Toward a New Arab Peace Initiative

by Ambassador Robert H. Pelletreau
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The Middle East Road Map makes an intriguing reference, among its cited foundations for a settlement, to “the initiative of Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah – endorsed by the Beirut Arab League Summit – calling for acceptance of Israel as a neighbor living in peace and security, in the context of a comprehensive settlement.” The intention of the drafters was to correct an omission in the Quartet structure by adding the Arab states to the international circle of support for a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, giving the Road Map as broad shoulders as possible to carry a new negotiating effort forward.

Crown Prince Abdallah’s initiative, brilliantly conceived and launched in February 2002, subsequently foundered on the cruel rocks of Arab summit politics and a coincidental catastrophic terrorist bombing in Israel, but it should not be forgotten or too quickly consigned to the dustbin of failed ideas. Its essential elements remain valid and should be nurtured and called forth anew as peace efforts haltingly proceed.

Abdallah’s initial target audience was the United States, its leaders in the Administration and the Congress and its influential Jewish community. Selecting the respected and widely read columnist Tom Friedman as the transmission vehicle ensured wide distribution and discussion. As conceived, the Saudi initiative would then be presented to the Beirut Summit in March where Abdallah’s address would form the basis of a summit declaration and reach out to Israel’s people and government with a message of peace and reconciliation. That this did not occur was the result of watering down and amendment of the original initiative in order to achieve Arab consensus and the summit’s unfortunate coincidence with the horrific Netanya bombing, which closed Israeli ears to its new and positive aspects. The Sharon Government quickly, perhaps too quickly, rejected it, and the United States, too, was turned off by the other major project at Beirut, Arab reconciliation with Saddam sealed by a Saudi-Iraqi embrace. The follow-up mission to Western capitals, led by Arab League Secretary General Amre Moussa, could gain no traction and the Beirut Summit, therefore, lost relevance.

The Road Map, while not prospering, continues to be the most generally accepted way forward both in the region and internationally. Although Israel expressed 14 “reservations” to it, including a requirement to remove any references to the Arab initiative, Prime Ministers Sharon and Abbas and President Bush gave it and each other strong endorsement at their Aqaba meeting in June. However, subsequent implementation by each of the three parties has faltered, driven by internal dynamics. Trust between Israelis and Palestinians remained dormant and was set back by the Abbas resignation. Israelis did not understand the hudna concept or that no party to it enjoyed full control over its theoretical adherents, making some violations inevitable. Nor could they accept Abu Mazen’s continuing deference to Arafat and inability to gather the remnants of the various Palestinian security forces under his authority. They repeatedly made unrealistic demands of the Palestinian police who were still in the early stages of rebuilding and in no position to respond effectively. Palestinians, for their part, leapt to interpret Israel’s slow dismantlement of proto-settlements, selective prisoner release and continued work on the wall of separation as bad faith rather than understanding Israel’s internal motivations or the fact that their own lack of performance was in good part responsible. The Bush Administration’s promising start after the President’s June trip was not consolidated into the proactive diplomacy required to make progress. As an election year in the U.S. approaches, and with violence again on the upswing, the President’s true commitment to Middle East peace negotiations remains uncertain. The Road Map continues to hover over the region as the theoretical way forward but it has not set down roots and needs to be reinforced.

What is needed at this point is a fresh injection of vigor and direction to the peace effort. This can most effectively come from the Arab world, but the difficulty in bringing it about must not be underestimated. To have the most positive impact in Israel, a new Arab initiative should clearly affirm recognition of the existence of the State of Israel and acceptance of the vision of a region living in peace and security with normal diplomatic relations among its governments and minimal restrictions on its peoples to develop trade, tourism and other societal interaction. In this way, it could usefully build upon Crown Prince Abdallah’s initial formulation, as reported by Friedman, of full withdrawal, full peace and full normalization of relations. It should unambiguously denounce violence and terrorism in all its forms and include, or point to, a context in which Arab and Israeli representatives would come together to provide a supportive context for Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and eventually to endorse a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement.

An initiative in this direction will be difficult to achieve, not because the key Arab leaders do not recognize its validity and usefulness, but because of the constraints imposed by their respective political contexts and volatile public opinions. They must not be seen as responding to pressure from Washington; nor can they be seen as making concessions to Israel or surrendering Palestinian rights. The trick will be to design an approach which revitalizes the flagging Road Map process and re-engages the United States, whose continuous and high-level involvement is indispensable, without delegitimizing the initiators themselves through alienating opinion at home or attracting poisonous criticism from unpersuaded brethren.

At this time, consideration should be given to an Arab initiative that seeks common ground with Europe in the first instance. This would avoid the pitfall of appearing as U.S. puppets while at the same time joining together essential components of the international support structure who have not been in the recent forefront to shore up the entire process. Key Arab and European leaders should come together in a European or Arab capital for this purpose, enlist Mr. Friedman and other mega-communicators to their cause, and then send appropriate emissaries to the United States, Israel, Palestine, Russia and the U.N. Secretary General. Such an initiative could reach out to the clear majority of Israelis and Palestinians who want peace and overcome Israel's earlier, hasty rejection. Coming at a time of renewed violence and flagging American attentiveness, it could arrest the slide toward violent chaos and at best, set the entire process back on track. Even at worst, it would have the effect of keeping the international framework for peace intact, ready to support renewed negotiations at the next opportune moment.

- Former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and former Ambassador of the United States to Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain. This article is part of a series of views on “Arab Peace Initiative” published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
 
 
 
 
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OTHER ARTICLES IN SERIES
Toward a Track-two Dialogue between Israelis and Syrians
A Syrian Perspective on the Arab Peace Initiative
Between Two Hotels in Beirut and Netanya
The Arab Initiative Revisited and Revived
The Arab Peace Initiative, boosting moderates
Arab Initiative Can Bring Peace and Normalcy
An Israeli View of the Arab Peace Initiative
The Feasibility of Peace and the Arab Peace Initiative
There is No Alternative to Peace in the Middle East
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Other articles in this series

Toward a Track-two Dialogue between Israelis and Syrians by Gerald Steinberg
A Syrian Perspective on the Arab Peace Initiative by Dr. Murhaf Jouejati
Between Two Hotels in Beirut and Netanya by Hazem Saghiyeh
The Arab Initiative Revisited and Revived by Tawfiq Abu Bakr
The Arab Peace Initiative, boosting moderates by Hassan A. Barari
Arab Initiative Can Bring Peace and Normalcy by Judith Kipper
An Israeli View of the Arab Peace Initiative by Ambassador Shimon Shamir
The Feasibility of Peace and the Arab Peace Initiative by Nizar Abdel-Kader
There is No Alternative to Peace in the Middle East by Sa’ad Eddin Ibrahim