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The Arab Peace Initiative Gets Another Look

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Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem © Alexandra Lande

September 21, 2017 18:00 EDT

The resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resulting in two states could literally reshape global international relations.

In March, representatives of 21 Arab nations and Palestine met in Jordan for the 28th Summit of the Arab League. The agenda included the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, as well as issues of diplomacy, security and trade, but the central concern was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The chief concern of the Palestinian delegation was to prevent the weakening of the Arab League’s resolve for the Arab Peace Initiative (API). They feared that some of the countries, in an effort to please the new administration in Washington and gain Israeli security cooperation, might agree to some normalization of relations with Israel before the establishment of a Palestinian state. They were successful in keeping the 21 countries united in reaffirming the API once again, and the final resolution of the meeting included a statement that the member countries would continue to seek a resumption of serious bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to see the end of the conflict resulting in two states, with Israel’s border along the 1967 lines and with Jerusalem as a shared capital.

The Arab Peace Initiative, sometimes known as the Saudi plan, is a framework first put forward by the Arab League in 2002, led by then-Crown Prince Regent Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. It has been reaffirmed by the Arab League, as well as many other Muslim countries, several times since then, including, most recently, at their meeting at the Dead Sea in March 2017. It is an incredible document in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The initiative is not a peace deal in itself. It states that the military option is not one that can bring a lasting peace to all sides and instead calls on Israelis and the Palestinians to negotiate directly among themselves and work out a mutually acceptable deal under guidelines that are already broadly accepted tenants of an eventual deal. The API instead tries to sweeten the deal for Israel and incentivize the Jewish state to take the leap. The API envisions Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate a peace deal that includes Israel returning to its 1967 border with mutually accepted land swaps — leaving the vast majority of the West Bank and all of Gaza, as well as the Golan Heights — accepts the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and finds a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194. This last point is important. UN General Assembly Resolution 194 contains the following text:

“Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible;

Instructs the Conciliation Commission to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation, and to maintain close relations with the Director of the United Nations Relief for Palestine Refugees and, through him, with the appropriate organs and agencies of the United Nations.”

This is one of the most contentious points of the conflict. Israeli leaders do not feel they can allow tens or hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and their descendants onto land they either abandoned or were forced out of during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, after they and the Arab world refused to accept the 1948 UN Partition Plan that would have created both an Israeli and a Palestinian state. Many Palestinians and their advocates say they cannot bend on this point. It has been one of the most contentious and intractable issues of the conflict since its inception.

In exchange for this deal, 21 Arab nations and the resulting newly formed nation of Palestine promise to consider the conflict to be ended, establish normal diplomatic relations with Israel and “provide security for all the states of the region.”

No Small Things

These are no small things. Besides Egypt and Jordan, no other Arab nation has recognized Israel or has diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. Throughout Israel’s entire modern existence it has been fighting its neighbors for its very survival, and the region has shunned and ignored the country as much as possible. Israel’s early leaders desperately sought normalization with the Arab world. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, would have leapt at the chance for such a deal: to be a part of the Middle East, partners with Arab neighbors and to rest a little easier.

After all of these years though, many fruitless attempts gave rise to a powerful constituency in Israel that decided there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side, and that the only way forward was to forego that goal and focus only on Israel’s security in a permanent state of conflict with the Arab world. A deal along the lines of the Arab Peace Initiative would mark the end of an era in the Middle East and even in global international relations, and the beginning of another.

Just with the ending of the 70-year conflict alone, Israel’s every foreign affairs calculation would be changed. The link between the Arab world, Israel and the United States would become a united axis, instead of the awkward diplomatic triangle that has existed for decades. Israel’s relations with Europe, long strained by the tensions of the conflict, would experience a renaissance, as the major reason for their discord would disappear and a new avenue for cooperation would be created. No longer would nations have to pick a side or do their best to balance between both. As a result, the foreign affairs calculations of the rest of the region, the globe’s major supplier of oil, would be changed. It is not an exaggeration that the resolution of the conflict resulting in two states could literally reshape global international relations.

But the deal does not just hold out the end of the conflict. It also promises that the signatories of the Arab countries promise to “establish normal relations with Israel” and “provide security for all the states of the region.” Not only would there be 22 new embassies in Israeli Jerusalem and 22 new ones in a new Palestinian Jerusalem, but Israel and its neighbors would go from standing against one another at knives’ edge to embracing each other in cooperation. The Arab Peace Initiative represents a radical shift in policy for the Arab world, and if it is accepted and implemented, it will be a radical shift in global affairs.

Why is the Deal So Important?

An Arab-led peace deal must be viewed not just in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wider Arab-Israeli strife, but also in the Saudi Arabia-Iran cold war that consumes the region. Both Saudi Arabia and its local allies, especially the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and Iran utilize a political narrative for domestic consumption that frames themselves as the righteous defender of the Palestinians in the struggle with Israel, and the other as part of the problem. Both are longtime on-again-off-again funders and supporters of various Palestinian militant organizations.

However, Saudi Arabia has been allied with the United States since the end of World War II. Iran, since it turned its back on the West with the 1979 Islamic Revolution, considers this relationship as exhibit A in making its case against the Saudis as stooges for the Americans and claims that Saudi Arabia allows and encourages Western colonialism in the Middle East — a disease on the region of which Israel is the most prominent symptom. Iran further claims that the Saudis, by virtue of being allied with America, which is in turn allied with Israel, are false pretenders to the claim of leadership of the Muslim world and defenders of the Palestinians. Iran argues that only itself, in opposing all US presence in the Middle East and in Muslim affairs, can truly be called the defender of the Palestinians. To combat Iran’s narrative and to fulfill its own, it is in Saudi Arabia’s interest to not just to participate, but to lead in the movement for a peaceful resolution to the conflict that establishes a Palestinian state.

At the time of the API’s inception in 2002, Israel and the Palestinians were in the middle of the Second Intifada, a bloody multi-year Palestinian uprising against Israel, and the world was being reshaped by the ripple effects of the September 11 attacks in the United States. The American public was primed for action against Middle Eastern terrorism. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran anticipated being targeted by coming policies. Iran initially sought warmer relations with the United States, and Saudi Arabia fought to keep its favored position. The Saudi royal family saw an opportunity to leverage the collective power of the Arab world to end the Arab-Israeli conflict in a way that is agreeable to the United States, and aligns Israel with the Arab states, changing the political, economic and security landscape of the region.

Iran’s outreach to the US was short-lived. Just a few months after the 9/11 attacks, with American forces already deployed in Afghanistan, on Iran’s eastern border, and the drumbeats for war in Iraq, on Iran’s Western border, President George W. Bush referred to Iran as part of an “axis of evil.” US-Iranian cooperation in Afghanistan immediately stopped and the adversarial relationship between the two has only heightened since then, especially over suspicions of Iran developing nuclear weapons.

Fifteen years later, the Gulf states are closer to Israel than ever before, while Iran has never been further. The Saudi-led Gulf and Israel have long had informal security and intelligence connections via the United States. In the years since the Syria conflict began, Saudi and Israeli intelligence agents in Jordan have shared information and intelligence. At a recent international air force training exercise hosted by Greece, Israeli and UAE pilots flew together.

Saudi Arabia knows that if it can lead the effort toward a successful peace plan that creates a Palestinian state and aligns Israel with the Arab world, the Arab world can reap significant benefits. Diplomatic relations with Israel will lead to all sorts of cooperation and exchange. The Gulf states that make up the GCC are all looking to move away from reliance on pumping their natural resources out of the ground and to reform and diversify their private sectors to compete in the global economy. An alliance with the most modern, high-tech economy in the region will enable trade and development and further isolate Iran. One can envision massive infrastructure projects, conservation and development, high-tech cooperation centers and flights upon flights of Muslim and Arab pilgrims landing in Palestinian and Israeli airports.

Perhaps most crucially, a successful peace deal would bolster the Saudi claim to be the true defender of the Palestinians. Saudi Arabia would be enshrined as the nation that delivered. Iran can either play spoiler, or make nice and try to tag along for the ride. The promised ensuing security cooperation between the Gulf states and Israel would tilt against Iran and put the Islamic Republic on the defensive. Security cooperation that bridged the rest of the region, including Iranian allies Lebanon and Syria but left out Iran, would create significant leverage for Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Iran might perceive negotiations as enough of a threat that it will try to play spoiler. It may try to fund Palestinian activism against a deal, by rallying sections of the Palestinian diaspora that are opposed to accepting any deal that coexists with Israel or ends their claim to their ancestral homeland. Iran may go as far as supporting terrorism against Palestinian and Israeli targets in an effort to break up negotiations. Iranian hardliners would be backed into a corner after an agreement is signed and implementation begins. As such, a successful negotiation may be one that leverages the new regional unity to bring Iranian support into the fold, ensuring cooperation in the follow-through of the deal and further reshaping regional and global politics.

Obstacles to Peace

Peace would represent a huge victory for the region and the international community at large, but there are, and would be, many opponents to peace. Extremists exist on both sides who see anything but total victory as disastrous defeat.

The conflict itself exists because some in Palestine and across the rest of the Arab world refused to have the land divided and to live side by side with a Jewish state. Their successor’s efforts to undermine a shared peace continue to this day. Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine, and organizations and activists around the region, consider the existence of Israel to be a temporary historical bump on the road to future Arab/Muslim sovereignty in the Levant. For someone who believes in this vision, any deal that ends the conflict and normalizes Israel’s relations with the Arab and Muslim world will be an irreversible setback. After the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, there was a spate of Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel that shocked the Israeli public and the world. The attacks demonstrated first that Yasser Arafat was unable to exercise full control of the Palestinian territories, but also that not all parties wanted a peace deal that included two states.

On the other side, right-wing settler organizations like Amana, Ateret Cohanim and Yesha Council believe that all of the land assigned to historic Jewish tribes in the bible should be included in the modern Jewish Israeli state. Many of them live in the occupied territories, but they have support from around the world, especially in evangelical Christian and Jewish communities. For someone who believes in this vision, any deal that ends the conflict and establishes a Palestinian state will be an irreversible setback. While most would not pick up arms for this goal, there is a core of religious-nationalist extremists who have stated their objective and made clear that they will use arms to resist a peace agreement that gives up this territory. It was a Jewish settler of this strain who gunned down Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1996 over the signing of the Oslo Accords, when peace seemed so imminent.

One of the most crucial points in fighting this extremism will be dismantling its funding. In terms of defense spending, financing an extremist militant group is cheap to do. The plausible deniability of using non-state actors can help avoid accountability issues. Government intelligence agencies, such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) or the Central Intelligence Agency, can use covert methods to finance and train militants around the world when it suits national interests. Funding from private donors is another issue. Private funds can also be directed toward charities that use their own illicit methods to get cash and resources to violent organizations in need. A host of private and public dollars has made its way from across the Arab and Muslim world to Palestinian extremists and from across the West to Israeli extremists. The US, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel all have histories of providing or assisting in such funding when they needed it. These private and public dollars may be marshaled again against the cause of peace if the Trump administration seems to be making real headway in bringing the two sides together.

It is very likely that the closer the two sides come to a peace deal, and even after an agreement is signed, there will be an increase in terror attacks. The attackers may give different reasons and make different demands, but they are intended to sideline any agreement and inflame the parties in an effort to prevent all the potential benefits from being reaped, especially potential Arab-Israeli cooperation.

Peace and violence are both susceptible to self-reinforcing spirals. Playing spoiler to a peace agreement requires limited resources and just a small group of committed fighters, who need only continue launching attacks timed to create fear and uncertainty to undermine the credibility of political leadership that is promising peace. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict encapsulates decades of tension, failure, grievance and mistrust. In that environment, violence, state or non-state, organized or spontaneous, can undercut those who are seeking negotiation and empower those who wish to keep fighting. Rabin’s statement on the duality of mind needed to undertake meaningful negotiations is still relevant today: “We must fight terrorism as if there’s no peace process and work to achieve peace as if there’s no terror.”

Welcome Steps

Donald J. Trump is a president with precedent. Yet he doesn’t play by the old rules. Sometimes it seems like he may not even know them, but, as the American president, he will be a crucial actor in the events of the Middle East. No one yet knows what direction Trump’s administration will take. Candidate Trump made a habit of tearing up the Republican Party’s platform during his jaunt to the White House. During the second Republican debate, Trump made waves when he asserted his neutrality as a negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While his administration has been starkly lacking in filling many appointments across the federal bureaucracy, Trump made it a point to name his nominations for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and his special representative for international negotiations for the conflict, Jason Greenblatt, before he assumed office. He also said the portfolio of Middle East peace would be under his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. None of the three men in charge have any previous diplomatic experience, but they have all worked for and with Trump in private businesses capacities.

Before taking the oath of office, Trump made waves saying he would move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on day one. He reneged on the change after becoming president, and also after taking calls with the king of Saudi Arabia and the sheik of the United Arab Emirates. Whether the two Arab leaders had any role in the change is unclear.

In his first six months, Trump has hosted the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian Authority (PA) president separately. His first trip abroad included a visit to Saudi Arabia, where he met with leaders from across the Arab world, and then he immediately traveled to Israel and Palestine. On July 13, Special Representative Greenblatt, along with Israeli and Palestinian officials, announced a new water deal in conjunction with Jordan that would send some 30 million cubic meters of desalinated water to the West Bank and Gaza. The group would not take questions on any other topic, especially on peace talks, but this is certainly a positive measure for the Palestinian people and a confidence-building one for cooperation between Jordan, Israel and Palestine.

Though there is significant tension between Hamas in Gaza and both Israel and the PA, it is notable that Hamas, in May, changed its constitution to use new language in reference to Israel, Jews and a vague acceptance of 1967 border lines. This is no small thing. No matter what Hamas is saying to shore up its political base right now, this is a positive sign that it is positioning itself as a potential partner that would accept a Palestinian state coexisting alongside an Israeli one. The Palestine Liberation Organization went through the same evolution decades ago, from being dedicated to the extermination of Israel to participating as a partner in the Oslo Accords and beyond. This step by Hamas should be welcomed by peace advocates and negotiators.

Going Forward

Going forward, if we were seeing progress toward a regionally-led peace deal, indicators might include further arrangements like the desalinated water agreement that include Arab-nation partners, a slowing down of or a stop to Israeli settlement building and significant changes in rhetoric from Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

If moves are being made toward peace, we might see in Israel discord in Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, especially from HaBayit HaYehudi cabinet members Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. The Labor Party’s new leader, Avi Gabbay, may make political hay out of Netanyahu’s reported failure to move forward on secret negotiations in 2016 led by the United States that included Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Jordanian King Abdullah II. According to a Haaretz report, Netanyahu said he couldn’t get his coalition to go along with the deal, which looks very similar to the Arab Peace Initiative. If Gabbay seizes on this to join ranks with Netanyahu against the extreme right rather than pillory him for it, elections may be called sooner rather than later. If Israel’s current coalition can expand itself or even gain in future elections, it is unlikely a peace deal would move forward. On the Palestinian side, the divide between the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and the PA-run West Bank is as deep as ever. President Mahmoud Abbas is trying to pressure Hamas and Gaza, hoping the PA can cooperate with Israel to do it. A move toward a peace deal would likely see some sort of reconciliation between the two, or the bending at the knee of Hamas to the Palestinian Authority, although that is unlikely to happen without significant violence.

If Hamas enters into open and violent conflict with either the Palestinian Authority or Israel, it is likely that a peace deal would be sidelined for some time. This is a point of leverage for Hamas, or even another, smaller organization operating in Gaza, like Islamic Jihad, and for anyone who might take up the reigns of funding them, be it Iranian IRGC agents or a collection of private donations from the Sunni ether. If we see organized terror attacks coming out of the West Bank and entering deeper into Israel, into Tel Aviv for instance, a peace deal will likely not be on the table as the PA might be losing its grip.

Iran has another point of leverage: Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese militia that has been sending thousands of troops to Syria, is also reportedly building rocket factories on Israel’s northern border. A serious outbreak between Israel and Lebanon would certainly be destructive for Lebanon, and possibly for Israel as well. Sustained violence and heavy Hezbollah causalities would also do serious harm to Iran’s efforts in Syria, so this path is unlikely. Hezbollah would have to go very rouge, or Iran would have to calculate that it would not be held accountable, if negotiations are happening in secret, for instance. Otherwise Iran would have to calculate that the resulting deal would be so destructive to its interests that it is worth undermining its major fighting force in Syria.

Finally, the administration may simply be spread too thin by international events and get in the way of itself too much. The conflict in Syria, discord in the European Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council, and North Korea’s nuclear sabre-rattling all demand significant attention. At home, the administration is floundering in its attempt to pass a health-care bill and is in the midst of what may be a severe scandal with its campaign’s ties to Russia. Its chosen representatives are completely inexperienced in the field of diplomacy.

For all that, there is hope for peace. At an event hosted by the Arab Center in Washington, DC, in May 2017, the head of the Palestinian General Delegation to the United States, Ambassador Hussam S. Zomlot spoke to an audience about the meeting between President Trump and President Abbas. The first question he was asked by a reporter was, “Do you think the Trump administration really has a plan for Middle East peace?” His response: “We have had so many plans and it never worked, so perhaps if we start without a plan, it might work.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Alexandra Lande /

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