Sadie Goldman
Israel Policy Forum
October 23, 2008 - 8:00pm

In a meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak today, Israeli President Shimon Peres praised the Arab Peace Initiative, first introduced by Saudi Arabia and adopted by the 22 states of the Arab League, and said that, “peace has never been more possible than it is now. It would be a mistake to miss out on this opportunity.”

With this statement, Israel and Egypt (which hosts the Arab League headquarters) revived the moribund Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. The initiative offers Israel permanent peace and full recognition by all the Arab countries in exchange for a withdrawal from the territory that Israel occupied in 1967. In addition, it calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and an agreed upon solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees—all components of the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiating track.

At a “track-two” dialogue organized on Sunday by the Oxford Research Group, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal,King Abdullah's nephew and former ambassador to Washington, explained the initiative's details. In the UK Guardian on Monday Prince Turki said that, the Arab States “will pay the price for peace, not only by recognizing Israel as a legitimate state in the area, but also to normalize relations with it and end the state of hostilities that has existed since 1948.” Israel would “withdraw completely from the lands they occupied in 1967, including [East] Jerusalem, . . . accept a just solution for the refugee problem, . . . and recognize the independent state of Palestine.”

Prince Turki’s comments marked the third time that the Saudis have promoted this initiative officially. The first presentation, at the Arab League Summit in Beirut on March 28, 2002, was overshadowed by the suicide bombing at Netanya’s Park Hotel, which killed 30 and injured over 140 Israelis attending a Passover Seder. The Arab proposal was renewed at a summit in Riyadh on March 28, 2007. Although Prime Minister Ehud Olmert lauded the Arab states’ move toward recognizing Israel and said that the initiative had “positive elements,” talk of the Arab Initiative stopped there. Olmert had significant reservations, and government officials largely dismissed it. The initiative, therefore, failed to gain traction among Israelis.

This time is different. President Shimon Peres addressed the UN General Assembly on September 24 and called on Saudi King Abdullah, who was in the audience, to revive the initiative: “the Arabs replaced the three ‘nos’ of Khartoum (no peace, no negotiations, no recognition) with a peace initiative, inaugurated by King Abdullah Abdul Aziz Al Saud. I call upon the King to further his initiative; it may become an invitation for a comprehensive peace, one to convert battlegrounds to common grounds.”

Of course, Peres is the president of Israel and not the prime minister. His endorsement alone, though significant, is not that of the government. Foreign minister and prime minister-designate, Tzipi Livni, who was just given another two week mandate to form a government, is more circumspect.

Livni has taken issue with the Arab Initiative for providing seemingly final resolutions on issues that are currently being negotiated—borders and refugees in particular. Her “red line” is the issue of Palestinian refugees. When Livni remarked to Israel Army Radio last year that some of the clauses in the Arab Initiative “are contrary to the principles of two states,” it was widely understood that she was referring to refugees. According to her, the Palestinians displaced in 1948 should return to the Palestinian state not to Israel itself. For Livni, as well as much of the Israeli public, accepting the Arab Initiative as-is may seem tantamount to accepting a solution to the refugee issue that they oppose.

But the promoters of the plan have answers to her concerns. While the issues of borders and refugees must be addressed, they insist that the details are up for negotiation: land exchange can still rectify differences on final borders, and the return of refugees will be dealt with in a “just” and “agreed” manner. King Abdullah of Jordan reaffirmed this in an interview with the Spanish daily El Pais on Saturday: “we aren’t saying take it or leave it. There are ideas that must be agreed between the two parties. . . .The proposal is extremely flexible so as not to isolate Israeli politicians.”

Livni, who has been engaged in the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, has also expressed concern that the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian talks might be stalled by a pursuit of a comprehensive track. Some analysts have argued that Israel cannot engage in more than one peace track simultaneously. If one track fails, the whole deal goes under, the thinking goes. Others feel that including Syria in talks, while negotiating with the Palestinians, would allow Syria to “veto” the Palestinian track by sabotaging the process.

The other side of that argument, however, is that Israeli-Syrian talks that worked parallel to an Israeli-Palestinian track would open a channel in which Israel could demand that, as a price for continuing the talks, the Syrians not sabotage their progress with the Palestinians, by supporting Palestinian terrorist groups. Having the Arab states behind this process could also bolster Syrian public support for talks with Israel. In fact, the most important aspect of the Arab Initiative is the involvement of the Arab states in Israel’s peace processes.

Regardless of whether or not Livni becomes prime minister, her concerns about the Arab Initiative could affect how the initiative is included in the peace process, or if it is included at all. If Livni fails to form a coalition government, early elections will be called, and the choice between a comprehensive, Israeli-Palestinian, or no peace track at all would be the stuff of election year campaigns.

In the meantime, the debate has become a part of the coalition negotiations. Defense minister and Labor head, Ehud Barak, who has already signed on to Livni’s coalition, tried in vain to get tasked with leading the Israeli-Syrian negotiations. He has now begun to speak in favor of Peres’ vision of a comprehensive peace track. On Sunday, he expressed interest in the Arab Initiative’s reintroduction in an Israel Army Radio interview. He also said that he had recently discussed the matter with Livni and that Israel was considering its response.

In an October 17 interview on Israeli television’s Channel 2, Barak discussed Labor’s role in the next coalition government. Without referring to the Arab Peace Initiative by name, he told reporter Yair Lapid that, “Israel needs to formulate an Israeli plan for regional peace . . . including Syrian, Palestinian, and even Lebanese tracks to be conducted simultaneously.” Barak’s statement indicated the possibility that a new governing coalition will address the initiative in some way, possibly by submitting a counterproposal that accepts some principles and refines others. The fact that Peres spoke of the need for a regional agreement while sitting in the sukkah of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef,head of the Shas Party, which Livni is now trying to bring into the coalition, could be another signal.

Supporters of the Arab Peace Initiative maintain that it is a framework and not a final dictate. This could give the new government room to work with and ways to address its concerns. The initiative, furthermore, does not rule out the current negotiations with the Palestinians and the Syrians, nor does it resolve the outstanding issues between Israel and the Palestinians or Israel and Syria.

However, if Israel’s new leadership becomes convinced that it should work on multiple fronts simultaneously, the Arab Initiative could provide Israel with the international backing it craves. “Israel does not have to invent a new international framework in order to solicit the necessary Arab involvement,” Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher stated in the September 10 edition of Bitterlemons. The Arabs themselves have created it, in the form of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 and 2007. Now the time has come for them to acknowledge and exploit the opportunity they have created.” Government transitions can push political initiatives to the back burner, but they can also create momentum for them. The new U.S. administration should be there to help both the Israelis and the Arab states in this process.


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