John Kerry has pledged to renew efforts to reach a comprehensive peace agreement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the renewal revolves around a long-moribund proposal from Saudi Arabia. McClatchy reports that the Arab Peace Initiative, floated by Saudi Arabia in tandem and competition with the Bush administration’s “roadmap,” has become the centerpiece of Kerry’s shuttle-diplomacy initiative. This time, the Israelis might be more open to the proposal:
The Obama administration is exploring whether a long-abandoned initiative proposed by Saudi Arabia 11 years ago could become the basis for a regional peace agreement between Israel and its neighbors, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials.
With U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry due to arrive in the region over the weekend, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been conferring with other Arab leaders on the viability of the plan, which calls for a normalization of relations between Israel and all the Arab states in exchange for the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state.
Israeli and Palestinian officials confirmed to McClatchy that President Barack Obama raised the possibility of using the Arab Peace Initiative, as the plan was known, as a framework for an agreement when he was in the region last month.
“It was raised directly by Obama during his visit and during his closed-door discussion with the Palestinian leadership,” said a senior Palestinian official directly involved in the talks. “It was made clear to the Palestinian leadership that this would be the new direction of U.S. diplomacy in the region.”
The plan involves Israel giving up lands gained in the 1967 war in exchange for normalized diplomatic relations with all Arab states. That includes the Golan Heights, which Israel has held as a buffer against Syrian aggression, as well as the West Bank and Gaza, which Israel already relinquished. The Golan might be a particular sticking point now, though, more so than a decade ago. At that time, Israel might have relied on Bashar al-Assad to keep his word and not use the strategic location for a later military invasion. With a rebellion increasingly controlled by Islamist forces in Syria about to depose Assad, Israel has to question whether that assumption still holds.
Nor is that the only assumption that this proposal tests. It also assumes that the Palestinians will settle for the West Bank, Gaza, and a piece of Jerusalem as its end game. Perhaps that will be the case if the other Arab states pull support for Palestinian agitation for total victory, or perhaps these same states will balance Israeli recognition with continued sotto voce support for the elimination of the Jewish state. After all, having raised generations of their own subjects on the need for total victory over Israel and the legitimacy of Palestinian claims to Israel’s territory — even pre-1967 borders — how will those subjects react if these Sunni Arab states suddenly declare their recognition of Israel? They’d almost be forced to frame it as a bitter compromise necessitated by Yankee domination and Crusader interference, which would inflame the population against the West and Israel rather than the Arab regimes that sign off on this plan, and by design.
Still, the Arab nations went public with this plan, and now that it’s aged for a decade or so, it will be difficult to use it as anti-Western propaganda. The Netanyahu government has already been giving this a strong second look, if quietly doing so:
Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s prime minister, immediately rejected the plan. Subsequent Israeli leaders have periodically warmed to, and then rejected, the plan. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who openly opposed the plan when he was opposition leader in 2007, has since quietly voiced support for it, including in closed-door meetings with Egyptian and Jordanian officials.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that the Netanyahu government “has publicly praised the Arab Peace Initiative. It’s a great improvement on previous Arab positions, and we look forward to engaging on it.”
Will this work? Be sure to read to the end to remind yourself how the Obama administration fumbled the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations four years ago so badly that State Department ended up alienating both sides by floating a demand for a settlement freeze and then attempting to back out of it. That was under Hillary Clinton’s “smart power” guidance, however. Have things changed enough with Kerry that he can get the Palestinians to accept the API as the final say on map drawing in the Middle East? Anything is possible, although a two-state solution will only be possible when both sides are satisfied with two states. So far, only one side has supported that as a permanent solution.