Nadia Hijab: Will Arab Peace Initiative Lead to Peace?

By Nadia Hijab 

The Significance of the Arabs’ 2002 Offer 

The Arab peace initiative was proposed in March 2002 by then crown prince now King Abdullah Bin Abdel Aziz of Saudi Arabia. [1] It spelled out for the first time the unwritten understanding of the Arab parties to the conflict that a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace would lead to full Arab normalization with Israel. The Saudis paved the way to acceptance of their initiative by reassuring the Syrians that full withdrawal from the Golan Heights would be a precondition to full normalization. The Arab states also added a reference to United Nations Resolution 194, which deals with the right of Palestinian refugees to return. As adopted, the initiative referred to UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of land for peace in the preamble, which also included two significant statements: that a just and comprehensive peace was "the strategic option of the Arab countries" and that a "military solution to the conflict will not achieve peace or provide security for the parties." It then called on Israel to affirm:

* Full Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied since 1967, including the Syrian Golan Heights, to the June 4, 1967 lines as well as the remaining occupied Lebanese territories in the south of Lebanon.
* Achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN Resolution 194.
* The acceptance of the establishment of a sovereign independent Palestinian state on the Palestinian territories occupied since June 4, 1967 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

It continued, that, consequently, the Arab countries would:
* Consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended, and enter into a peace agreement with Israel, and provide security for all the states of the region.
* Establish normal relations with Israel in the context of this comprehensive peace.

Enter Sharon, the Road Map, and the Unilateral Withdrawal from Gaza

Why did this unequivocal invitation to peace from the entire Arab world, including the Palestinians, not go anywhere, even though the Europeans greeted it with considerable interest and the US grew warmer toward it? Israel dismissed it as "too vague" and opted for a military response. Against the background of the Israeli-Palestinian attacks and counter-attacks that marked the first years of the second Palestinian Intifada (uprising) against the Israeli occupation in September 2000, former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon launched Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002, reoccupied the major Palestinian towns, and destroyed Palestinian infrastructure and governing institutions. The international community went into crisis mode as it tried to stop the bloodshed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (oPt).  A few months later, the US, European Union, Russia, and the UN, later known as the Quartet, began discussions of what became the road map, launched in April 2003. [2] There were echoes of the Arab initiative in the road map. It spoke of an end to occupation for the first time since the peace processes launched in the 1990s; two states Israel and a "sovereign, independent, democratic and viable Palestine;" an "agreed, just, fair, and realistic solution to the refugee issue;" a negotiated resolution on the status of Jerusalem; and normal Arab-Israeli relations in the context of comprehensive peace. However, the Quartet emphasized incremental steps for Israeli security and Palestinian institution building. They did not insist on actual Israeli withdrawal from the oPt or penalize its ongoing settlement of Palestinian land. And, while the Palestinians accepted the road map, Sharon attached 14 reservations that rendered it meaningless.

Sharon and US president George Bush drove another nail into the road map’s coffin in April 2004 when they exchanged letters that appeared to provide US recognition of Israel’s major settlement blocs, deny the Palestinian right of return, and recognize Israel as a "Jewish state," thereby denying equal rights to Israel’s Palestinian citizens. The road map was then completely sidelined by Sharon’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza, which pre-occupied Middle East peacemakers throughout 2005. By 2006, Palestinians had elected Hamas to government, partly in despair at the failure of repeated peace initiatives to achieve freedom. 

US Eagerness, Israeli Caveats

Re-launching the Arab peace initiative is one of the main items on the Arab summit agenda. The US Administration’s need to strengthen its Arab and European alliances by showing movement toward Arab-Israeli peace as it struggles with the chaos it created in Iraq and its aim of preventing a nuclear Iran partly explains its present warmth to the initiative. US Secretary Condoleezza Rice has not only spoken of her desire to see the Arab summit re-launch it but also wants the Arabs to engage in active diplomacy around it. Israel, for its part, cannot afford to appear rejectionist and out of step with the administration. Both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have spoken of its "positive elements." But Livni and Olmert have also both said that Israel cannot accept the Arab peace plan as is, particularly as concerns the Palestinian right of return. Livni added that the 1967 borders "should not be considered the vision of a viable Palestinian state." [3] Both Livni and Olmert would like the Arabs to normalize relations before peace is achieved.  What this boils down to is that instead of giving up occupied land for peace Israel wants both land and peace. Meanwhile, Arab and Palestinian officials have indicated their seriousness in moving forward, and have also declared that the summit would introduce no changes to the initiative. It is clear that some parts are open to interpretation. Responding to Livni, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat declared, "The Arab peace initiative addressed an agreed upon solution to the refugee problem. What more does she want?" [4]

Apart from wanting to please its allies, the US realizes that an Arab initiative would have more credibility with the Arab and Muslim worlds than a US-Israeli led effort. Whether this is an attempt by the US to get Arab cover for Rice and Livni’s plan to revive the road map in an effort to provide the Palestinians with a "political horizon" for creation of a Palestinian state is not yet clear.  What is clear is that previous initiatives are now moribund. The deadlines set to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian settlement expired in 1999 in the Oslo accords and in 2005 in the road map leaving behind a disastrous situation for the Palestinians and an explosive situation for the region. The incremental approach that expects the Palestinian Authority to guarantee Israeli security while it functions under occupation has been discredited. The Arab peace initiative provides an opportunity to resume negotiations backed by regional and international guarantors and funds (the Arab summit is expected to provide an additional $300 million in support to the Palestinians). More importantly, it could ground the peace process once more in international resolutions and provide for a comprehensive solution rather than unilateralism.  It should now be treated with the seriousness it has always deserved.

[1] See Journal of Palestine Studies XXXI, no. 4 (Summer 2002).
[2] See JPS XXXII, no. 4 (Summer 2003).
[3] AFP 4 March 2007.
[4] Ynet 1 March 2007

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