For over 18 years, Arab nations have repeated their proposal to end decades of conflict at the heart of Middle East problems, advocating peace with Israel hinged upon its withdrawal to pre-1967 borders.
Similar terms in the “Arab Peace Initiative” (API) made at an Arab leadership summit in March 2002 suggested that an independent Palestinian state would be established in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem if Israel gives up the occupied territories.
Since then Arab leaders have revived the land-for-peace offer to Israel at their annual summits seeking an end to one of the world’s longest-running and costly conflicts despite Israel’s repeated rejection of the formula.
Now that mantra seems to have been cast aside in favour of a more down-to-earth approach that accepts the status quo and dashes hopes to end the Israeli occupation and create an independent Palestinian state.
Whether discovering that the API was only a faff to operate or it is a matter of setting new priorities, the Arab world seems to be on transition towards managing rapid changes in the region’s dynamics that led many regimes to prioritise regional and local threats over that coming from Israel.
An Arab League ministerial gathering in Cairo last week was perhaps the venue for ushering in a new era in the Middle East and opening the door for the Arab world to reappraise its entire strategy towards Israel.
The meeting of the 22-member council came on the heels of a landmark decision by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to normalise relations with Israel, described by the two countries and the US sponsor as a “peace agreement”.
The UAE-Israel accord was the first such accommodation between an Arab country and Israel in more than two decades and it promises to establish normal relations between the two countries, including full diplomatic ties and business cooperation.
Palestinians were outraged by the UAE’s move, fearing it would undermine efforts of the Palestine Authority (PA) to negotiate an agreement for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and establishing a Palestinian state.
But at a video conference of Arab foreign ministers 9 September, the Palestinian leadership failed to persuade the Arab League to condemn the Israeli-UEA normalisation deal, a move that is expected to pave the way for more Arab countries to follow suit.
It didn’t take long. On Friday, Bahrain followed in the footsteps of the UAE and became the second Arab country to make peace with Israel in 30 days.
Bahrain’s attraction to peace with Israel will now add more weight to the “Abraham Accords” — the name given by the Trump administration to the new peace deals to be signed this week at the White House.
In his desperate speech at the Arab League meeting, Palestinian Minister of Foreign Affairs Riyadh Al-Maliki called on his Arab counterparts to reject the UAE-Israel normalisation deal. “Otherwise, our meeting will be considered a blessing to the move, or a cover-up,” Al-Maliki said.
The PA had originally called for an emergency meeting of the pan-Arab body against the Israeli-UAE deal, but the request was deferred to the scheduled 9 September meeting.
There was no condemnation by Arab ministers of the UAE’s move and the Arab League faltered in reaffirming its historic rhetoric on the Palestinian cause.
While it was unlikely that Arab nations such as Egypt and Jordan, which have formal peace treaties with Israel, would denounce the UAE’s move, several other states have expressed public or tacit support for the deal.
Moreover, some Arab countries, including Oman and Sudan, have been repeatedly mentioned as soon following the UAE lead and normalising relations with Israel in the coming weeks.
Noticeably, however, in contrast to Al-Maliki’s tough talk and Palestinian officials’ initial harsh criticism of the Israeli-UAE deal, the PA’s reaction remained generally mild.
Having seen that the League’s members remained deaf to their calls to rally to their defence, the PA ditched plans to present a draft resolution condemning the Israel-UAE deal and urging Arab governments to act against it.
The soft side of the Palestinians’ hard stance, which initially labelled the Israeli-UAE accord as a “stab in the back of the Palestinian cause”, underlines the drastic shift in the regional balance of power that has made the deal possible.
But to avoid a diplomatic explosion and probably a backlash by a furious Palestinian public, Arab ministers announced that the Arab peace plan of 2002 is still on the table.
A final resolution issued by the ministers called for the reaffirmation of “the fact that the two-state solution on 1967 borders is the only way to achieve peace in the Middle East”.
Staying onside, key Arab powerhouses such Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have said they stand firmly behind Palestinian efforts to establish a Palestinian state based on the borders in place before the 1967 Middle East war, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
On the face of it this looks like the Arab League has succeeded in striking a balance between attempts to override the UAE deal with Israel and the traditional stated policy of supporting Palestinian statehood.
That meant a decision by member states to establish normal ties with Israel in the words of the League’s Secretary General Ahmed Abul Gheit, was a matter of “sovereignty” while the Arab organisation will remain supportive of the Palestinians’ goal of statehood.
Practically speaking, however, main challenging areas remain and divergences on some are still significant. Essentially, the new Arab League’s stance reads that what happens in one area does not affect progress in others.
Yet, on the ground, reaching a normalisation swap by any given Arab country unilaterally with Israel means that minimum Arab unity over Palestine has raptured and there’s no chance left for a collective bargaining for a peace for land agreement.
Also, right now, the chances of stopping Israel’s annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank — killing the two-state solution, which the API meant to support — have become slim to none.
The API plan was announced by then Saudi crown prince Abdullah at the Beirut Arab League Summit in March 2002. The initiative was initially endorsed by the League’s 22 member states and later by the 57 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
Considering the perpetual stalemate in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the API was a historic move with a flexible approach to concluding the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, and a novel step towards peace and security.
The initiative crowned a series of Arab efforts to encourage peace with Israel that started with Arabs and the Palestinians accepting UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967 and making several other peace gestures.
More practically, while Egypt signed the Camp David Treaty with Israel in 1979, the Palestinians signed the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993 and Jordan concluded its peace agreement with Israel a year later.
Israeli prime minister at the time Ariel Sharon rejected the Arab proposal of 2002 and since then successive Israeli governments, unwilling to seize on the historic offer to end the conflict, have shunned the API.
Instead, they continued the illegal grab of Palestinian land while seeking US pressure on the rest of the Arab states, or directly courting them, to quietly come to terms with Israel.
Undoubtedly, the API is overambitious, and some even say naïve. But given the new Arab stance, or maybe the lack of it, the question now is whether flouting the API will plunge the prospects of a final Palestinian-Israeli peace deal.
Until last week the argument had been whether all parties have missed a genuine opportunity to advance the peace process through a viable framework for negotiation offered by the API. The remaining debate will be if a comprehensive peace can ever be achieved in the Middle East with the Palestinians returning to their land.
The Palestinian quest for return and establishing an independent Palestinian state remain at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which could only be resolved through a bilateral track between the Israelis and Palestinians and not through one-sided deals with Arabs.
The demise of the API, combined with the Trump’s “Deal of the Century” plan, could be the Palestinians’ worst nightmare. But that won’t change the fact that new generations of Palestinians will remain committed to their right to a sovereign state.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly