The Arab Peace Initiative is our best shot at peace

Israel cannot dismiss the critical importance of normalizing relations with 340 million Arabs and over a billion non-Arab Muslims.

Arab League  311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Arab League 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Unless an alternative path can be presented, the languishing peace process is headed toward a complete collapse which would usher in a period of unpredictable volatility. To avoid this impending scenario, Israel, the US and the EU need to formally adopt the Arab Peace Initiative as a central framework to achieve comprehensive peace and sustainable regional security.
No other peace proposal, including the Clinton parameters, Geneva Initiative and the road map, can deliver on both accounts and offer as many common denominators that all parties to the conflict can accept. There are a number of compelling reasons why this is the case, and why a massive effort must now be made to prevent the catastrophic setback which is in the making.
FIRST, THE API is uniquely comprehensive. It not only covers all of the core issues at the heart of the conflict, but also ends hostilities between Israel and the entire Arab world. The Arab states continued endorsement of this plan despite setbacks in the peace process should not be underestimated, nor should the strategic opportunity it presents and the significance of its far-reaching contents. The initiative not only addresses the core issues of the conflict – namely Jerusalem, borders and refugees, it also calls upon the Arab states to act to “consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended, enter into a peace agreement with Israel, and provide security for all the states of the region,” as well as “establish normal relations with Israel in the context of this comprehensive peace.”
No previous peace effort has been able to make such a claim nor held such promise to implement its stated goals, should it be accepted as a framework for peace by all sides.
Second, the successful adoption of the API would have a transforming impact on the broader Middle East. Notably, it has been endorsed by the 56 nations of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
As Israel is faced with increasing isolation in the international community, it cannot dismiss the critical importance of normalizing relations with the nearly 340 million Arabs and more than a billion non-Arab Muslims.
The plethora of common interests between Israel and the Arab states – ranging from water desalination to tourism, agriculture to sustainable development and, most recently, the discovery and refining of natural resources – provide a logical foundation for regional cooperation and commercial ties.
Even if a cold peace emerged, like that with Egypt, mutual interests could abound with possibilities for a bright future of growth, security and stability, rather than conflict.
THIRD, AN agreement would isolate Iran, serving to stifle, if not end, Teheran’s ambitions to become a regional hegemon equipped with nuclear weapons. While the API has seemingly languished in recent years, it is actually more useful and relevant than ever before. Iran is a threat to both Israel and the Arab states, a fact made ever more clear by the recent WikiLeaks revelations.
The WikiLeaks disclosure that Lebanese officials provided Israel with guidance on how to combat Hizbullah further indicates that Arab concerns about Iran extend beyond nuclear weapons to its regional influence through its proxies in the Levant.
Against this backdrop, the Arab states are perhaps more motivated than at any other time to strike a deal. Logic would suggest that Israel should be equally enthusiastic. But if such a deal is not struck soon, and Iran is able to obtain nuclear weapons and entrench its influence throughout the region, it could be too late.
While the Gulf states already have nascent ties to Israel, and would likely be the first Arab nations to deepen ties upon a successful negotiated agreement, so too would these states be the first to align with Iran if its regional influence is elevated with nuclear arms.
In this context, the API should be viewed as a survival tool. If Israel does not utilize it – ensuring its own survival and advancing its shared interests with the Arab states – its future could be placed in jeopardy as the Arab states look to other means to advance their national security interests.
Finally, the API offers many common denominators that all elements of Palestinian and Israeli society could accept with a measure of dignity. Both have expressed a willingness to make compromises for peace. Traditionally right-wing Israelis and even settlers have indicated that they would give more credence to peacemaking efforts if they had confidence an agreement would ensure national security. Even Hamas’s Khaled Mashaal has expressed openness to accepting a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders. In an interview this past August he stated, “I am concerned with accomplishing what the Palestinian people are looking for – which is to get rid of the occupation, attain liberation and freedom, and establish the Palestinian state on the lines of 1967.”
Although his comment is consistent with the API, he has yet to embrace the plan and continues to call for violent resistance. Herein lies the central challenge.
For Israel, the challenge is to accept the principles of the API as a basis for negotiations, and market the proposal aggressively to its public. Public opinion polls consistently indicate that less than 35 percent of Israelis support the API, illustrating the considerable work that needs to be done to change attitudes. At the same time, Israel should also convince the Arab world that it is serious about a genuine agreement.
Meanwhile, the Arab League needs to use all means necessary to convince rejectionists to accept the principles of the API in a manner that enables them to support the peace process while saving face. Only when all parties to the conflict join the API will Israel be disavowed of the excuse that there is no partner for peace. Moreover, the Arab states should work to convince Israelis that the API is not a dictate – it was not presented as “take it or leave it” – but rather as a framework for a negotiated agreement.
In doing so, they need to emphasize the two critical issues: achieving a comprehensive peace and providing for Israel’s national security.
Translating the API from words into action will require leadership from the Obama administration to officially – and fully – embrace it. Doing so would not represent a drastic shift of strategy.
US leadership to steer Arabs and Israelis toward this goal could overcome the stalemate that the issue of settlements has generated, while providing a new context for negotiations and confidence- building measures.
It has been sarcastically said that with the peace process there is only process and no peace. If all of the conflicting parties – with US support and encouragement – agree that the API must become the framework for negotiations, incremental steps ought to be taken to demonstrate their commitment to reaching an agreement.
Today, as never before, the security concerns of Israel, the Arab states and the US are strategically aligned. Capitalizing on this moment will require genuine leadership to adopt the Arab Peace Initiative as the most effective and prudent formula for ending this conflict.
The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.