The Arab Peace Initiative is the Greatest Missed Opportunity in Israel’s History

Op-eds / Israel and the Middle East

The anniversary of the most important peace initiative ever put forth in Israel is marked by no celebration.

Not even a small family gathering. For 15 years it has been set on the table, clear, inviting, with boundless potential. But at this point, it is a contender for the biggest missed opportunity for peace since the State of Israel was established. Except for a short time during the Ehud Olmert-Tzipi Livni era, Israeli leadership has not dealt with it seriously. Most Israelis do not even know about it.

The Regional Peace Initiative, or the Arab Peace Initiative, was adopted by the Arab League in 2002. It is an initiative for ending the Israeli- Arab conflict and establishing normal relations between Israel and the Arab world.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) adopted the initiative, which means dozens of Muslim countries, including powerhouses like Pakistan and Indonesia. Only a single country – Iran – is opposed to the initiative, and this points to the depth of shared interests between Israel and many Arab and Muslim states.

The condition for normal relations with all these countries is the establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders. It should be noted that the original phrasing of the initiative also relates to the refugee issue and to Israeli withdrawal from all disputed territories, including the Golan Heights.

These issues raise opposition among most Israeli political actors. However, the Arab League already announced some eight years ago that the initiative does not include the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Regarding the Golan Heights, it has been off the agenda for several years due to the civil war in Syria.

So, there is really only one issue left on the table: the Palestinians.

It is hard to find even one Knesset member who speaks up against the notion of “regional peace.” Even the most hardline Likud or Bayit Yehudi MKs invoke the immense security and economic advantages that Israel would gain from having the whole Middle East and Muslim world open up to it. But they regard the regional initiative as a means to bypass the Palestinian issue. Instead of negotiating with the Palestinians over territories and settlements, they aspire for “economic peace” with the Arab states. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is playing a leading role in promoting this approach. There is just one small problem: no Arab actor has ever agreed to it.

Netanyahu’s approach to the regional issue is a false one: he plays the regional card as an attempt to dissolve any prospect for progress with the Palestinians, and to ensure his own political survival.

To this end he tempted and deluded Labor MK Isaac Herzog, who was willing to join his government to advance a big regional move. Netanyahu has succeeded in putting the peace process into deep freeze. Unfortunately, the regional initiative, and all its potential benefits for Israel, froze along with it.

Nevertheless, even today this initiative is the most relevant of all those discussed.

It is not dead. On the contrary.

Due to the major developments in the Middle East, the prospects for its realization have even become better.

The “price” that Israel has to pay has not changed: A Palestinian state in the territories beyond the Green Line.

This is the core aspect of the conflict, and there is nothing that Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett can do to change that.

However, unlike in the past, there is now an Arab willingness to move forward with implementing the regional initiative in parallel to Israeli- Palestinian negotiations, and not only after their successful completion. This is a major change which was revealed in March 2017 at a conference held by Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. All that is currently needed to significantly improve Israel’s ties with its Arab neighbors is the renewal of a genuine peace process with the Palestinians.

At the height of Netanyahu’s fourth term in office, it is clear that as far as he is concerned, there will never be any progress with the Palestinians.

But perhaps it is not only up to him. US President Donald Trump’s sudden motivation to promote peace, his desire to broker a deal between Israelis and Palestinians, and the heavy boot Russian President Vladimir Putin has put on the ground in Syria – in the heart of the Middle East – may drag Netanyahu to the regional negotiating table in spite of himself.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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