The Arab Initiative: An Opportunity for changing the regional reality?

This month will mark 13 years in the life of the Arab initiative, which was presented during the Arab League summit in Beirut in 2002, ratified five years later (in 2007), and in 2014, with more amendments or corrections by a senior Kuwaiti official that visited United States. But these amendments (regard to accepting the principle of territorial exchanges) were not officially part of the wording of the Arab initiative.

When the last campaign ended, the issue of occupation had already been brought by the Arab initiative. It was mentioned, in particular, by critics of Prime Minister Netanyahu, as a real possibility to change the reality of Israel’s strategic space.

It now seems that the preoccupation with the Arab initiative, shared by the region and the international system, has the chance to turn the Arab initiative to a significant strategic shift. Therefore, the question is, under what conditions can the Arab initiative reach the level of change in the strategic situation.

The Arab League’s proposal required Israel to a fully withdraw to the borders of June 4, 1967, and from all territories occupied. This included the Golan Heights,  and the remaining occupied Lebanese territory in southern Lebanon, to find a fair solution for the Palestinian refugee problem, based on UN Resolution 194, along with a complete rejection of any possibility of naturalization of Palestinian refugees in the countries that host them and agreeing to the establishment of an independent Palestinian sovereign state in territories that occupied as of June 4, 1967, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
In return, the countries prepared to declare an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, sign a peace treaty with Israel and maintain normal relations (worded as: Alakat Aada – in Arabic: as it was insisted not to use the term for normal) with Israel.

Israel and the pragmatic Arab countries (led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia) have a shared interest in containing Iran and the emerging Shiite axis and in weakening the regional forces associated with radical Islam. However, the Arab initiative is still presumed to dictate to Israel, and the Arab countries are not willing to see it as a basis for negotiations with Israel and to discuss about making changes in the initiative. Second, it is unclear to what extent many players in the Arab world, in their current state, able to stand behind their words and the initiative.

Some argue that the weakness of the Arab world is a strategic opportunity for Israel to improve its regional position and to promote cooperation with several Arab countries that share similar concerns and interests. However, at the same time, the weakness of the individual Arab countries is also a weak point and is, rightly, a reasonable argument for Israel avoiding from long-term arrangements, as its partners may find it hard to uphold their side of the arrangement. Alternatively, there is some concern regarding the lack of expectation and the marginalization of Israel to inferior strategic position when the failure happens.

It may be right for Israel to set her sight on the Arab initiative as a basis for negotiations in order to formulate agreed principles as a basis for a regional agreement. An agreement based on regional security regime, when the Palestinian issue is an element or part of the wide range of regional and not an issue itself. In this sense, Israel must strive to make the Arab initiative agreed upon, after negotiations between the parties and undertake adjustments (such as the Golan Heights in the context of disintegrating Syria), to a new system logic, which would then have to charge the Arab world have significant responsibility for the Palestinian issue.

The Arab initiative may prove to have strategic significance if it can move the pragmatic Arab states led by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, to make the Palestinian issue an element of their “control” in the new regional emerging system. “Controlled” in the sense of the responsibility that those countries will take to prevent Palestinian deviation or defection from the nascent arrangement. If the Palestinian issue will remain a subject of Israel and its sole responsibility, initiative may remain as an empty vessel.

At this point, it is unclear how much the regional developments influence on true flexibility of the Arab world and its willingness about the Arab initiative. Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s disappointment from US policy toward Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as to Syria, with regard to the American hesitation about the Assad regime, might become a kind of catalyst, with regard to the correctness of the countries who leads the Pragmatic Arab axis, to answer the Israeli call to discuss the Arab initiative, and to consider the Israeli reservations and to reach an Agreed Version. Such Version may become the more stable organizing logic of the regional system, which also contains a negotiated agreement to the Palestinian issue.

The willingness of the Arab states to discuss the initiative and its adaptation, will facilitate Israel also to take more concrete steps in front of the Palestinian arena, and to direct international support towards a regional settlement and multilateral approach on the effort to revive the bilateral channel – Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This column was inspired by an upcoming publication for the Institute for National Security Studies written by the author and his colleague Joel Guzansky.

About the Author
Dr. Kobi Michael is a Senior Researcher in the Department of Israel and Middle Eastern Studies at Ariel University. A recipient of the Tshetshik Prize (2005) for the best research on Israel National Security, 2006 Itzhak Sade Prize for military literature for a book he contributed three chapters and the Yariv Award (2002) for the best research on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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