Aviv University expert on international law, who argues that Israel has nothing to fear from the API on the thorny refugee problem. Its language is ambiguous enough to allow “interpretive space,” he argues. More importantly, according to Benvenisti, UNGAR 194 does not entail the right of individual refugee return. As early as May 1949, Israel’s then-UN ambassador Abba Eban suggested that it was consonant with the Israeli vision of a solution to the conflict, in that it viewed peace as a prior condition for a solution of the refugee issue. Moreover, the language of 194 is not as strong as it might have been: It says refugees “should,” not “must,” be allowed to return to their home at the “earliest practical,” not “earliest possible,” date. It also leaves open the question of who decides which refugees are ready to live in peace with their neighbors. Most importantly, it established a Conciliation Committee for Palestine, CCP, which focused more on compensation for the refugees than on resettlement or return. In 1951, it even drafted a plan for global compensation by Israel for property abandoned by the refugees.
Benvenisti’s trump card though is a ruling in March by the European Court of Human Rights with respect to the conflict in Cyprus. In “Demopoulos et al,” Greek Cypriots applied to the court over property lost in northern Cyprus as a result of the Turkish invasion in 1974. The court ruled against them on the grounds that too much had changed in 35 years to allow their return. It ruled that it couldn’t order the forcible eviction of the current owners and their families in order to accommodate the applicants, even if they were victims of violations of the Human Rights Convention the court was established to uphold. In Benvenisti’s view, all this gives Israel a strong case against allowing a mass return of refugees to their former homes in Israel proper. “The bottom line is that in being asked to recognize a just solution in accordance with 194, Israel has nothing to lose.
Of course there is an Arab interpretation of 194, but there are other interpretations and the ambiguity allows both parties to start a negotiation,” he declares.
Participants on the Israeli right are not convinced.
Amichay Magen of the Jerusalembased Shalem Institute maintains that for the API to get Israeli approval, it needs to be significantly amended. In his view, there would have to be three fundamental changes: Explicit recognition of Israel as the historical and legitimate homeland of the Jewish people; return of Palestinian refugees to a Palestinian state, not pre-1967 Israel; and a series of steps to build government to government and people to people ties, not at the end of the process, but as part of it, he asserts.
Magen’s presentation raises the ire of Alon Ben-Meir, a Mideast expert at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and a staunch advocate of the API as the potential game-changer the region needs. Why nitpick rather than try to build on the historic change it offers, he thunders at question time. According to Ben-Meir, the API was not presented as a take-it-or-leave-it package, as Magen claims it was. Rather, the core issues dealt with in the API are fixed, but within each one of them, there is room for negotiation. Moreover, he says, the API as is can be reconciled with Israel’s four core demands: security, Jewish identity, unity of Jerusalem (as a joint capital) and normalization with the Arab world. “For us to sit this many years later and to say this Arab initiative is empty or a trap that might destroy Israel, forgive me if I characterize that as outrageous,” he fumes.
On the contrary, in a pamphlet entitled “Israel and the Arab Peace Initiative” Ben-Meir argues that a changing regional dynamic makes the API more relevant today than ever.
“Because Iran’s regional ambitions alarm both the Sunni Arab states and Israel, this creates the possibility of an alliance of necessity. The reintroduction of the Arab Peace Initiative at this particular time is not accidental. It is designed principally to change the region’s new political atmosphere in a central way, by ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. The confluence of events offers Israel and the Arab states an opportunity they cannot afford to miss,” he insists.
But does the API still have Arab backing? According to conference organizer Yoram Meital, head of Ben-Gurion University’s Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy, it still has the support of the Arab governments, despite strong opposition towards any normalization with Israel on the Arab street. In his view, that shows it is a strategic Arab choice and a signal of serious peacemaking intent. But he says it shouldn’t be regarded as a full-fledged peace plan, rather as a declarative statement laying out the principles the Arab world collectively backs as a basis for peace with Israel. The Arab effort now, he says, will be to persuade the international community that the API, like UN Resolutions 242 and 338, should be incorporated as internationally accepted terms of reference for peace talks. “I think the real test will be if the Arabs try to promote the initiative in the UN Security Council.
So far no single Arab state is willing to take the responsibility for this on itself. The international community would need to signal to the Arabs that this is something it would like to see,” he tells The Report.
Inside the government, Defense Minister Ehud Barak is pressing for an Israeli counterproposal as part of an effort to alleviate Israel’s diplomatic isolation. If that happens, the Americans could take both proposals and merge them into terms of reference for a major new regional peacemaking drive. Meital believes that something like that could happen, especially if efforts to stop Iran going nuclear spawn a major regional crisis. “Remember that the war in Iraq in 1991 was followed ten months later by the Madrid Peace Conference,” he concludes.