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Is the Arab Peace Initiative Still Viable?

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In 1973, Israel's Foreign Minister Abba Eban famously stated that "Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." Today, however, this phrase is more aptly attributable to Israelis than to the Palestinians. Successive Israeli governments, and especially the current one, seem to believe that by deliberately scuttling opportunities to achieve peace, Israel somehow can further improve its position by maintaining the status quo and compelling the Palestinians to eventually settle for considerably less. It is debatable who is to blame for the numerous failures of prior peace negotiation efforts between the Israelis and Palestinians. But it is clear that Israel is missing a historic opportunity now to capitalize, at least in principle, on the contents of Arab Peace Initiative (API), which offers full normalized relations with the entire Arab world in exchange for the return of the territories captured in 1967 and a negotiated two-state solution. Especially today, amidst great uncertain and turmoil in the region, the API should be advanced as a valuable asset to transform Israel's relations with its Palestinian neighbors and the broader Middle East.

Israel entered into serious negotiations with the Palestinians and the Syrians in 2000 and in 2008. By all accounts, significant progress was made in these negotiations, strongly suggesting that both sides were on the verge of signing a peace agreement. Both Israel and the Palestinians blame each other for the eventual failure of these negotiations. The "Palestine Papers" published by Al Jazeera showed the distance the Palestinians were willing to walk to strike a deal. Confirming this account, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said of the negotiations he had with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that they were closer "than ever in the past, to complete an agreement on principles that would have led to the end of the conflict between us and the Palestinians." But the Israeli government has refused to reveal the extent of progress made, shielding the international community from knowing how far Israel was willing to go, leaving no locus to begin based on where those talks left off. For Netanyahu to place the blame squarely on the Palestinians' shoulder is neither accurate nor fair. Every element of the negotiations between Israel and its counterparts, the Palestinians and the Syrians, was based on the provisions of the API. Every peace negotiation in the future will also have to be based on the API, because it offers the only viable framework for a comprehensive peace, which no other peace plan has ever advanced in the past.

For the first time, the Arab states have put forth a peace initiative that has the potential to introduce a revolutionary change in Arab-Israeli relations. The API, first introduced in 2002 and reaffirmed in 2007, represents a historic repudiation of the infamous three no's of the Arab League's Khartoum Conference in 1967, in which the League declared "no to recognition, no to negotiations, no to peace." For the Arab states to unanimously propose such an initiative was unprecedented both in scope and implications. However objectionable some of the language is to the Israelis, especially in connection with the non-binding UN General Assembly resolution 194 that affirmed the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their original homes, the API provided several common and central denominators: security, normalization and peace that every party to the conflict, especially Israel, should seek and could translate to tangible moves toward a permanent agreement.

Contrary to many Israelis who are critical of it, the API was not presented to the Israelis on a take it or leave it basis. But even if it were, Israel should have focused on the positive elements of the Initiative. It could express its reservations but also its desires to enter into negotiations as long as the talks could lead to a two- state solution living side-by-side in peace and security. Here, Israel should have -- and still could -- focus on the basic principles that the API puts forward that are not only acceptable to Israel, but represent historic assets for advancing peace. These principles include Arab acceptance of the notion of a comprehensive peace which recognizes the existence of the State of Israel and its legitimate security concerns. However, by essentially ignoring the API entirely, Israel has in essence posited that it is not interested in either peace or normalization of relations with the Arab world, which has and continues to portray Israel as an obstruction to peace. As such, Israel has provided its detractors both the opportunity and the rationale to delegitimize it, while substantially increasing international sympathy toward the Palestinians.

Israel's rejection of the API as a basis for negotiations has further put Jerusalem on the defensive. In addition, Israel's failure to articulate a plausible alternative of its own to achieve peace would have garnered international support instead of increasing isolation from the community of nations. A growing number of countries are pointing an accusatory finger at Israel, blaming it for the growing regional tension and as a cause of instability that undermines the strategic national interest of Israel's closest allies, including the US. This is the basis upon which Meir Dagan, the recently departed head of the Mossad, created fireworks in Israel when he told an audience at Tel Aviv University last week that "We must adopt the Saudi initiative. We have no other way, and not because [the Palestinians] are my top priority, but because I am concerned about Israel's well being and I want to do what I can to ensure Israel's existence. If we don't make proposals and if we don't take the initiative, we will eventually find ourselves in a corner."

Needless to say, no one should expect Israel to please the international community at its national security expense. However, the API provides the basis for a solution that most Israelis could not even dream possible. In my conversation with top Arab officials, no Arab state expects Israel to simply accept the API at face value, nor did they present it with so much baggage because they wanted Israel to reject it. The Saudis continue to have vested interest in peace with Israel knowing full well that Israel is here to stay. Moreover, the Saudis' arch enemy is Iran, not Israel, and nothing will change the nature of these relationships because of the inherent rivalry, if not outright enmity, between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. In fact, Saudi Arabia views Israel as its partner in its battle against Iran and thus there is greater urgency to advance the API than ever before, particularly for Saudi Arabia. As the "Arab Spring" has unleashed a torrent of democratic uprisings throughout the broader Middle East, the undemocratic Saudi Arabia must show that it can still play a leadership role in the Arab Middle East, and particularly in relation to its rivals in Teheran.

Besides Meir Dagan's recent comments, nearly 70 former senior Israeli defense and intelligence officials, policymaker and academics, have vocalized support for the API through an effort titled "Israel Peace Initiative." This effort recognizes the API "as a historic effort made by the Arab states to reach a breakthrough and achieve progress on a regional basis," and affirms a shared sentiment conveyed in the API that "a military solution to the conflict will not achieve peace or provide security for the parties." But it is high time for the Israeli government or the largest opposition party, Kadima, to state this in an official capacity and fight for it on every political front. The international community should encourage them to do so. The nations of the Quartet advanced the Roadmap, but did not officially embrace the API, despite that every provision in the Roadmap is consistent with the API. Moreover, in his recent speech about the Arab Spring and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, President Obama articulated a position in total conformity with the API, yet, regrettably, failed to officially embrace the spirit of the API, or even mention it. And so, a promising initiative that has languished for nearly 10 years is in jeopardy of continuing to collect dust on the shelf.

Some analysts argue that with the turmoil in the region creating unprecedented uncertainty, now is not the time to pursue the API. I disagree entirely. The breakdown of the current order calls for a major breakthrough. By signaling its willingness to engage the Arab states in negotiations based on the API, Israel could forestall the Palestinians' plans to seek a UNGA recognition of their state. Now is the time to resolve this festering conflict so that the nations of the Middle East address the demands of their people protesting in the streets, rather than utilizing the Arab-Israeli conflict as a diversion from domestic ills, as the ousted despots of the region did for decades. Furthermore, there is never a good time to make peace with one's enemies, but with crisis comes opportunity. A continuation of the status quo will only deepen the entrenched suspicion among Israelis, as well as the disenchantment and concern of Palestinians. Resolving this conflict will become ever more intractable.

There is no better time than now, and no better basis from which to start than the API. Inaction today not only risks the API being added to the pile of missed opportunities, it also risks renewed bloodshed and conflict, and yet another setback for the multitudes who yearn to live in peace and security in the region.

A version of this article was published in the Jerusalem Post on June 17th, 2011.