The Middle East Channel

A second chance for the Arab Peace Initiative?

Life rarely gives you second chances. But if handled deftly, the Arab Peace Initiative (API), discussed yesterday at a Blair House meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and an assembled group of Arab foreign ministers, could help form the basis of a serious reconstituted peace process. The delegation came to Washington under the guise of the Arab Peace Initiative Follow-up Committee -- a group charged with securing acceptance of the API by Israel and others.   

The API was proposed over a decade ago by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah at a 2002 Arab League Summit in Beirut that convened amidst raging Israeli-Palestinian violence. Endorsed by the Arab League, the proposal offered Israel the prospect of peace, security, and normal relations -- a goal Israel has sought since its independence in 1948. In return, the Arabs called on Israel to agree to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital. 

The API failed for three key reasons. First: timing. The day before the Arab League published its plan, Hamas launched a major terrorist attack against at a Passover Seder in an Israeli hotel killing 30 people. With the Second Intifada in full swing, the Israeli army soon reoccupied major Palestinian population centers and the Israeli government rejected the Arab League proposal as a "non-starter."

Second, the API and its follow-up efforts suffered from the absence of any serious marketing. There were no Sadat-to-Jerusalem type initiatives to convince Israel of the initiative's sincerity. Instead, the message received in Israel was: "We Arabs will hold our noses and tolerate Israel, but on our terms, take it or leave it." The enthusiasm it engendered in an Israel reeling from nearly daily terrorist attacks was unsurprisingly limited.

Which led to the third problem: rather than seize upon the fundamental contribution that the plan had to offer -- comprehensive peace for Israel with its neighbors -- Israel rejected the plan categorically as a take or leave proposition.

Today, the Middle East is dramatically more ripe for a regional alignment between Israel and its neighbors under the Arab Peace Initiative. Israelis and Palestinians are not shedding blood daily as they were 10 years ago. Instead, they are largely arguing about how to make peace, notwithstanding flare-ups from Gaza. Second, while the Palestinian cause still matters, the post-Arab Spring Middle East is weary of the conflict and worried primarily about the dangers of a nuclear Iran and the spillover effects of Syria's civil war. It may make the region potentially more amenable to new approaches.

Yet for the API to succeed today and not fail as it did a decade ago, all parties need to be cleverer about how they manage the initiative. First, the Arab League needs to address not Washington, as it did today, but Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and the rest of the country. Israel's longstanding wish to be treated as a legitimate Middle East neighbor can only be realized in exchange for major Israeli territorial concessions. But Israelis must be made to feel accepted, not just tolerated, to make it seem worthwhile. To achieve that requires sustained public outreach, not a decade-old government spokesman's reluctant communique. 

For its part, rather than dismiss the outstretched hand of peace as insufficient, Israel should welcome the Arab effort. A "yes, but" would be wiser than a "no way." Last month, outgoing Deputy Prime Minister Dan Merridor signaled a more creative Israeli approach, telling the daily Yediot Aharonot, "I would call for negotiations on the basis of the Arab peace initiative. We will not consent to return to the 1967 lines and receive refugees, but we will be willing to negotiate."

For two years, the Obama administration has sought a way to reconstitute Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that were broken off in September 2010. At this point, the two sides disagree not only over preconditions, but also over ultimate objectives. The Obama administration should consider utilizing the API as a basis for peace talks. Behind the scenes diplomacy could encourage positive responses from concerned regional parties, Arab and Israeli, that would give them all something to talk about.

Robert Danin is the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He previously headed Quartet Envoy Tony Blair's Jerusalem Mission, and served in senior positions at the National Security Council and Department of State.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

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