It was on 19 November 1977 that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat landed in Israel. That made him the first Arab leader to arrive in Israel on an official visit, even though the two countries were still officially at war. His speech to the Israeli parliament – the Knesset – was the climax of his visit, a momentous occasion that left not a dry eye in the entire country. For a moment it seemed as though past bloody regional wars were making way for a better future, one where Israel and the Arab world choose to live side by side in peace and security, recognising the unbearable price of war.
But the Middle East’s tempestuous reality, exacerbated by a discourse on both sides of victimhood and self-righteousness, buried the tender shoots of a regional peace under heaps of mutual animosity, suspicion, and hatred. And for similar reasons the 2002 Saudi Peace Initiative, which became the Arab Peace Initiative following its unanimous endorsement by the Arab League, never gained the traction it deserved.
The Arab Peace Initiative, as presented by then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, called for a full withdrawal by Israel to its pre-June 1967 borders, and the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. In exchange the Arab states would regard the Arab-Israeli conflict as officially over and declare a normalisation of their relations with Israel. Although the Arab Peace Initiative reflects traditional Arab demands on Israel, its contents and importance were, and remain, no less than groundbreaking
First, it shows the realisation by the Arab states that Israel cannot be defeated militarily and that therefore Arab interests, and in particular the Palestinians’ interests, would best be served by pursuing the diplomatic path. Secondly, it, highlights the importance of harnessing all the Arab states for the peace process, including those not in direct confrontation with Israel. It recognises that solely bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have been unsuccessful and that therefore an Israeli-Arab-Palestinian framework should be pursued. For Israel this has tremendous implications, since it opens an avenue for compensating it for the dear price it will be paying by withdrawing from the occupied territories – compensation in the form of a rich network of strategic, economic, commercial, and scientific ties with the Arab world.
Despite its huge importance, successive Israeli leadership made no official response to the initiative. As a result it became sidelined for many years in the torrent of mid-Eastern events. But now, 14 years after its inception, the Arab Peace Initiative, which had long been regarded as dead and buried, is making a comeback on the regional scene. A series of official statements from the Egyptian leader, the Jordanian and Egyptian ambassadors, the Israeli prime minister and Palestinian leadership, plus overt meetings between senior Israeli and Saudi officials, suggest a new opportunity for diplomatic progress, with the possibility of a regional dialogue based on the Arab Peace Initiative once again coming under consideration.
The kneejerk reaction to such developments is often one of dismissal, which should surprise no-one in view of the series of diplomatic setbacks over the years. But it just may be that the present circumstances offer a rare, unique window of opportunity with a real chance for a breakthrough. The dramatic upheavals in the Middle East over the last five years have crumbled regional strategic, political and economic stability and have spurred Arab and Israeli leaders to re-evaluate some of the assumptions underpinning their respective foreign policies. Nowadays the base of common interests is broadening and becoming more solid than ever:
The strategic-security aspect
Israel and some of the Arab states share a concern for regional stability in view of the expanding reach of Iranian influence and the consolidation of control by Islamic terrorist organizations over swathes of territory in various regional theatres. These threats throw a dark shadow over the political future of some regimes and pose a challenge to their border security. Israel, like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, is following these developments with increasing concern. Israel regards cooperation in safeguarding regional security to be in its national interest. However, without a diplomatic shift it will be impossible to leverage the full potential of such a partnership.
Last February, for example, the Saudis spearheaded a large-scale military exercise on the Kingdom’s soil with 20 Arab countries taking part. The exercise was apparently intended as a show of force, sending a clear message to Iran and other hostile elements regarding the formation of a Muslim bloc united around shared objectives. Israel’s absence from this exercise, in which it clearly could have had a strongly contributing role, was a stark reminder of the current limits of its strategic cooperation with its Arab neighbors.
The economic aspect
The wave of uprisings in the Arab world was primarily a product of festering conditions of economic hardship. With this in mind, any regime concerned for its self-preservation has first and foremost to attend to the economic welfare and prospects of its citizens. This conclusion applies in no less measure to Israel, whose economic prospects stand only to improve in the wake of any political settlement. This close link between economic prosperity and political stability holds especially true for the Gulf states. These emirates have succeeded in buying their survival so far by paying for loyalty and political allegiances from their vast cache of petrodollars. But with the decline in their oil revenues, on the one hand, and unabated population growth on the other, they are finding themselves increasingly hard-pressed to continue sustaining this costly arrangement in its original form.
Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf states are redrawing their economic strategies in an effort to improve the state of their economies. However, in order to attract foreign investors and to make headway on large-scale, long-term, job-creating projects, it is first necessary to de-escalate conflicts both on and within their borders. Here lies the real importance and driver for a pan-Arab joinder of forces with Israel and the international community to help tackle the economic challenges facing the entire region.
To this mix one must add the growing realisation by the US’s allies in the Middle East of the limits of that alliance. The Obama administration’s policy of “leading from behind”, and the nuclear deal with Iran, have driven home the realisation, both in Israel and among the Arab states, that they have to take more control of matters themselves. This applies in particular to the Saudis, who have increasingly felt in recent years that they have been abandoned by the Americans. The result has been a change in Saudi foreign policy and practice. Nowadays Saudi Arabia plays a much more proactive role with other partners in the Arab world, taking ownership and leading mid-Eastern foreign policy. It helps that Saudi Arabia also serves as a bridgehead between the Arab world and the West.
The Arab Peace Initiative falls far short of being the stuff of Israeli dreams; but its implementation would also not be easy for the Arabs and Palestinians. A settlement of this kind would exact a high price from all parties – Israelis and Arabs alike. The prospects for its long-term viability would be tested by recurrent upheavals in the region. On top of that, with the Syrian regime in disarray, the Arab demand that Israel withdraw from the Golan Heights is not feasible at the moment and therefore any negotiations on that front will have to be put on hold until a stable government can be restored in Damascus. This means that the initiative is only relevant for the time being to the Palestinian arena.
The benefits a settlement along these lines has to offer can hardly be overstated. If Israel would reconsider its policy, and if the Arab states would show a bit more understanding for the constraints within which Israel is able to maneuver, as they have recently shown signs of doing, then the chances of a regional process coming to a successful conclusion will be greater than ever. Such a settlement would mean an improved geostrategic and economic outlook, and a much brighter future, for all countries in the region.
Now more than ever, it is obvious that peace between Israel and the Arabs is a necessary condition for a stable, secure Middle East. Most leaders in the region understand this very well, even if at times their public statements speak to the contrary. Political and other considerations often lead both Israeli and Arab leaders to make bellicose statements that on their face seem to negate any chance for successful negotiations. Such conduct is predictable, but it should not be allowed to stop the discreet diplomacy now under way behind the scenes with a view to agreeing a regional framework for renewed negotiations that could lead to a regional settlement.
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Does Saudi Arabia have a new role to play as stabiliser of the Middle East? – Noga Tarnopolsky – Jewish Journal/The Media Line 27.06.16
Paris, Cairo and the Arab Peace Initiative June 5, 2016
‘It used to be the Arabs who said no’ October 3, 2015
Egyptian president calls for Arab-Israeli peace September 29, 2015
Saudi Arabia should lead on Israeli-Palestinian peace September 19, 2015