- The Saudi backed Arab Peace Initiative has received increased attention in recent weeks.
- The plan appeals to those actors in the region who share an interest in promoting moderation and inhibiting the spread of Iranian backed radicalism.
- With the bilateral talks likely to be on pause whilst both US and Israeli government change hands, and with the Palestinians still divided, promoting the regional dimension is providing an outlet for those seeking options for progress.
- The Arab Peace Initiative can play a positive role in supporting peace-making efforts, but it cannot replace the bilateral process.
Last week’s gathering of world leaders for a UN interfaith conference was the latest in a series of opportunities for individual statesmen to talk up the opportunity offered by the Saudi-launched ‘Arab Peace Initiative’. President Shimon Peres referred to the all-encompassing proposal as “inspirational and promising – a serious opening for real progress.” He also raised the plan in a recent bilateral meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and at the Knesset Winter Session opening. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak also recently focused attention on the initiative by suggesting that it is being reviewed at the highest levels. In his recent speech to Labour Friends of Israel, Foreign Secretary David Miliband stated his belief that, “the only way to settle the Palestinian issue is as part of a wider drive for a new alignment in the wider Middle East”, and declared that the Arab Peace Initiative was, “one of the most significant and promising developments since the onset of the conflict.” It has also been reports that policy advisors close to President-elect Obama have been promoting steps to pursue the proposal further.
An article in the Guardian on 20 October reflected an increasingly circulated view that Israel’s ‘[t]alks with the Palestinians and Syrians have yielded little in almost a year so it may be time to consider the Saudi plan.” But the apparent shift in emphasis away from these two negotiating tracks and onto the Arab Peace Initiative ought not to be misinterpreted. This brief sketches the prevailing conditions in which the Arab Peace Initiative has gained a higher profile of late, and examines the proposal within the context of recent peace-making efforts. Whilst the objectives in existing talks overlap with those of the Saudi plan, a breakthrough in broader Arab-Israel relations will remain dependent on progress in the bilateral talks between Israelis and Palestinians. As such, the Initiative is best perceived as a means of supporting rather than replacing the direct and mediated negotiations between Israel and its neighbours.
The Arab Peace Initiative: origins and path
Ratified at the March 2002 Arab League Summit in Beirut and reaffirmed in Riyadh last year, the Arab Peace Initiative crystallized ideas presented by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to end the Arab-Israel conflict. The Initiative offers “normal relations in the context of a comprehensive peace” between Israel and the Arab world in return for (a) “full Israeli withdrawal” to pre-June 1967 borders; (b) the establishment of “an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital”, and (c) a “just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194.” That resolution, adopted at the end of the 1948 Arab-Israel war, proposes that refugees wishing to return may do so, or accept compensation.
When the Initiative was first proposed at the height of the Second Intifada, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon responded coolly. He was concerned that withdrawal to 1967 borders threatens Israel’s security, and feared ambiguity over the fate of refugees. Their return to Israel, rather than to a future Palestinian state, would sufficiently alter the demographic balance as to threaten Israel’s Jewish majority, and therefore Israel’s survival as a Jewish democracy. But Israel and the moderate Sunni Arab states have shown greater interest in regional cooperation in the last several years. They hold a shared fear for the consequences of Iran’s hegemonic quest, which has helped Hezbollah to tighten its grip on Lebanon, and supported Hamas’s rise to power in Gaza, an issue which is of particular concern for the Mubarak regime in Egypt. Keenness to prevent the spread of Iranian backed radicalism has helped mould a common strategic interest with shared by Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan and other supporters of the Saudi plan.
Bolstering current peace talks
Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa explicitly framed the involvement of Arab foreign ministers in last November’s widely attended Annapolis Conference within the contours of the Saudi plan. That conference gave backing from the Quartet and the Arab world to bilateral talks between Israel and the PA. Even Syria participated in Annapolis, albeit with less senior representation. In a subsequent bid to end its diplomatic isolation, Damascus has since launched indirect talks with Israel via Istanbul and, more symbolically, ended six decades of non-recognition of Lebanese sovereignty. Now with the bilateral talks likely to be on pause whilst both US and Israeli government change hands, and with the Palestinians still divided, promoting the regional dimension is providing a tool for filling the diplomatic void.
Whilst the details contained in the Arab Peace Initiative are problematic for Israel, the broad principles are in line with mainstream Israeli and moderate Palestinian thinking, and the Syrian regime’s primary demand. With regard to the Israel-Syria track, it is broadly recognised that the price for Syria making peace with Israel, is Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan Heights. From the Palestinian perspective, the Arab Peace Initiative is horizon-building in terms of the regional support it offers to Palestinian moderates who want to found a state in Gaza and the West bank at peace with Israel.
From the Israeli perspective, the initiative represents a vision for the Middle East to which Israel has long aspired, of being recognised and legitimised in the region, and building open diplomatic and economic ties with the whole of the Arab world. It offers the promise of how Arab-Israeli relations could look in conditions of peace. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad articulated the potential for peace with particular fervour last month when he spoke about “the mutual economic, intellectual, spiritual, and of course security benefits of living and working together.” True, Israeli society is sceptical about the extent to which the Arab world would properly accommodate it even if the Initiative was realised, but the spirit of the Saudi plan is pioneering nonetheless.
Finally, the Saudi peace plan also poses a threat to Hamas and its supporters in Tehran by further isolating it within the Arab world. Hamas’s continued militancy, against the backdrop of a process that had truly regional buy-in, would further expose the gulf between its radical Islamist ideology, and the fulfilment of Palestinian national interests and aspirations.
Putting the Arab Peace Initiative in perspective
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s regional visit this week reflects his commitment to maintain diplomatic momentum at a challenging political moment on all fronts. US policy is in a vacuum due to the presidential transition, whilst other leading nations are engaged with the problem of the global economy. The Gaza ceasefire hangs in the balance, and hopes of reconciling Fatah and Hamas were dashed by cancellation of talks last week. Meanwhile in Israel, politicians are concentrated on February’s general election, and are calibrating their positions with an eye on their domestic support. Labour chairman Ehud Barak’s decision to focus on the Saudi plan at this interval is to some extent motivated by his need to try to win back lost support on the Israeli left.
As long as these structural impediments remain in place, it will be difficult for Israel and the PA to make meaningful progress towards a bilateral agreement. In the future, should an agreement be reached on paper, implementation will also pose many challenges. The PA has improved its security forces and the results are being demonstrated in parts of the West Bank. But inability to fully implement security understandings, Hamas’s capacity to subvert political agreements, fears of a Hamas takeover in the West Bank upon an Israeli withdrawal of its forces will threaten progress on the ground. In the end, whilst constructive steps from the Arab world can help catalyse the process, a final status agreement, and the steps to implement it, will have to be taken by Israelis and Palestinians themselves. The positive role that the Arab world can play is to empower the PA towards reaching a deal, and promoting parallel developments between Israel and the sponsoring Arab states which could unlock the door to a wider peace.
The bilateral talks to reach a compromise between Israelis and Palestinians are so important because with the content of the Arab Peace Initiative as it stands, at least two principled differences would still make it very difficult to reach an agreement. The biggest sticking point is apparent lack of clarity in the Initiative about the large-scale return to Israel of Palestinian refugees, to which Israelis object. President Mahmoud Abbas publicly recognized in a recent interview that the ‘right of return’ of all those who claim to be Palestinian refugees dispersed throughout the region will not be exercised in practice. The Arab world would better serve the Palestinian cause if it chose to back Abbas’s acceptance of the need compromise.
Second, the Initiative’s demand for a “full Israeli withdrawal” entails concessions on Jerusalem and borders that the Arab states know to be an unacceptable proposal as far as Israel is concerned. President Mubarak warned his Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres, in their October meeting that “the Saudi initiative is not open for negotiations” and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal has criticised Peres’s selective focus on specific parts of the Initiative in New York. Whilst any such document is presumably drafted as an opening gambit, if its sponsors are not willing to be flexible, and back the Palestinians in making compromises in the negotiations, it could hinder rather than help in the peace process.
The Arab Peace Initiative is a comprehensive vision of regional peace with transformative potential for the Middle East. The promise it offers of a political horizon for all the parties interested in peace is currently serving as a useful tool for maintaining diplomatic momentum at a time of heightened risk to regional stability. But focussing on the big picture must take place alongside a clear understanding of the challenges faced in the bilateral talks between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and Syria. The Saudi Initiative can play a positive role in supporting these peace-making efforts, but it cannot replace them.
 Maayana Miskin, ‘Peres Praises ‘Spirit’ of Saudi Plan’, Arutz Sheva, 23 October 2008; Address by President Peres at the opening of the Knesset Winter Session, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 27 October 2008.
 Toni O’Loughlin, ‘Israel considers reviving Saudi peace plan to resolve conflict’, The Guardian, 20 October 2008.
 For a full text of the Arab Peace Initiative, see ‘The Beirut declaration’, Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, Washington D.C., 28 March 2002; ‘The Arab Peace Initiative’, Middle East Policy (9:2), June 2002.
 On the day of the Beirut summit, Palestinian terrorists killed 30 people celebrating Passover at the Park Hotel in Netanya. The following five days saw five more suicide bombings in Israel. See ‘The return of the Arab Peace Plan?’, BICOM Notes, 2 April 2007; ‘Arab foreign ministers visit Jerusalem’, BICOM Analysis, 10 September 2007.
 Moussa stated: “There is nothing called a normalization for free… Arabs are going to participate in the (Annapolis) meeting, to show support for the Palestinians, based on the Arab peace initiative.” Aluf Benn, Barak Ravid and Avi Issacharoff, ‘Israel welcomes Saudi Arabia’s planned attendance at peace summit’, Haaretz, 24 November 2007.
 Fayyad stated, “In fact, we don’t just seek peace; we seek a meaningful and lasting peace with Israel… We do not want to simply get to a point where we just accept each other – we want to have warm relations where we both recognize the mutual economic, intellectual, spiritual, and of course security benefits of living and working together… We do not want to close Israelis out of our lives; we want to live with Israelis as our neighbors.” ‘Remarks by Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad at ATFP Third Annual Gala’, The American Task Force on Palestine, 12 October 2008.
 Khaled Abu Toameh, ‘Analysis: Cairo concludes Fatah-Hamas chasm won’t end soon’, Jerusalem Post, 13 November 2008.
 See, for instance, Interview with Martin S. Indyk, ‘The Challenges Ahead for Livni‘, Council on Foreign Relations, 19 September 2008.
 Yoav Stern, ‘Peres in Sharm el-Sheikh: Saudi plan can bring peace to Mideast’, Haaretz/AP, 23 October 2008; ‘Saudi FM: In UN speech, Peres left some parts of Arab peace plan untouched’, Reuters, 14 November 2008.