The Arab Peace Plan − not quite clinically dead

What happened to King Abdullah's peace plan between Arabs and Israelis?

Saudi King Abdullah 390 (photo credit: Reuters/Saudi Press Agency)
Saudi King Abdullah 390
(photo credit: Reuters/Saudi Press Agency)
At the end of November, the London-based Arab daily, Al-Sharq il-Awsat, reported that Saudi Arabian King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz was clinically dead following complicated back surgery. So far, the report has not been confirmed − and one might hope that it is not, and that the king is recovering − but mention of Abdullah inevitably brings to mind that he was a rare voice of reason in one of the most surprising episodes in the long-drawn-out Arab-Israeli dispute.    In March of 2002 at a summit conference of the Arab League in Beirut, Abdullah, as Saudi’s Crown Prince, was representing his ailing father King Fahd. A few days ahead of the summit, on March 20th, Abdullah electrified the assembled Arab foreign ministers by floating a peace plan for Palestine-Israel.
The basics of the plan called for peace with Israel in return for Israel withdrawing from all territories captured in the 1967 war. Yet, there was a significant condition: a "just settlement" of the Palestinian refugee crisis based on UN Resolution 194, the “right of return” or agreed upon compensation. For Palestinian refugees, now perhaps including third or fourth generation descendents that left the region in 1948, Abdullah did not specify whether they would return to Israel, or to the Palestinian state that would be created.
The plan was discussed for a week, amendments were incorporated (notably a clause which prevented the 350,000 or more Palestinians living in Lebanon from claiming Lebanese citizenship), and it was adopted on March 28th, 2002.  The Arab League has since readopted the Initiative on several occasions, notably at the Riyadh summit in 2007.
The quid pro quo for Israel’s agreement to the plan would be that all 22 Arab States would consider the Arab–Israeli conflict over, sign a peace agreement and establish normal relations with Israel.
Israel has never made an official response to the proposals. But reactions have been divided, as might be expected, between right and left-wing political opinion.  Following the Riyadh summit, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition, rejected the plan outright. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert expressed reservations, but welcomed the initiative as a "new way of thinking,” and “the willingness to recognize Israel as an established fact.” He added, “and to debate the conditions of the future solution, is a step that I can't help but appreciate." 
 President Shimon Peres took a middle-of-the-road approach. He applauded the "U-turn" in the Arab attitude towards peace with Israel reflected in the Saudi initiative but said that although "Israel wasn't a partner to the wording…it doesn't have to agree to every word."
Moving forward to March of 2009, shortly after United States President Barack Obama took office for the first time (and optimism was the order of the day), US special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell announced that the Saudi initiative would be “incorporated” into the new administration’s Middle East policy. That intention was never clarified. If it had been implemented, it was done without much fanfare.
Now we learn that Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is urging the Arab League not to withdraw its 2002 peace plan. Abbas is planning to call for renewed negotiations with Israel for a period of six months, on the condition that Israel freezes construction in West Bank settlements and east Jerusalem during that time. But how he intends to reconcile this initiative with his other stated intention to seek a reconciliation with Hamas, the de facto government in the Gaza strip, he does not specify. In fact, it is a circle that is impossible to square. As Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal made perfectly clear during his recent visit to Gaza, the destruction of Israel remains his goal.  Negotiations, peace initiatives, recognition of Israel − all are anathema to Mashaal and the extreme Islamist organization he leads.
Abbas cannot be on both sides equally.  His apparent attempt to do so leads to the inevitable conclusion that this is yet another of his moves calculated to generate favorable world media attention, but actually designed to circumvent any genuine effort to reach an accommodation with Israel. 
The Arab Spring was initially seen by the West as the Arab masses clamouring for democracy and throwing off the shackles of dictatorship, but the reality has proven different. Jihadists and other Islamist extremists like the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) have used the various national rebellions to stir the pot of disaffection and advance their particular cause. The MB, still holding the reins of power in Egypt, is at one with its progeny Hamas. In its basic objectives regarding Israel, they seek its ultimate elimination. It is perhaps significant that, while the advance text of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s address to the United Nations on September 26 initially included an endorsement of the Arab peace plan, that section was then omitted. Instead he endorsed Palestinian statehood, without indicating whether his vision would accommodate Israel or not.
And yet, if there is a pinprick of light in the dark tunnel in which Israeli-Arab relations now find themselves, it is perhaps Abdullah’s bold initiative in 2002 − for audacious, even its greatest detractors must allow it to have been.  The fact that it is still referred to, by friend and foe alike, proves that it is not yet totally dead in the water.  The writer is the author of “One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine” (2011) and writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (