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The United States Seeks to Revive the Arab Peace Initiative in Effort to Jumpstart Israeli-Palestinian Talks

SOURCE: AP/Jim Young

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem to discuss a restart of the Middle East peace process after more than four years of hardly any talks.

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Secretary of State John Kerry arrives today in Jerusalem on his fourth visit to the region since accompanying President Barack Obama in March. Secretary Kerry will continue his efforts to establish a framework for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, having repeatedly made clear his view that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is a key interest of the United States. “So much of what we aspire to achieve and what we need to do globally, what we need to do in the Maghreb and South Asia, South Central Asia, throughout the Gulf, all of this is tied to what can or doesn’t happen with respect to Israel-Palestine,” Secretary Kerry said during his Senate confirmation hearing.

A key component of Secretary Kerry’s peace process strategy over the past several months has been an effort to reintroduce the Arab Peace Initiative, which he has long believed could serve as a starting point for a comprehensive regional solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. In a 2009 speech at the Brookings Institution, then-Sen. Kerry called the peace initiative “The basis on which to build a Regional Road Map that enlists moderate Arab nations to play a more active role in peacemaking and to paint a clearer picture than ever before of the rewards peace would bring to all parties.”

Origin of the Arab Peace Initiative

Saudi Arabia’s Crown-Prince Abdullah, now the king, promulgated the Arab Peace Initiative at the 2002 Beirut summit of the Arab League. The text of the declaration called upon Israel to:

  • Complete its withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories, including the Syrian Golan Heights to the June 4, 1967, line and from the territories still occupied in southern Lebanon
  • Attain a just solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees to be agreed upon in accordance with the U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194
  • Accept the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state on the Palestinian territories occupied since June 4, 1967, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital

In return, the Arab states committed to:

  • Consider the Arab-Israeli conflict over, sign a peace agreement with Israel, and achieve peace for all states in the region
  • Establish normal relations with Israel within the framework of this comprehensive peace

The Arab Peace Initiative was unanimously reaffirmed at the March 2007 Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia, during which all 22 Arab member states except Libya were present, and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, the militant group that now governs the Gaza Strip, abstained from the vote. Earlier that month, Jordan’s King Abdullah II delivered a speech before a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, highlighting the continued salience of the conflict in the region’s politics and calling on lawmakers to support U.S. efforts at peacemaking.

The Israeli response

When the Arab Peace Initiative was first introduced, Israeli leaders reacted extremely cautiously if not outright negatively to it. They claimed the initiative, which came during a particularly violent moment of the Second Intifada, put the onus for peace entirely on Israel. In a statement at the time, then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres recognized the Arab Peace Initiative as an important step but one “liable to founder if terrorism is not stopped.” Other Israeli leaders rejected what they saw as the non-negotiable nature of the proposal. “If the Arab initiative is take it or leave it, that will be a recipe for stagnation,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said in response to the peace initiative’s re-adoption in 2007.

Other Israeli leaders had a problem with the initiative’s framing of the Palestinian refugee problem, stating that a return of Palestinian refugees to Israel in accordance with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 would threaten Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. “If 300,000-400,000, or maybe a million, Palestinians would invade the country, that would be the end of the state of Israel as a Jewish state,” said Likud Party spokesman Zalman Shoval in 2007.

Some Israeli officials attempted to reach out to Arab officials to start a discussion on the proposed Arab Peace Initiative. Former Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who was an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2002, for example, recently told the Times of Israel that he had attempted to meet with a representative of the Saudi government in Washington, D.C., in 2002 in order to assess the seriousness of the peace initiative but that the Saudi representative had reneged on the planned meeting. Reports in 2007 and 2008 indicated that the Israeli government was considering a response to the Arab Peace Initiative, but as yet there has been no formal counter-proposal.

In remarks introducing former Sen. George Mitchell (D-ME) as his administration’s special envoy for Middle East peace in 2009, President Obama said the initiative “contains constructive elements that could help advance these efforts.” Mitchell later said that the administration intended to “incorporate” the peace initiative into its policy, but there did not seem to be a strong public effort to do so.

Speaking in 2011, former President Bill Clinton questioned the lack of Israeli response to the peace initiative. “The King of Saudi Arabia started lining up all the Arab countries to say to the Israelis, ‘if you work it out with the Palestinians … we will give you immediately not only recognition but a political, economic, and security partnership,’” Clinton said. “This is huge. … It’s a heck of a deal.”

In late March 2011 a group of prominent Israelis, including former heads of the Mossad and Shin Bet security services, put forth the Israeli Peace Initiative, a response to the Arab Peace Initiative with the goal to generate popular support for greater Israeli peace efforts. It called on the Israeli government to recognize the Arab Peace Initiative “as a historic effort made by the Arab states to reach a breakthrough and achieve progress on a regional basis, and sharing the API statement ‘that a military solution to the conflict will not achieve peace or provide security for the parties.’”

“We looked around at what was happening in neighboring countries and we said to ourselves, ‘It is about time that the Israeli public raised its voice as well,’” said Danny Yatom, a former head of Mossad and a signer of the Israeli Peace Initiative. “We are isolated internationally and seen to be against peace,” said former Shin Bet head Yaakov Perry, another of the document’s supporters. Perry continued, “I hope this will make a small contribution to pushing our prime minister forward. It is about time that Israel initiates something on peace.” Perry is now a member of the Knesset and the number-two man in Yesh Atid, the centrist party that made a surprisingly strong showing in Israel’s January elections.

A 2012 paper by Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies called on Israel’s leaders to re-examine the Arab Peace Initiative. Warning that the Arab Peace Initiative “will not survive indefinitely,” the paper’s authors, Gilead Sher and Ilai Alon, argue:

Precisely now, in light of developments in the Arab world and the relative fluidity inherent in every revolution, the possibility of influence is greater and the price Israel will eventually have to pay to reach its national goals and attain peace with the Arab world may be lower.

Kerry’s efforts

In late March, shortly before President Obama’s Middle East visit, Israeli media reported that Secretary Kerry would seek to revive the Arab Peace Initiative as a starting point for future talks. In early April it was reported that the Obama administration had informed the Palestinian Authority that its new approach to peace negotiations would be based on the Arab Peace Initiative and that President Obama had discussed the matter with the Palestinian leadership during his March visit to Ramallah.

Palestinian sources later said that, in discussions with Secretary Kerry, the president had proposed two small changes to the initiative to make it more palatable to Israel: the 1967 lines could be modified through mutual agreement, along with stronger security guarantees for Israel.

After meeting in Washington in late April, the Arab League agreed to support limited, mutually agreed-upon land swaps as part of a peace deal. “The Arab League delegation affirms that agreement should be based on the two-state solution, on the basis of the 4th of June 1967 line” with the possibility of a “comparable and mutual agreed minor swap of the land,” said Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, speaking on behalf of the Arab League.

Moreover, al-Thani told reporters that the Arab League delegation understood that “peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis is … a strategic choice for the Arab states.” Shortly thereafter, the Fatah Central Committee accepted the Arab League’s proposal on land swaps and welcomed U.S. efforts to revive peace negotiations with Israel.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh rejected the move, saying the Arab League was not authorized to make such concessions on behalf of Palestinians. “The so-called new Arab initiative is rejected by our people, by our nation and no one can accept it,” Haniyeh said. “The initiative contains numerous dangers to our people in the occupied land of 1967, 1948 and to our people in exile.”

New developments in Israel

The Israeli response to the amended Arab Peace Initiative was mixed. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that the conflict is not about land but about the Palestinians’ refusal to accept Israel’s right to exist, ignoring the fact that the Palestinian Liberation Organization officially recognized Israel in 1993. Dani Dayan, a former head of the Yesha Council—an umbrella organization of municipal councils of West Bank settlements—dismissed the amended peace initiative, writing that land swaps “were never obligatory and are no longer practical.”

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, on the other hand, criticized the government’s failure to embrace the Arab Peace Initiative. “We are speaking of an opportunity that must be seized to renew the diplomatic process. … It’s a very important development,” he said and urged Israeli leaders to “stop making excuses.” Israeli Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich likewise called on Netanyahu to pursue the initiative, as did Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who officially handles the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations file.

There is some evidence that Israel may now be prepared to respond more positively to the Arab Peace Initiative than it has in the past. Just this past January two prominent signers of the Israeli Peace Initiative, Yaakov Perry and Merav Michaeli, were elected to the Knesset, the legislative branch of the Israeli government. And this month saw the establishment of a pro-two-state caucus headed by Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Hilik Bar of the Labor Party in partnership with the Israeli Peace Initiative and the grassroots One Voice movement.

Conclusion

Amid turmoil of the ongoing transitions in the Middle East, it is significant that Arab leaders remain publicly committed to the Arab Peace Initiative and have signaled that the proposal could serve as a basis for negotiations rather than demanding a take-it-or-leave-it offer. In particular, the demand for Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan Heights will likely have to be re-examined in light of Syria’s continuing civil war.

A durable solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict must be one that involves as many regional stakeholders as possible. With the recent adjustments, the Arab Peace Initiative is consistent both with multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions relating to the conflict, with the policy of multiple U.S. administrations, and with the overwhelming international consensus regarding the creation of two states for two peoples. As a recent Pew poll showed, Israelis and Palestinians have very different views regarding the other side’s commitment to peace, but one thing they agree on is the necessity of U.S. involvement in achieving that outcome.

For the past two decades, the United States has worked to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Secretary Kerry’s attempt to revive a broader regional framework for negotiations is an important component of the strategy to create a more favorable environment for supporting peace in the Middle East. At a time of great uncertainty in the region, these efforts should be encouraged.

Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst and Director of Middle East Progress at the Center for American Progress.

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