What better offer does Israel have than the Arab Peace Initiative?
The last serious, sustained effort to broker a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians was made during the Obama administration by then-US Secretary of State John Kerry. He tried over nine months to advance peace talks but his efforts met with failure and the breakout of the 50-day war on Gaza in 2014.
In his final speech before leaving office, Kerry laid most of the blame for the talks’ failures on the Israelis. He claimed that while Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu publicly supports a two-state solution, his coalition “is the most right-wing in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme elements,” which are “more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history.”
Kerry then presented his principles for a future final status agreement: An Israeli and a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines; full rights for all citizens; a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue; Jerusalem as the capital of both countries; an end to the occupation, while satisfying Israel’s security needs, with a demilitarised Palestinian state; and end to all claims by both sides.
Just before the end of the Obama administration’s term, France called a conference of stakeholders to discuss a possible way forward but that too failed to move matters. Some, including British representatives, thought it odd that the two parties to the conflict were deliberately not invited.
US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser on the Middle East, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, is leading attempts to broker the “ultimate deal.” He has expressed uncertainty about the United States’ ability to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians and told a recent gathering “there may be no solution.”
On August 1, China issued its own four-point plan to move the matter forward: Advancing the two-state solution based on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital of a new Palestinian state, upholding “the concept of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security,” immediately ending Israeli settlement building, taking immediate measures to prevent violence against civilians and calling for an early resumption of peace talks, coordinating international efforts to put forward “peace-promoting measures that entail joint participation at an early date” and promoting peace through development and cooperation between the Palestinians and Israel. None of the main parties have reacted to the plan.
There is, therefore, no shortage of initiatives from the international community. The most serious one to come out of the Middle East was the Arab Peace Initiative, which was announced by then-Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia during a meeting in Beirut in 2002. The initiative calls for normalising relations between the Arab region and Israel, in exchange for a full withdrawal by Israel from occupied territories (including East Jerusalem) and a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee problem based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194.
The initiative was met with enthusiasm by former US President George W. Bush and generally supported by former President Barack Obama. Trump has referred to it as a basis for the “ultimate deal.” He has said he is in favour of whatever the two parties agree upon, whether one state or two.
Israel’s reaction from the outset was lukewarm. Its position can be summarised as recognising some of the initiative’s positive elements while insisting that there are issues it would not compromise on, including the return of Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem and complete withdrawal from occupied Arab land.
Netanyahu rejected the initiative in 2007, when he was the leader of the opposition. He told visiting Arab foreign ministers that “the withdrawal from Gaza two years ago proved that any Israeli withdrawal — particularly a unilateral one — does not advance peace but rather establishes a terror base for radical Islam.”
In 2015, he stated “there are positive aspects and negative aspects to it.” While noting that the situation has changed in the 13 years since the deal was proposed, Netanyahu asserted that “the general idea — to try and reach understandings with leading Arab countries — is a good idea.”
Israel probably believes that some Arab countries see it as a potential ally against Iran and are therefore more likely to offer it more concessions on the final outcome of a deal with the Palestinians. The recent tensions in and over Jerusalem showed that was unlikely but Israel still did not feel the need to accept the Arab Peace Initiative.