Twenty years have passed since the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative was adopted at the Beirut Arab Summit on 28 March 2002. The initiative proposed a historic deal whereby the members of the Arab League would offer Isreal peace and full normalisation in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the Arab territories it occupied in June 1967. Much has happened in the two intervening decades. The global order has evolved into its current state while the Arab region and the Middle East underwent changes that have brought us to what, in last week’s column, I termed the “New Middle East”.
Only the Palestinian-Israeli conflict persists, with its usual spikes of tension and clashes. At the time of the Arab Peace Initiative, the second Intifada was still raging in the face of Israeli violence. Since then, there have been four Gaza wars: in 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2021. Meanwhile, the Arab-Israeli peace process launched in the early 1990s had reached a dead end. This was not for lack effort, but because every regional and international initiative undertaken during successive administrations in Washington and in collaboration with the EU, the UN and the Russian Federation, ran up against two walls. The first was the continued Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories. The second was the Palestinian division into two political entities, one in the West Bank, headed the Palestinian National Authority (PA) which was derived from the PLO in accordance with the Oslo Accord, and the other in Gaza, headed by Hamas, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood which opposed that accord. As we know, the Oslo process brought the mutual recognition between the PLO, as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and Israel, laying the foundations for negotiations aimed at the realisation of the two-state solution: a Palestinian and an Israeli state living side-by-side in peace and harmony. It is not my intent to go into the details of all the hurdles and hindrances the Oslo process encountered. There certainly is not enough space here to do so. But it is still essential for us to grapple with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, because it is a feature of this region that serves as a permanent tinderbox for igniting warfare.
At this juncture, we need to bear in mind the cumulative outcomes of the past decade and their significance for the countries of the region. The first is that those countries must be self-reliant in handling regional problems. Secondly, this need for self-reliance has engendered a reconciliation between Arab states and Qatar, some understandings between Arab states (as well as Israel) and Turkey, the beginning of a rapprochement between Arab states and Iran and, in this framework, a two-month truce in Yemen that will hopefully be the light at the end of that dark tunnel. Thirdly, not only has the Arab-Israeli conflict ended as an existential conflict, new ways of coexisting in competition or cooperation are being explored. Fourthly, on top of the peace treaties between Egypt and Jordan and Israel, and the Oslo Accord that brought the first national Palestinian governing authority to Palestinian land, there have been four more peace agreements with Israel signed by the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. The parties to the old treaties and the new accords have respected the terms of their agreements. Fifthly, as discussed in last week’s article, a new type of regional entity has begun to emerge. It is anchored in cooperation in various areas, such as security, technology and development, in which mutual interests converge. If the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum is one manifestation, the recent Negev Summit between the foreign ministers of Egypt, Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco is another. The participants in that summit discussed a range of areas for potential cooperation in security, energy, tourism, health, education, food and water security. The horizons of this cooperative spirit extend to the “new Syria” and to providing Lebanon with gas via the Arab Gas Pipeline. Sixthly, there are some exciting developments on the Palestinian front, from the new outlooks advocated by Palestinians in Israel to various forms of PA-Israeli cooperation. This is not to mention the de facto economic and security integration between Palestinians and Israelis, in general, that would appear to encourage a one-state or federated state solution.
All these factors compel us to revisit the Arab Peace Initiative. However, this undertaking, which would obviously start with the Arabs, the original authors of the initiative, should seek to optimise the positive developments and avoid the pitfalls mentioned above. For example, reviving the initiative should avoid the endless rounds of futile negotiations and, instead, activate practical solutions that promote peace, cooperation, regional security and uprooting violence and extremism. Bilateral frameworks could work, as is currently the case between Arab countries and other regional powers. Other avenues could be linked to existing forums. The Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum experience could be replicated in the northern Red Sea region in the realms of tourism and energy, for example. Not only would projects of this sort create frameworks for cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis, they would also pave the way to broader regional initiatives to end the crises in Syria, Yemen and Libya. For the Palestinians they would forge the concrete groundwork of an independent Palestinian state.
It is an established fact that 75 years of conflict between Arabs and Israelis, then between Palestinians and Israelis have brought about no substantial results in terms of security, coexistence and cooperation. That became possible only under a climate of peace, which is a prerequisite for markets to prosper, political elites to interact, and societies to address common threats and make opportunities available to all.
About two decades ago, I collaborated with a colleague of mine, Shai Feldemn of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, on producing a paper on ecopolitics as a means to changing the context of Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Our focus in the study, which was published on 29 August 2003, was on the Arab Peace Initiative, which we tried to incorporate into the Roadmap for Peace that had been recently formulated by the Quartet for the Middle East (the US, the EU, Russia and the UN). In like manner, a return to the Arab Peace Initiative today should be informed by current regional developments, as those would furnish the broader framework and objective comprehensiveness that would make the new initiative more effective than previous ones. A look back at the history of peacemaking in the region tells us that the most successful initiatives were those that emerged from regional ones, to which testify Israel’s treaties with Egypt and Jordan in the past and the more recent Abraham Accords with other Arab countries.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.