Lost Moments: The Arab Peace Initiative, 10 Years Later

What Israel can learn today from a missed opportunity in 2002.

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Saudi King Abdullah at the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative / AP

Ten years ago this week, the 22 members of the Arab League endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative (API). "We believe in taking up arms in self-defence and to deter aggression," said then-Saudi Crown Prince (and current King) Abdullah, the proposal's sponsor, in a speech to the Arab League that week. "But we also believe in peace when it is based on justice and equity, and when it brings an end to conflict."

The proposal, as Abdullah outlined, offered "normal relations and security for Israel in exchange for full withdrawal from all occupied Arab territories, recognition of an independent Palestinian state." It was a bold change of Arab League policy toward Israel, which since 1967 had been defined by the "three No's" adopted in its Khartoum Resolution: no peace deals, no diplomatic recognitions, and no negotiations.

It was far from perfect; Israelis expressed legitimate concerns about its demands on borders, Jerusalem, and refugees. But the offer certainly provided an opening for unprecedented relations between Israel and its neighbors, and Israel's refusal to engage with it was a tremendous missed opportunity.

The proposal has been re-affirmed at subsequent Arab League meetings. But as former Jordanian Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Marwan Muasher, a key framer of the API, argued in the The Atlantic a few months ago, the offer will not stay on the table forever, especially in light of recent developments in the region:  

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.

While I do not believe the Egyptian-Israeli or Jordanian-Israeli peace treaties are in jeopardy, it will be impossible to forge new ones in the current context. Israel's concern that a more hostile neighborhood is emerging will become a self-fulfilling prophecy if it does not try to find a timely end to the occupation and a serious resolution to the conflict. The initiative's main allure -- an agreement with all Arab states -- is becoming increasingly unlikely under the present circumstances.

Even though the initiative's primary sponsor, Saudi Arabia, seems largely unaffected by the Arab Spring, it cannot avoid the tolls of biology:

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is the last Arab leader of the stature required to protect the Arab Peace Initiative and the principles behind it. As someone who was intimately involved in the development of the Arab Peace Initiative and who attended the Beirut Arab Summit where it was signed and launched in March 2002, I can attest that King Abdullah played a critical role in circumventing possible dissent by some Arab countries and ensuring that the initiative was passed unanimously. But he is now 87 years old and once he leaves the scene, the initiative might very well tear apart at the seams.

Even in the short months since Muasher's piece, the situation has becoming even more dire, with the Muslim Brotherhood taking over the Egyptian parliament (and now possibly the presidency) and threatening to overturn the country's treaty with Israel, and the situation in Syria escalating with no clear end in sight. Some Israelis are arguing that, in light of the Arab Spring, the regional situation is too unpredictable to make the compromises necessary for peace with the Palestinians. The tenuous lifespan of the Arab Peace Initiative provides a compelling argument to the contrary.

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Zvika Krieger is a former editor and writer at The New Republic and a former correspondent for Newsweek based in Egypt and Lebanon, covering most of the Arab world. More

Krieger has received fellowships to study topics including the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, the Kifaya reform movement in Egypt, public health in Bombay slums, religious identity in Kashmir, historical memory in Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, and the role of religion in Lebanese politics. He has also reported from such places as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Libya, North Ireland, Sri Lanka, Japan, and Korea. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Guardian, Slate, New York, Arab Reform Bulletin, New Stateman, Chronicle of Higher Education, Daily Star (Lebanon), Cairo Magazine, Jerusalem Post, Christian Science Monitor, and various other publications, and he has appeared as a Middle East analyst on NBC News, CNN, Fox News, and Air America. His writings have earned him awards from the Overseas Press Club, the Scripps Howard Foundation, and the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. He is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. He has a bachelor's degree in Middle East Studies from Yale University and studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo.

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