Recent news of an endorsement by the Arab League of the idea of an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution based on “comparable” and “minor” landswaps represents a rare window of hope vis-a-vis the Arab-Israeli peace process. The declaration is paramount inasmuch as the Arab countries have officially taken their stance—delineated in the Arab Peace Initiative (which they also just re-endorsed)—and turned it from a propaganda piece into a serious plan.
A brief background. When the Saudis presented their 2002 Peace Plan, it served as a way to sell to America and the West the idea that they wanted peace. Saudi Arabia was at the time receiving a lot of flak for its ties to 9/11 (i.e. it’s citizens instigated the attacks, streets in the country were named after them), and sought to ensure it would not be considered on the “wrong” side of President Bush’s War on Terror.
The details of the Saudi Plan—a plan quickly endorsed by the Arab League nations and rebranded as the Arab Peace Initiative (API)—impart, among other issues, that 1) an Israeli-Palestinian peace needs to be along the pre-1967 lines; and 2) Israel needs to accept the document verbatim. With this second point in place, the Arab delegations could talk all they wanted about how they supported negotiations and gave Israel latitude by mentioning the vague need to “find a just solution to the refugee problem,” but in reality Israel could never accept such a plan that literally would necessitate conceding the Old City and several large settlement blocs.
Consequently, for years Israel and its supporters (this writer included) have dismissed the initiative as a ploy to curry favor in the West while keeping a safe distance from actually having to commit to supporting tough negotiations. Others sometimes pointed out that the Arab leaders were probably ready to give some slack on the border issue in the event that Israel did seriously engage with them (former Defense Minister Barak thought about it once; former Prime Minister Olmert claims he welcomed it). However, what was written on paper was written on paper, and by not making any amendments when the API was re-endorsed in 2007 the Arab nations effectively cemented their stance.
Now, with the aid of Secretary of State Kerry’s diplomatic prowess it looks like, the Arab countries have affirmed that they are willing to do just that—endorse a peace process based on the API but with minor landswaps.
This breakthrough puts the ball back into both the Israelis’ AND the Palestinians’ court. Israel now has to take the Arab countries seriously due to their endorsement of essentially a mirror image of America’s framework for negotiations.
As for the Palestinians, many people underemphasize the influence of the non-Palestinian Arab voices in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but the reality is the legitimacy of Palestinian negotiators is based heavily upon the opinions of the Arab World. Indeed, the mainstream Arab and Palestinian narrative of the 2000 Camp David II summit, whether right or wrong, is that Arafat got cold feet largely because he felt he did not have the backing of the Arab World.
With the Arab countries’ endorsement of a workable strategy for peace, the Palestinian leadership will no longer be able to “pull an Arafat” on this issue if there ever were a reinvigoration of the peace process and a similar summit for a final settlement.