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Window of Opportunity for Middle East Peace: Arab or Saudi Peace Initiative?


University of Pretoria Centre for International Political Studies (CIPS)
No. 26/2007
Window of Opportunity for Middle East Peace
Arab or Saudi Peace Initiative?
By Walid Salem

Among Israeli media and politicians it is called the 'Saudi Initiative', whilst the Arab League Summit, held in Beirut on 28 March 2002, approved the 'Arab Peace Initiative'. Analysts in Israel tend to reason that this difference is caused by 'sensitivities' in Israel to the term 'Arab Peace Initiative', which is why Israelis prefer the term the 'Saudi Initiative'. However, is this really the case?

The Saudi Initiative

The reality is that there was a 'Saudi Initiative', distinct from that of the Arab Peace Initiative (API). Moreover, the content of the Saudi Initiative was superior from an Israeli perspective. Presented to President Bush by Prince Abdullah on 25 April 2002, the 8 point initiative called for first, securing an Israeli withdrawal from the recently occupied areas in the West Bank; second, "…the development of an international peacekeeping force;" third, the renunciation of violence and "…suppression of all suicide bombings against Israeli civilians and soldiers, inside and outside Israel's 1967 borders." Thereafter: political negotiation and Israel will implement resolution 242 and 338 in return for an Arab recognition of Israel. There was no mention of the return of the Golan Heights and no mention of the refugee issue. Moreover the Palestinian state was not mentioned. Significant were the calls for the deployment of a third party force and also the condemnation of the Palestinian suicide bombings inside and outside Israel, including those that were committed against Israeli soldiers.

The Arab Peace Initiative (API)

The API began by stating that "...a military solution to the conflict will not achieve peace or provide security for the parties." It called upon Israel to withdraw fully from the Golan Heights and the Lebanese Territories in the South of Lebanon, and the "...acceptance of the establishment of a sovereign independent Palestinian state on the Palestinian territories occupied since June 4, 1967 in West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its Capital." The most significant point was that which called for the "...achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194." There were two significant facts here. First, the API did not mention the term "right of return" with regard to the Palestinian refugees. Second, the API called for an "agreed upon solution," which meant that the Arabs were ready for negotiations (as opposed to the claims that the API was presented by the Arabs as a 'take it or leave it' package and that it was an Arabic attempt to impose positions in advance on Israel), and that the API took the developments in the Israeli/Palestinian negotiations about refugees into consideration. The Arab countries agreed to "consider the Arab/Israel conflict ended" and "establish normal relations with Israel" if Israel agreed to a full withdrawal and the solution to the refugee problem.

Where to now?

After 5 years neither the Saudi Initiative nor the Arab Peace Initiative have been implemented. The Saudis have become interested in "re-uniting the divided Arabs" and now support the API rather than their initiative. Israel might continue to speak about a Saudi Initiative as an opening for negotiations with Saudi Arabia and the other so called Arab moderate states; however, the Saudis will not accept calls for normalisation without implementation and there will therefore be no move in the frozen peace process.

The other option for Israel is to recognise the API as an outcome that has been initiated and accepted by all 22 Arab countries, including those that are called extremist countries such as Syria, instead of trying to divide the Arab moderates from the Arab extremist countries. In this regard one might heed the words of Marwan Mu'asher, the previous Jordanian Minister of Foreign Affairs: "When we deliberated at the Beirut Summit (2002) about the Arab Initiative ...We decided that there were four main points that Israel wanted from Arabs:

1. Least important from our point of view were peace treaties with the Arab world, which we gave as a collective peace treaty.

2. We thought Israel needed more than that: Israel needed collective security guarantees, including not only the Palestinians, Jordanians, and Egyptians, but also Iraqis, Libyans, and Algerians and every single Arab state, as well as Saudi Arabia. This was also put in the Arab Initiative.

3. And we went further: Israel wants to know that once a Palestinian state is established and occupied territories go back to the Syrians, the Lebanese and the Palestinians, that Arabs will not demand a return of Arab cities in Israel, such as Haifa, Jaffa and Akka (Arce). We explicitly stated that it would mean an end to the conflict.

4. The last point, which I think is the most important, is about refugees. This is what Israel probably missed: for the first time we said "yes, the right of return is important to us Arabs, we are not going to give it up before a final peace treaty, but at the same time we want to assure Israel that no Arab state has in mind the return of four million Palestinians to Israel and the demographic change this would insinuate."

Then he added: "Despite all the wars, the lack of a political process during the last five years, the occupation, the invasion of the West Bank territory and Gaza, the targeted assassinations, the suicide bombings and all the violence that took place, not one Arab state withdrew its signature from the Arab initiative. No Arab state came forward and said: 'We no longer believe in this initiative, we no longer want to offer it to Israel, we want to withdraw this offer and to go back to a different scenario.' It's a very powerful statement by Arab states, those who are moderate and those who are not moderate."

Saudi Arabia, as the head of the last Arab Summit, will be responsible for activating the API and pursuing "…the necessary contacts to gain support for this initiative at all levels, particularly from the United Nations Security Council, the United States Of America, the Russian Federation, the Muslim states and the European Union," as stated in point number 7 of the API. Whether there will be a real peace process in the coming months or not will depend on whether this 'activating' will include open/direct negotiations with Israel or whether relations with Israel will continue to take place in secret. Here is a real window of opportunity for a real comprehensive Middle East Peace and it would be a pity if it were not exploited.

Walid Salem is the director of Panorama, the Centre for the Dissemination of Democracy and Community Development, East Jerusalem office. He is also the author of books and articles on such issues as democracy, citizenship, youth rights, civil society development, Israeli-Palestinian peace-building, and the right of return.

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