The Death of the Arab Peace Initiative?

What the Arab Spring and other recent events mean for the nearly decade-old peace effort

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Tourists gather near to the golden Dome of the Rock Mosque, inside Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's old city / AP

This article is part of "Is Peace Possible?", a special report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by The Atlantic and The S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.

9-11 Ten Years Later We should all be "celebrating," in a few short months, the tenth anniversary of the Arab Peace Initiative, a collective Arab offer championed by then Saudi Crown Prince (and current king) Abdullah to help bring about a permanent resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Instead, the fate of the plan is more precarious than ever.

The idea of the plan was simple yet powerful. To jump-start the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the Arab countries would offer Israel a collective security and peace agreement, a mutually-agreeable resolution of the refugee issue, and an end to the conflict and all claims. By withdrawing from Syrian and Lebanese territories, ending its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and allowing the establishment of a Palestinian state, Israel would receive security guarantees from all Arab states and would be accepted permanently in the region. (For more on the role of the Arab Peace Initiative in ensuring Israel's security, see the Security chapter of "Is Peace Possible?" on The Atlantic.)

The Israeli government outright rejected the offer, with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon citing the Arab Peace Initiative's reference to UN Resolution 194 -- which calls for the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. (Sharon ignored the key phrase in the proposal that any solution needed to be agreed to by both sides.) The Bush administration, for its part, gave the proposal lip service but lukewarm support at best.

Arab states are often blamed for not properly marketing the offer directly to the Israeli public. This argument, while not without merit, still ignores the responsibilities of the United States and Israel. As the main sponsor of the peace process, the United States has the duty to make use of rare opportunities when they present themselves. And Israel brushed the proposal aside without presenting any ideas of its own.

Despite this chilly reception, as well as the subsequent political difficulties surrounding the peace process in the last ten years, not one Arab country has withdrawn its signature. Does that mean the Arab Peace Initiative is a permanent offer and resilient to all pressures? Hardly.

There are two factors that are placing significant stress on the initiative. The first is the historical transformation that the Arab world is experiencing. Arab publics, who have caused the overthrow of three Arab leaders so far, are increasingly disparaging of an Israeli occupation that has become, just like the status quo in the Arab world, unsustainable.

It is a huge mistake to assume that, because Arab protestors did not raise anti-Israel slogans in their protests against the low level of governance in their countries, they have stopped caring about the issue. The recent storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo is but one rejoinder to the contrary. As new Arab governments emerge in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere, they will be more responsive to public mood and will not be hesitant in voicing their rejection of an occupation that has become seemingly endless.

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Marwan Muasher is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He previously served as foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan and played a central role in developing the Arab Peace Initiative and Middle East Road Map.

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