THE BLOG
07/22/2014 07:28 pm ET Updated Sep 21, 2014

Putting the 'Arab' Back Into Mideast Peace

Israel and the Arab world share a rare and brief window of opportunity -- even of necessity -- for salvaging a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue. The Arab Peace Initiative (API) offers a regional peace when Israel concludes a permanent agreement with the Palestinians. As hostilities and recrimination sweep the Israeli-Palestinian landscape and the wider region, activating the API is both possible and urgent.

There will never be a perfect moment.

The Arab League's 2002 launch of the API coincided with a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings inside Israel, followed by a major Israeli offensive in the West Bank. Hundreds of Palestinians -- and nearly two dozen Israeli soldiers -- have already died in the Gaza conflict, which, in the best case, will compound the long-term trauma and stagnation. But the deliverables to Palestinians and the region have never diminished, and the need for proactive Arab engagement has only increased.

Arab League members Egypt and Qatar are seemingly crossing swords over a possible ceasefire, as the United Nations, the United States, Turkey, Russia and even Iran are looking to weigh in. By engaging collectively, the League can end the immediate conflict, boost its own credibility, and -- by including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the process -- set the stage for a comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian issue.

Next year's Arab League summit will be hosted and chaired by Egypt, which could use the opportunity to revive its traditional role as broker to Palestinian negotiators. Venue does make a difference: In 2002, the last-minute switch from Abu Dhabi to Beirut undoubtedly affected the tone of the final Arab League document.

As Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah carries obvious legitimacy, and many Arab regimes still look to the conservative royal family as the ultimate validator. It was Abdullah, in his previous capacity as Crown Prince, who introduced the first version of what became the API. The king's plan did not specifically reference United Nations Resolution 194, what Palestinians call the "right of return" and which for Israelis is a red flag. It also proposed full "normalization" with Israel, which Syria watered down to "normal relations" in the final version -- a minor turn of phrase but an important distinction for hardliners.

Revisiting the original Saudi version -- and gaining a green light from the Kingdom -- would grant Israelis, Palestinians and Arab states full license to open the conversation, and a firmer basis for permanent status. Last year, in consultation with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry -- and with Syria conveniently suspended from membership -- Arab League ministers agreed to accept land swaps in lieu of precisely sticking to the pre-1967 lines.

Time is on no one's side.

Syria has become the global humanitarian catastrophe of the decade, within rocket range of northern Israel. An ascendant ISIS is a present threat that feeds off unresolved grievances and tension. Israeli settlement construction continues to carve up the West Bank. Facing numerous challenges and approaching his 80th year, President Abbas is looking to retire. Barack Obama will leave the White House in January 2017. And King Abdullah himself is turning 90.

Last month, in an unprecedented public dialogue, two former top intelligence officials -- retired General Amos Yadlin from Israel and Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal -- calmly exchanged their differing positions on Israeli-Palestinian peace and agreed that Arab states could engage Israel in advance of a final agreement. Prince Turki followed up by submitting a written statement along these lines to a peace symposium in Israel, without being rebuked at home.

Israel has a political, financial and emotional interest in engaging -- and eventually securing diplomatic relations with -- Arab states. More than ever, Israeli and Gulf leaders share common concerns regarding Iran's nuclear program and its role in the region. Economic and diplomatic relations within its neighborhood and enhanced international standing are priorities for every Israeli government.

The Arab League can uniquely empower and incentivize Palestinian leaders to make difficult decisions for peace. For all their accomplishments and contributions, Palestinian refugees have been wards of the Arab states, and Abbas lacks the standing to negotiate over Jerusalem's sovereignty without broader Arab and Islamic backing. He wouldn't have resumed negotiations with Israel last year without the blessing of Arab League ministers.

The challenge will be to use an Arab aegis to entice Israel into constructive talks and progress on the Palestinian issue, without being used by members of the current government as a distraction from the bilateral track. Last month, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman reportedly told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, "Israel's long-standing conflict is not only with the Palestinians but with the Arab world of which the Palestinians are a part. Therefore, we must reach an agreement that will include the moderate Arab states, the Palestinians and the Israeli Arabs."

The fact that Arab leaders keep reaffirming the API reflects a readiness to engage Israel's body politic. And it is possible to discuss process and goals without Israel having to agree up front on every point, and without Arab states having to formalize relations with Israel in advance. The partial normalization in the 1990s proved to be reversible, most Arab states having suspended even low-level contacts with Israel since the second Intifada of 2000. Unofficially, of course, many Israelis still do business in the Gulf.

Arab states have an interest in promoting an Israeli-Palestinian deal, not just to please Washington and not just to distract from the spiraling conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Addressing the Palestinian issue, and accounting for Israel's permanence within the realm of Islam, would bring governments tremendous momentum and finally approach closure on the refugee situation. Transforming Israel from a confrontation state into a potential trading partner will free up valuable resources and open new channels to European and U.S. markets.

Will Israelis and Arabs seize this moment, or will each keep waiting for the other to come around?