Flipping Peace Tracks Again?

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.

Comments (67)

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51. Off the Wall said:

Thanks for the excellent analysis.

If you recall from my response to his excellency Dr. Mustapha, my argument against the Pan Arab initiative was quite similar to yours. I see it as simple rope given to Israeli politicians by KSA to delay or halt any real progress on the Syrian track. KSA is unhappy and they want to buy time.

I believe that the recent effort by KSA is a preemptive strike against possible change in official Washington policies. With both campaigns openly talking of “energy independence” and calling for weaning ourselves from middle eastern oil, the new president, no matter who he is, will have to take some public position on our relationship with oil producing countries that is contrary to the friendly attitude of the current leadership in Washington.

Expect both Obama and McCain to be cold, at best, to gulf countries. KSA will even become more irrelevant than it is now. I am positive that the current attempt to revive the Saudi initiative is rooted in the kingdom’s concern about its future role in the ME where the US public and policy makers have less than friendly attitude to oil producing countries.

On the one hand, Obama’s calls for withdrawing the troops from Iraq responsibly indicates a strong departure from the Cheney and the neocons doctrine of full control of ME oil as a mechanism to halt China’s progress. Although the buys a lot of oil from other sources, departure from Cheney’s policy, and the removal of the US as a major buyer of Gulf oil will only hurt the economic interests of gulf countries as it will reduce competition for their oil, and allows China and India to be in a better bargaining position. While this is not feasible in the short-term, the threat of a National energy initiative proposed by both candidates is already having some minor effect on the prices of oil. One can only imagine the impacts of a real “Apollo” like energy program. Yet, true energy independence will require major investment in high yield energy production (i.e. Nuclear), an issue Obama is not very strong on.

Enters McCain. and Drill baby Drill Palin. Granted, the Drill baby Drill is merely a populist rhetoric, McCain strong support of nuclear energy and his willingness to invest nationally in the construction of new reactors will probably have more devastating impacts on KSA. As I mentioned earlier, alternative sources of energy (wind, solar, bio-fule) are much more expensive and have lower yield than Nuclear energy. If the US, under McCain invests in Nuclear plant construction, and these plants prove to be successful in delivering cheaper and more reliable energy, expect the worst for gulf countries. A simple relaxation of rules on nuclear plant construction may result in a sizable number of new plants.

Independent of my agreement/disagreement with either platform, both
candidates are serious about energy and about energy independence. Motivations aside, (racist, or nationalist), the public is ready for a new energy policy and paradigm, and this will have an impact on KSA’s power in the region.

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October 30th, 2008, 3:23 pm


52. Milli Schmitt said:

Dear Norman,

have you ever sat and spoken with a member of the democratic opposition (stupid term)? Have you ever discovered how thoughtful and gentle this opposition is and most importantly how non-violent? Your comments about this matter on this forum are just so silly, so macho and dumb, especially so uneducated (have you ever heard about the ‘state of exception’ and its use by government elites to oppress their populations?) that it is hard for me to even make the effort to reply to you. The only thing that makes me do so is the respect that I have for my friends who now have to suffer through more years in prison, the respect for their courage and the personal tragedies that they live through for a public goal. And my anger at someone who cannot even oppose this court decision out of compassion. Shame on you.

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October 30th, 2008, 5:05 pm


53. trustquest said:

Good post Alex, and that is what most of civil society people in Syria said when Syria started negotiations with Israel.
And amen to what you said:
“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.”

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October 30th, 2008, 5:14 pm


54. AIG said:


You may be joking, but immediately Joshua and Alex agree that the Israelis are stalling on purpose and of course many Israelis think that the Syrians are playing for time and have no intention of paying any price for peace.

So, the players currently think each one is BSing the other. Shouldn’t this be brought to an end if we want peace? Can’t we retain our middle eastern charm but cut the BS about 90%? At least that way we can build a little respect for each other.

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October 30th, 2008, 5:16 pm


55. Alia said:


What ME charm?

Israel is much more in need to solve its ME problem than Syria is. Several decades later, the Palestinians are no problem for Syria, the absent Golan is none either. The 21st century will be an Asian century and Israel’s allies- those by wish and those by force (and that is another interesting conversation)- are not going to be the main players in that game anymore.

Israel, on the other hand, MUST solve its problem which is aggravating over time or it will implode. The logic of arrogance and belligerence that you have been pursuing yourself here which mirrors that of your government is outdated, you have no leg to stand on anymore. But typically the concerned party is the last to notice…

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October 30th, 2008, 6:27 pm


56. jad said:

I actually believe in what you wrote, I to think that it was a pure mistake they didn’t expect it to be noticed, there is no conspiracy behind that at all, otherwise Syrians wouldn’t open their mouth.
The problem now is how to deal with that mistake without making fool of the American intelligence.

What I totally disagree with is the reaction of closing education institute and culture centre, that is just wrong. (Don’t be very happy AIG, I’m stating that out of care not hate)

Dear Norman, I don’t agree with you and WD regarding the way we deal with the opposition, it’s wrong to put people in prison for what they believe in, especially those who didn’t show any sign of aggression against the authorities, it’s always for the good to criticise your opponent and tell them their flaws that they have to work on and improve.
Norman, you are absolutely right, that they didn’t do what they should to improve the society as a whole on many levels instead of concentrating on the political one but even that shouldn’t cost them years in prison…that is unfair don’t you think?

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October 30th, 2008, 6:49 pm


57. Qifa Nabki said:


Of course, I’m joking.

But let’s see how far “cutting the BS” gets us. Let’s play out one of our little thought experiments. I’ll be Bashar, and you can be Bibi.

Tell me, Mr. Prime Minister (to be), what’s your best offer? I’ll take it to my people, and we’ll counter-offer. Then you counter-offer, and we’ll counter-offer, until we have a deal.

Remember, no BS.

PS: If this is tiresome to the rest of you, just say so, and AIG and I will do this on a different blog.

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October 30th, 2008, 6:53 pm


58. AIG said:

Bibi is not going to make any offer to Bashar so I am not sure I understand what you are proposing. But if you insist here is the offer: Syria can have peace for peace. The Golan stays Israeli but sanctions will be lifted and Syria will get $3 billion per year from the US as long as it cuts its ties to Hamas, Hizballah and Iran. We are not interested in a counter offer. This is a take it or leave it proposition. If you do not like it, do your worst. So will we.

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October 30th, 2008, 8:45 pm


59. Shai said:

“Bibi is not going to make any offer to Bashar…”

We’ll see, AIG, we’ll see. Oh, by the way, he DID, to Bashar’s father, in case you may have forgotten, precisely 10 years and 2 months ago. But Bashar is a cruel dictator, member of the Axis-of-Evil, unlike his dovish father Hafez. So maybe Bibi won’t talk to him… Ha!

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October 30th, 2008, 9:03 pm


60. offended said:

AIG, your ex-mercenary rant is getting boring. Go get a life and get used to the forthcoming peace. Just get out of the way, for your own sake that is.

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October 30th, 2008, 9:09 pm


61. AIG said:

The Likud party manifesto clearly says that the Golan will not be returned. Bibi has gone to the Golan a few months ago and said publicly that under no circumstances will the Golan be returned. As for Kadima, practically half of the voters in the primary voted for Mufaz the “architect” of the “peace for peace” solution. It is law that a majority of Israelis in a plebiscite is required to return the Golan.

All these facts are of no interest to you. What you care about is an unclear episode from 10 years ago. Let’s even say that the impossible happens and Bibi after getting elected becomes like you. Do you think Asad will be willing to take a chance that a deal he agrees to will be voted down by Israelis? He will be a double loser then. He will anger his allies and get nothing in return. So you are claiming that two impossible things will happen. Actually three, because Asad does not really want peace but that is another issue.

Therefore, you are hallucinating or peddling BS. What you are certainly not doing is building bridges. The truth will set you free.

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October 30th, 2008, 9:20 pm


62. AIG said:

What is it about many Syrians that they can rarely make a reasoned argument but are very good at threats? Maybe its cultural. Keep threatning, I will just add it the list of amusing threats that the Arabs have made over the last 60 years.

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October 30th, 2008, 9:34 pm


63. SimoHurtta said:

What is it about many Syrians that they can rarely make a reasoned argument but are very good at threats? Maybe its cultural. Keep threatning, I will just add it the list of amusing threats that the Arabs have made over the last 60 years.

AIG what I have been observing it is your guys who do the most of the threatening and bulling. You might have some success among US deeply religious “Palin people” but among a more intellectual and learned audience, as here, you are the best proof that Israel has to chance and quickly, if it wants to see the next 60 years. That is no threat, it simply an opinion based on the conclusion that 60 years more of your country’s racist aggressive politics is simply impossible.

By the way AIG the Russia Nordic fleet task force with the Black see fleet are coming to practice on your doorway (again). This time with an aircraft carrier.

AIG have you ever imagined how the world from your point of view will look when Russia has naval and other bases in Syria packed with nukes and competitive gadgets, when Russia joins OPEC and forms with Gulf states and Iran a gas cartel. That day might be rather close. Arabs and Muslim nations hold many cards which Israel doesn’t have in this long geopolitical poker game. Actually Israel has now very week cards (nukes are rather useless cards in this game).

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October 31st, 2008, 12:18 am


64. offended said:

What is it with Zionists that they percieve every piece of advice as a threat and get their knickers in a twist when they hear the word ‘peace’?

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October 31st, 2008, 12:21 am


65. norman said:


I do know these people as i am not as connected as you are you Little comrade ,

I went to public schools in Syria , I went to Damascus university because i had the grades , I was treated in Syria when i got sick or my father got sick , I did not go to private schools like your smart friend , did not go to the US or the EU to study and did not go abroad to get health care , all this was provided to me by this corrupt Government and country that your friends keep insulting while doing nothing for it , tell me how much taxes they paid to Syria that provided free education and health care to them and their children , nothing probably ,
Until they do they are just parasite in Syria ,and their Friends and defenders like yourself are.

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October 31st, 2008, 12:27 am


66. why-discuss said:

Trustquest, Milli Schmitt

Talking their mind freely is what Lebanese leaders did since 1975 and we have seen where it lead. Sorry to disagree with you, it is not time to express own’s mind in putting seeds that can be interpreted as seeds of sectarian provocation in such a fragile society. This may endanger the cohesion of the country, that, even if it is constrained by force, has avoided the chaos that Lebanon and Iraq have lived.
Time will come when the voice of these intellectuals calling for a civil society can be heard.
I am amazed that you don’t seem to realize the complex and dangerous game the syrian governement had to play to avoid the effects of the Lebanese sectarian violences, the Iraqi terrorism, the absorption of one million iraqi refugees in addition to the palestinians, and above all the US-Israel manipulations and provocations and to keep some kind of peace and cohesion in the country. Egypt has no Iraq or Lebanon as neighbours, it is an ally of Israel and the US, and its has simply jailed the opposition leader and not for 30 months.
Under pressures and threats, it is expected that governments become tougher and often injust. But the overall pictures shows that Syria has passed through these years of chaos and threats in neighboring countries unharmed and cohesive, and that is an achievement.

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October 31st, 2008, 4:09 am


67. Qifa Nabki said:


You originally said: So, the players currently think each one is BSing the other. Shouldn’t this be brought to an end if we want peace?

Actually, exactly! The (illusion of) BS should be brought to an end, not the initiative itself. Right now, the peace talks are being hampered by the reality of mistrust. When that changes, over time, the prospects for a successful plebiscite will change.

Peace for peace is not going to cut it. Neither is denying the Palestinians a capital in East Jerusalem, and ignoring the right of return. Your country will remain the prosperous little nation with the big ugly problem, a stain on the image of American credibility abroad.

You should be putting that good brain to use coming up with real solutions to this conflict, not la-la-land peace-for-peace fairy tales that ignore the root of the problem.

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October 31st, 2008, 7:00 am


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