The Arab League's decision to give more time for efforts to resume the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations provides more than just political cover for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas -- it also signals a more prominent role for the Arab states in determining the fate of the peace process. The Obama administration must further encourage this apparent shift by the Arab states to expand the scope and change the direction of the negotiations to provide the peace process with the comprehensiveness that has been sorely lacking.
President Abbas has reached out to the Arab League at three crucial moments in the past year: to enter proximity talks, to move to direct talks, and now to defer the decision as to whether or not to leave the talks because of Israel's refusal to extend the settlement freeze. By playing this key role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Arab states may have finally decided to collectively assume responsibility for its success or failure. If so, this represents nothing less than a paradigm shift on the part of the Arab states in dealing with their conflict with Israel. This new role for the Arab League could breathe new life into the Arab Peace Initiative (API), first proposed by Saudi Arabia and endorsed by the Arab League in 2002. The Initiative essentially offers Israel normal relations with the 22 members of the League once Israel and the Palestinians reach an agreement on a two-state solution and Israeli withdraws from other occupied Arab land. However, since being introduced, the API has languished, with the Arab states refusing to advance it beyond sending the Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers for a brief visit to discuss it with their Israeli counterparts. That could now be changing, and it is up to the Arab states to seize the opportunity.
President Obama has used recent speeches on the Mideast peace process to stress the importance of Arab support. By actively participating in the negotiations and placing the API on the negotiation table, the Arab states could heed this call. The current talks are already following the parameters of the API -- the question now is whether the Arab states are willing to go further to support the peace process that transcends the settlement freeze. They can do so by using the Initiative as a political tool to fashion solutions while ensuring that a conflict-ending agreement would be comprehensive. Doing so would effectively replace the already diminishing importance of the Mideast Quartet (U.S., E.U., U.N. and Russia), which Israel continues to doubt, if not mistrust, with the Arab states -- the only body that can provide both political support to the Palestinians, and the recognition and normalization that Israel desires.
The United States should encourage the Arab League to not only endorse the continuation of direct talks at this critical juncture, but also be more creative, take the initiative and change the dynamic of the negotiations regardless of how the settlement quandary is resolved. The Arab League should take a macro view of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and focus on the larger picture -- how to advance a two-state solution on the ground and do so now. It is true that the settlements have impeded and continue to impede progress; however, this hindrance is much more psychological than real. Since Prime Minister Netanyahu declared his willingness to discuss the parameters of a Palestinian state, why not put him to test by insisting on negotiating borders first -- which is central to define statehood -- and leave the settlement building alone?
As long as the parties, with the United States' direct and active involvement, agree on a timeline to end the negotiations on borders, what does it matter if in the interim Israel builds an additional one or two thousand housing units? The initial focus on the settlement expansion by the Obama administration, without anticipating possible Israeli objection, and without a Plan B in place should the Israeli government do so, was misguided in the first place. Continuing to insist on a freeze simply plays into the hands of Netanyahu's right-wing coalition partners. What would happen if there were no progress during the extension of the freeze by the two or three months that the Obama administration is asking for? It makes far more practical sense to focus on negotiating borders, which should be considerably more meaningful to the Palestinians instead of remaining stuck with the settlement freeze problem, which is exactly what Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his right-wing coalition partners want. However legitimate the Palestinians' demand to extend the freeze, at least from a symbolic perspective and as a matter of principle, and regardless of how shortsighted Israel's rejection is, elevating the issue of the freeze to the level of "make or break" is foolhardy and imperils the negotiations. After all, the settlements physically occupy one percent of the land mass of the West Bank. It should be particularly noted that there is no mention of the settlements in the API, and that Israel and the Palestinians have always negotiated in the past while settlements activities were ongoing because what mattered then and what matters now is whether or not there is the will to reach an agreement. To reach an agreement, the Palestinians must not -- at least at this juncture -- seek international recognition for statehood until they exhaust all possibilities to negotiate borders.
The Arab League's involvement should further expand by sending observers to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating table. Although Israel may initially object, the Netanyahu government cannot have it both ways by seeking Arab recognition but then preventing them from participating in the peace negotiations. The U.S. ought to insist on this requirement. While Israel has every right to insure that the Arab states are sincere about real peace with security and normal relations, it can achieve this only through the continuing presence of representatives of other Arab leading states, especially those who have no formal peace with Israel, such as Saudi Arabia, Morocco and even Syria. Their participation as observers would give the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations not only the comprehensiveness needed, as stipulated by the API, but precipitate the critical change in public perceptions both in Israel and the Arab streets about the prospect of real peace. That is, the more visibly other Arab states are engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, the greater vested interest all parties will have in a successful outcome.
In this connection, the U.S. should also leverage the newfound activism of the Arab League. Shortly after taking office, President Obama's request for Saudi Arabia to make confidence-building measures toward normalization with Israel was rebuffed. But the new Arab League role offers the Obama administration a new opportunity to engage Arab states such as Saudi Arabia in particular by providing the Saudi Kingdom, the initiator of the API, a chance to demonstrate leadership among the Arab and Muslim states. Moreover, the increased role of the Arab states would serve two other important purposes. First, it would alleviate Israel's skepticism about their intentions. The Arab states have now encouraged the Palestinians to keep talking at three critical junctures. By collectively supporting the negotiations, the Arab states have effectively become a responsible party for the outcome of the talks. Second, a more visible Arab role provides the Arab states with an avenue to dealing indirectly -- and in some cases, even directly -- with Israel, something that Israelis have been seeking for a long time.
Some critics argue that the Arab League's meetings to endorse the negotiations have been counterproductive, that rather than providing support for the Palestinians, the Arab states have undercut Mahmoud Abbas' ability to negotiate independently. Others claim that the Arab states are merely providing lip service to talks that they are certain will fail. Still others argue that the Arab states are too preoccupied with internal issues to play a meaningful role in facilitating peace, and that Israel itself has shown little interest in making meaningful steps to advance the peace process. Indeed, there is deep skepticism on all sides and perhaps for good reason, as the squabble over the settlement freeze has shown. But the Arab states can -- and must -- play a more meaningful role if they want to realize a real progress. Past experience can be extremely instructive: Whether or not Yasser Arafat was ever serious about peace is questionable -- what is not in doubt is that without support from the Arab states, he would never have been able to implement a peace agreement that would have met Israel's security needs. In short, Arafat never obtained the necessary broad Arab support that Mahmoud Abbas firmly enjoys today. Furthermore, by endorsing the process, the Arab states are providing more than just lip service -- they are providing tangible political support while using their influence to quell efforts by extremist groups to disrupt the process. The Arab-Israeli conflict thrives on distrust, with each side claiming the other does not have true intentions to make peace. Now, with an opportunity for the Arab states to engage in a comprehensive process, we may find out who wants peace, and who does not.
The time of reckoning has arrived -- there is a growing realization that time is running out on the only viable two-state solution, and the concern over another regional war and the threat from Iran is high. The opportunity of a committed American president should not be missed. The Arab states must capitalize on this moment by putting the Netanyahu government to the test and insisting on restarting the negotiations on borders, instead of focusing on a settlement freeze. They must not allow the historic Arab Peace Initiative to die when it may well offer the only real chance to reach a peace agreement.