Mazal Mualem
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
November 12, 2010 - 1:00am

Given this atmosphere, it was important to move the goalposts and change the context within which negotiations were conducted so that peace prospects could be reinvigorated. The incremental approach had exhausted its possibilities by then and had not resulted in a final status agreement that would put the conflict to rest once and for all. The maximum that either side felt it could give did not meet the minimum demands of the other--although it was close on both ends. A bold initiative was required, one that would allow both sides to reach a settlement that served their national interests instead of relying on international pressure to cajole them to act.

The central premise of the Arab Peace Initiative is that it shifts the emphasis from incremental, bilateral negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis to a comprehensive package between every Arab country and Israel. By offering such a comprehensive regional agreement, the initiative attempts to address the needs and concerns of all the key players, including Israel, Palestinians, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the whole Arab world.

The Arab Peace Initiative calls for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, including on the Golan Heights, and the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. But it also addresses all the major needs of the average Israeli: a collective peace agreement with all Arab states, security guarantees with the Arab world, an end to the conflict with no further claims (designed to address Israeli concerns that Arabs will demand pre-1948 Palestinian territories), and an agreed solution to the refugee problem. Implicit is that the Arab Peace Initiative's reference to security guarantees signifies an Arab obligation to deliver Hamas and Hizballah and transform them into purely political organizations.

The formulation of the Arab Peace Initiative proved to be difficult. While the Saudis and we wanted a simple formulation that was not loaded with details and that would send a clear and powerful signal to the Israelis--full withdrawal for full normalization with the Arab world--the Syrians and the Lebanese wanted a clear reference to all UN resolutions, including General Assembly Resolution 194. In fact, the Lebanese were not satisfied with implementing 194, which calls for the return of willing refugees back to their homes and for compensation for those not wishing to return. Lebanon wanted even those who choose compensation to leave. We struggled with finding a text that would uphold international law but would also send a clear signal that Arabs were looking for a practical solution that does not imply a demand for four million refugees to go back. After much work, I believe we managed to do that.

A regional settlement provides both parties with a regional safety net. For Palestinians and Syrians, it assures Arab (and Muslim) acceptance of an agreement that involves historic decisions on their part. For Israelis, it ensures regional peace, security and acceptance, not with part of the Palestinians but with the entire region. This was clearly the intention of King (then Crown Prince) Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who wanted to signal to the Israelis and the international community that Arabs are committed to peace in return for an end to the Israeli occupation of Arab land. Similarly, the reference to an agreed solution to the refugee problem indicates that Arabs are serious about finding an acceptable and practical solution to this issue. This was the spirit of the meeting, which resulted in unanimous acceptance of the proposal by all Arab states.

The Arab Peace Initiative should be viewed as a bold step to move beyond the failed incremental approach, rather than a rigid proposal. This is why it is even more relevant today.

To claim there are no easy solutions to the Arab-Israel conflict is to state the obvious. There is little chance for a breakthrough in direct talks between Palestinians and Israelis today, meaning that time has almost run out on a two-state solution. It is unlikely that further negotiations between the two parties will change these conditions. But a regional agreement, one that is based on both the Clinton parameters and the Arab Peace Initiative, is both possible and, I dare say, desirable for the two sides. The conflict has finally reached a point where postponing difficult decisions today in the hope of better conditions tomorrow only creates conditions that will prove even harder to address in the future.


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