Posted by Alex on Wednesday, October 29th, 2008
by Camille Alexandre Otrakji
Over the past few weeks, Israeli leaders Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres and Saudi diplomats have been energetically promoting the Saudi / Arab peace initiative of 2002 as an alternative to the current Syrian and Palestinian peace negotiations tracks.
The initiative has many merits, but it also contains a deal breaker for Israel.
Saudi Plan / Arab initiative
The Arab Peace Initiative is based on the Saudi peace plan which was first formulated by (then-Crown Prince) King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia during and after a meeting he had with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in 2002. Mr. Friedman had actually written a column a few weeks earlier suggesting a similar plan for reaching a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The plan is an initiative that aims to achieve a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It offers Israel normalization of relations and comprehensive peace with all Arab countries in exchange for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from all of the occupied territories including the Golan Heights, and the recognition of “an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital”.
A month later, at the Beirut Summit of the Arab League, the peace initiative was endorsed unanimously by all participating members of the Arab League after the plan was amended to include, at the request of Syria and Lebanon, an article about a just solution to the Palestinian Refugee problem, to be agreed upon in accordance with section 11 of UN General Assembly Resolution 194.
The Arab Peace Initiative is therefore an expanded version of the Saudi peace plan. The main difference between the two plans is the inclusion of the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Revival of interest in the Arab Peace Initiative
It started last month at the United Nations.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, in his speech to the UN General Assembly, said: “The Arabs replaced the three NOs of Khartoum (no peace, no negotiation, no recognition) with a peace initiative, inaugurated by King Abdullah Abdul Aziz Al Saud. I call upon the king to further his initiative; it may become an invitation for comprehensive peace, one to convert battlegrounds to common grounds.”
Last Thursday, Mr. Peres met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Sharm el-Sheikh. After that meeting he made the following statement: “We accept the Arab peace initiative in order to bring peace to the entire region”. Peres added that while the Saudi plan “needs to be negotiated”, its spirit is “correct.”
Also last week, Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak indicated his support for the Saudi plan. He suggested that the current Syrian and Palestinian tracks are not making much progress and therefore he decided that it is better to move them all to a single track based on the Saudi plan. “There is definitely room to introduce a comprehensive Israeli plan to counter the Saudi plan that would be the basis for a discussion on overall regional peace”. Then Mr. Barak noted the “deep, joint interest” with moderate Arab leaders in containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions and limiting the influence of the radical Islamic Hezbollah movement in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
Also this month, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and his brother, former Ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal both promoted the Saudi peace plan
Last week Syrian ambassador to the United States, Dr. Imad Moustapha, was asked about the way he sees Israel’s future role in the Middle East after the end of the Arab Israeli conflict. The ambassador said “It is important to understand that any Syrian approach to peace with Israel falls under its endorsement of the Pan Arab Peace Initiative. Therefore, any long-term relationship with Israel will ultimately fall within a broader Arab strategic plan.”
Advantages of the unified Arab track
Israeli leaders will find it easier to justify the necessary land concessions to the Syrians and Palestinians, if they are part of a comprehensive settlement. Currently, most Israelis are not sure if they are getting a good deal. Because the Syrian front has been quiet since 1975, “peace” with Syria is not considered as a valuable reward that will clearly translate into more security for Israel. Moreover, Syria made it clear that its relations with Hizbollah, Hamas, and Iran are non-negotiable. And finally, Israelis see Syria as an economically weak country that won’t offer Israel any financial benefit.
In contrast, being able to do business with Dubai, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia (after a comprehensive settlement between Israel and all Arab countries) would probably be perceived as a much more attractive reward for Israelis.
Additionally, a clear commitment by the Arab world to a peaceful settlement to the Arab Israeli conflict will be more reassuring in terms of the settlement’s extent and endurance.
Syria, always a proponent of a comprehensive settlement of the Arab Israeli conflict, will probably feel more comfortable with the scope of the Arab peace initiative compared to having to conduct separate peace negotiations. Syria’s current indirect talks with Israel through Turkish mediators were enough to earn Syria an intensely negative Saudi media campaign which portrayed Syria as a fake nationalist that used Arab nationalist movements for the sole purpose of gaining more favorable rewards exclusively for Syria at the expense of Palestinian and Lebanese rights. By moving from a Syrian track to an Arab track, the Saudis and Egyptians will have a role to play and will therefore be expected to stop trying to obstruct Syria’s current efforts towards a peaceful settlement.
The weaker Arabs (the Palestinians and the Lebanese), can also expect to benefit from the added combined weight and support of the Arab world.
The Arab plan makes it easier for individual Arab leaders to carry out their future normalization with Israel in a systematic way. Instead of needing to debate it and to justify it, each ruler will be able to explain to the hard liners among his people that they have no choice, since the whole Arab world agreed to normalize with Israel.
On the other hand …
Mr. Barak is already talking about his interest in formulating Israeli proposals to “counter” the Saudi peace plan.
There are multiple problems with Mr. Barak’s approach. First, the Arab world did not adopt the “Saudi” plan. It adopted the more strict “Arab peace initiative”. The difference is in the Arab initiative’s call for the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Is Israel ready to tacke that challenge at this point?
If the Arab initiative is to be countered or renegotiated, who is Mr. Barak expecting to negotiate with on the Arab side? Is he planning to exclusively talk to his favorite “Arab Moderate” partners? Wouldn’t that be another attempt to isolate Syria? Is he expecting to split the Arab world in two camps, a “moderate camp” that accepts his counter proposal, and a rejectionist camp that does not?
An “Arab” peace initiative requires some kind of unity, or cooperation among the leading Arab states. A few days after Saudi Prince Saud Al-Faisal stated that Syria and Saudi Arabia will be able to solve any issues between them without any need for third party mediation, Tariq Alhomayed, the editor of the largest Saudi owned newspaper, Asharq Alawsat, wrote an editorial that only a bitter enemy of Syria can write.
Israel has been negotiating with the Palestinians and Syrians since 1991. During those long seventeen years neither track led to an agreement. The same Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres who are calling today for abandoning the Syrian and Palestinian tracks in favor of a unified Arab track, spent the better part of the nineties advocating freezing the Syrian or Palestinian tracks in order to apply pressure on Israel’s two Arab partners in negotiations with the hope of making them accept more compromises, rather than risk losing the interest of the Israelis in pursuing their respective tracks.
President Clinton wrote in his memoirs that former Prime Minister Ehud Barak “got cold feet” when he reached a final agreement with late Syrian President Hafez Assad. Instead of risking his political future by proposing to his people an agreement that included a withdrawal to the June 4th 1967 line in the Golan, Mr. Barak decided to withdraw from south Lebanon in order to weaken Syria’s negotiating position by taking away the Lebanon/Hizbollah card from the hand of Hafez Assad. The prime minister was hoping that by doind so Syria will be forced to take his offer next time they talk.
Throughout the past decade, Mr. Peres consistently advocated weakening and isolating Syria in order to bring it to the “moderate” Arab camp. He has pursued a strategy of refusing to settle the conflict with Syria based on UN resolutions calling on Israel to withdraw from Arab lands it occupied during the 1967 war, and instead trying to weaken Syria until it accepts terms that comply with what Mr. Peres was willing to offer. While Mr. Peres always managed to be generous in praising his many friends among the leaders of the “moderate Arab” nations, he actively contributed to the demonization of Syria that took place during the past few years.
If Israel is falling in love again with the Arab Peace Initiative for all the right reasons, then it can only be good news for everyone. Syria will be the first to sit on that table.
But if Israel’s aging leaders are devoid of courage or creative ideas and are merely trying to recirculate their tried, tested and proven delaying tactics, or if Mr. Peres managed to convince his desperate friends among the “moderate Arab” allies that together they can marginalize Syria and its allies simply by reviving the Arab peace initiative, then there will probably be another cycle of chaos, violence, war threats followed by a sequence of flipping peace tracks.