U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry appears determined to launch peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and is resurrecting an 11-year-old Saudi initiative in order to do so.
What is the Arab Peace Initiative?
It was the plan of Crown Prince Abdullah, now King, of Saudi Arabia who presented it at the Arab League summit in Beirut in March, 2002. Unanimously accepted by the 22 member states, it was later endorsed by the 56-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
The plan called for Israel to withdraw from all remaining Arab territories it captured in the 1967 Six Day War, including the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights; to agree to a resolution of the issue of Palestinian refugees; and to accept the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with a capital in East Jersualem.
In exchange, all Arab countries would consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended, accept Israel’s existence, and agree to its secure borders and normalize relations with it.
What’s so attractive about it?
It was the most comprehensive peace offer ever made and demonstrated Arab acceptance of Israel.
The plan made it clear that while part of Jerusalem would be given over to the Palestinians, the city, including its holy sites, would be shared as the capital for both the Jewish and Arab states. While the initiative called for a “just solution” for Palestinian refugees, it left the details open to negotiations.
And the prize for Israel was huge: recognition not just by Palestinians but by every Arab state. Former Likud party member Meir Sheetrit, now an MP for the centrist Hatnua party of Tzippi Livni, called the initiative the “best idea that has ever been heard, through which we can achieve peace.”
Why wasn’t it accepted?
The day the initiative was announced, a suicide bomber from Hamas carried out the deadliest attack of the second intifada, killing 30 people and wounding 170 when he blew himself up at a Passover seder at the Park Hotel in Netanya, Israel.
For the government of then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, the attack meant intensifying the battle against the Palestinians, not making peace with them.
Those Israelis who did comment on the almost unnoticed Arab peace initiative criticized it for not mentioning an end to terrorism.
Why revive it now?
From the start of his presidency, Barack Obama has supported the initiative. It had been reaffirmed by the Arab League in 2007 and briefly taken up the following year by the centre-right Israeli administration of Ehud Olmert. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, showed no great interest in pursuing the matter when he formed a government in early 2009, even though U.S. emissary George Mitchell declared the initiative was part of Mr. Obama’s Middle East policy.
Mr. Kerry has now picked up the cause, and the Arab League is again discussing its merits.
Among the arguments being used to persuade Israel to endorse the scheme is the need to settle the issue while the Arab world is in upheaval. If Israel waits until the opposition takes power in Syria and new regimes emerge, an Arab consensus on recognizing Israel may not be possible.
Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, may not be willing to participate in such talks, although support for the initiative from Hamas’s new patron, Qatar, could be persuasive.
The Prime Minister aside, members of the Netanyahu government are strongly opposed to a Palestinian state; they reject what some describe as an ultimatum, ie the take-it-or-leave-it nature of the initiative.
Trying to resolve such objections, Mr. Kerry this week suggested the language concerning the proposed 1967 borders be modified to allow for swaps of land on which there are large Israeli settlements. The Palestinian Authority rejected the notion, though they may alter that position when the time comes.