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Reexamining the Arab Peace Initiative

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The series of direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians which began in Amman on January 3 are scheduled to end on January 26. While the Middle East Quartet may extend this deadline to continue negotiations, it appears this would have little effect in formulating any comprehensive agreement. Neither side genuinely believes a breakthrough will occur. The PLO has threatened that if Israel does not halt all settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, it would not only abandon diplomacy, but it would pursue "harsh" unilateral measures to gain statehood and recognition. This would include a popular "civil disobedience" aimed at forcing Israel to evacuate from the West Bank.

Even if the Quartet extends the deadline, and talks continue after January 26, a bilateral settlement remains elusive. To prevent this and the subsequent possibility of a campaign of unilateral actions, Israel should reexamine the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which was adopted by the Arab League in Beirut in 2002. The API calls for the Arab world to terminate its conflict with Israel and recognize its right to exist in exchange for Israel's withdrawal to its June 4, 1967 boundaries.

The API is an unprecedented declaration which repudiates the three "no's" issued at the Arab League summit in Khartoum following the June 1967 War: "no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel and no recognition of Israel." The API insists on a total Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, but a more plausible approach accepted by the international community is to advocate mutually agreed land swaps. Most people on both sides realistically know that if a final agreement is reached, territorial adjustments would reflect facts on the ground, whether they say it publicly or not. Areas that are predominately Israeli would be part of Israel and areas that are predominately Palestinian could possibly be part of the new Palestinian state (although perhaps this could be subject to a referendum by each municipality). The API calls for a shared Jerusalem as capital for both peoples, and a "just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194," which presumably would involve allowing refugees to settle in a future Palestine, not Israel.

The API has not received much media attention in Israel, perhaps due in part to the perception that it was more of an ultimatum than a genuine peace proposal. Saudi Prince Saud al-Faisal asserted that if Israelis refused the initiative, "They will be putting their future not in the hands of the peacemakers but in the hands of the lords of war."

Nonetheless, in March 2007, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert described the API as a "revolutionary change." In July 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the API as a mechanism to "create an atmosphere in which a comprehensive peace can be reached." Israel, with the encouragement of the United States, could accept the API in principle as a basis for negotiations. The sensitive issues of Jerusalem and the holy sites and refugees should not be dictated as ultimatums, but left open for negotiations.

In April 2011, a group of Israeli academics, analysts, journalists, military and intelligence officers drafted an official response to the API known as the Israeli Peace Initiative (IPI) which advocates accepting the API as a blueprint for a comprehensive peace with the affirmation that "a military solution to the conflict will not achieve peace or provide security for the parties."

If the API is not a "take it or leave it" proposal and if there is room for flexibility, the IPI and API together could help end the conflict which has lasted over 60 years, and help facilitate a fundamental breakthrough.

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Quartet statement: Middle East