by Elie Podeh
The Joint Understanding issued at the Annapolis summit on November 27, 2007 failed to mention the Arab Peace Initiative as a possible basis for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. However, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did refer to the plan in his speech, stating: “I value this initiative. I acknowledge its importance, and I highly appreciate its contribution. I have no doubt that we will continue to refer to it in the course of the negotiations between us and the Palestinian leadership.”2 Though vague and unsatisfactory in many ways, this statement was the most positive Israeli response to the plan since its inception in 2002.
On February 17, 2002, Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times
that he had suggested to the Saudi crown prince the idea of full Israeli withdrawal according to United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 for full peace with the entire Arab world. Abdallah claimed that he had intended to call, at the Arab League’s upcoming Beirut Summit, for full withdrawal from all the occupied territories including (East) Jerusalem for full normalization of relations (tatbi‘)
, but had decided not to because of then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s oppressive policy.3 This plan would become the Saudi or Abdallah Initiative, later called the Arab Peace Initiative.
Four reasons may explain the Saudi move at this particular juncture.4 First, it meant to strengthen the Saudi image as a loyal American ally. The involvement of 15 Saudis in the 9/11 terrorist operation had turned Saudi Arabia’s image in the United States into that of a terrorist-supporting state. Moreover, the Initiative could bring the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian issue back to the forefront of international politics and show that the Saudis in particular and the Arabs in general are not belligerent but peace-loving people. If the Americans and Israelis rejected the Initiative, at least the responsibility would rest on their shoulders.
Second, the continuation and the escalation of the al-Aqsa intifada caused greater instability in the entire Middle East, threatening to erode the legitimacy and credibility of moderate pro-Western Arab regimes such as the Saudi dynasty. A successful Saudi peace initiative could stabilize the region.
Third, in the absence of any serious Arab role in the peace process, the Saudis attempted to fill what they perceived as a leadership vacuum in the Arab world.
Finally, perhaps Abdallah thought that such an initiative would strengthen the moderate faction within the Saudi elite against the radical fundamentalists that challenge the legitimacy of the al-Saud dynasty.5 At home Abdallah described the plan as a “trial balloon” — a face-saving formula that would enable him to immediately withdraw it in case reactions were too harsh and critical.6
Shortly afterwards, two additional factors became evident: First, it was not directed at the Israeli government. Based on their hard-line and aggressive image of Sharon, the Saudis assessed that he would immediately reject it; the Initiative was aimed at the peace camp in Israel, with the hope that it would either exert political pressure on the government to accept it or would trigger a change in government. Second, the Saudis hoped that the UN Security Council would endorse the Initiative. Such a step would enable the replacement of UN Resolution 242, which was perceived as inappropriate and too pro-Israel, since it did not relate to the Palestinian rights and did not specify the withdrawal of Israel from all
Adhering to traditional Arab world policy, the Saudis first sought the approval of the Arab states.8 The Beirut Summit in late March 2002 endorsed the Initiative with three expected modifications: First, it called for full Israeli withdrawal “from all the territories occupied since 1967, including the Syrian Golan Heights, to the June 4, 1967 lines, and the remaining occupied Lebanese territory.” Second, it called for a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem “to be agreed upon in accordance with UN Resolution 194.” Finally, instead of normalization, it called for the establishment of “normal relations with Israel.”9 The text clearly addressed Syria’s demands, while the Palestinian and Lebanese demands for introducing the right of return was only partially dealt with by a phrasing that would hopefully be palatable to Israel and the U.S. Thus, the Arab states successfully completed their diplomatic maneuver: The Saudi initiative turned into an Arab initiative. The ball was now in the Israeli and American courts.
The Israeli response was muted. Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, exclaimed that this “dramatic change” in the Saudi position “seems to have been greeted with a yawn by the Israeli government.”10 Sharon’s inaction seemed to substantiate his negative image in the Arab world. Moreover, his decision to ground the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah following a series of terrorist attacks was perceived as a deliberate Israeli move to frustrate the Initiative.11 Only in early March did the Israeli government formally respond, voicing opposition on the grounds that it threatens Israel’s very security by calling for its full withdrawal from all the territories, thus attempting to replace UN Resolutions 242 and 338 that call for Israeli withdrawal from territories.12
One unofficial Israeli response was that “there was nothing new in the resolutions” at the summit and that Israel cannot accept a resolution calling for the return of the Palestinians and withdrawal to the 1967 borders. A more positive response came from the Labor Party and the leftist peace coalition.13 In reality, however, it seems that the Israeli government could not seriously respond; on March 27, during the Passover seder, a suicide bomber from the Hamas organization killed 29 and wounded more than 100 Israelis in a hotel in Netanya. On March 31, after another terrorist action that killed 15 people in Haifa, the Sharon government felt domestically compelled to retaliate, announcing the launch of a massive military operation aimed at uprooting terrorism and isolating Arafat.14 From an Arab perspective, the military operation reflected Sharon’s “true” response to the Arab peace offer.
The U.S. response was more forthcoming. President George W. Bush’s first 14 months in office were characterized by a “hands-off approach” with regard to the Middle East,15 as a result of his preoccupation with international terrorism and Afghanistan. Moreover, Middle Eastern problems, including the peace process, were seen through the prism of their possible implications for the Iraqi question. It seems that Bush did not fully grasp the Initiative’s potential. On February 21, the State Department defined it as a “significant and positive step.”16 The growing diplomatic activity around the Initiative led Bush to publicly support it on February 26, with the qualification that only after the cessation of hostilities and terrorist attacks could it be implemented.17 In an April 4 speech, Bush acknowledged the importance of the plan.18
Bush then invited Abdallah to his Crawford ranch in Texas — an honor reserved for special guests — on April 25.19 Abdallah presented a modified peace plan20 that attempted to offer a synthesis between the “vision” of the original Saudi Initiative and the necessity to deal with the “reality” — that is, the violence and terrorist operations. Significantly, the proposal was “friendlier” to the U.S. and Israel: It did not mention the refugee problem and did not specify Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders.21 In submitting a plan that had not
been approved by the Arab summit, Abdallah showed a measure of statesmanship. Though largely motivated by the Saudi need to improve its image in the U.S.,22 it was an ingenious plan which could have led to the renewal of the peace process. Strangely, Israel immediately rejected the proposal, stating that there was “nothing new in the new initiative.”23
The U.S., therefore, searched for a new formula for negotiations. In late April 2003, it launched the Road Map, which stated that one of the bases of a future settlement was the Arab Peace Initiative.24 Though Israel eventually accepted the Road Map, it objected to the inclusion of any reference to the Saudi plan. Thus, the Abdallah Initiative, which had become an Arab initiative expressing willingness to recognize Israel and sign a comprehensive peace with it, slowly but steadily faded from public discourse. Instead, the Road Map and Israel’s plan of unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip became the two avenues through which a settlement was sought. Also, the fact that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority were engaged in domestic problems kept the Initiative “on ice.”
Following the Second Lebanon War, a renewed dialogue began between the Arab states, Israel and the U.S. The reasons stemmed from several political-strategic changes that had occurred since 2003: First, the U.S. occupation of Iraq changed the balance of power in the Gulf in favor of Iran. This was strengthened by its quest for nuclear arsenal. Second, the rise of the Shia in the Arab world, particularly in Iraq and Lebanon (Hizbullah), led to another shift in the balance of power: between Sunnis and Shia. Third, the Second Lebanon War was perceived in the Arab world as an Israeli defeat. And finally, the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections resulted in a deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian track. These interrelated processes gave the radical forces an opportunity to set the regional agenda, which threatened the West, Israel and the so-called moderate Arab countries. Under such circumstances, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan attempted — with U.S. support — to set a new political agenda, with the resolution of the Israeli-Arab dispute at the top. In light of the failure of the Road Map and the Israeli unilateral disengagement, the Arab Peace Initiative seemed a possible avenue. The March 2007 decision of the Arab summit in Riyadh to reaffirm it can be interpreted in this context.
The Arab-Israeli-American dialogue included a visit by the Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers — as representatives of the Arab League — in Israel in late July 2007.25 Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni accepted certain parts of the Initiative in their public declarations and generally gave the impression of a more positive Israeli attitude toward it.26 Still, Israel remained opposed to the plan’s call for full withdrawal to the 1967 boundaries and the phrasing of the clause regarding the Palestinian refugee problem.27 In any case, the U.S. call for an international conference focusing on the Palestinian track in November 2007 once more relegated the Initiative to the sidelines.
The significance of the Initiative is rooted in a few advantages: First, it was approved by the Arab League, which represents a consensus of 22 Arab states, and as such, the plan enjoys the legitimacy of the higher Arab institution. Second, the plan was initiated and led by Saudi Arabia, which enjoys a special status in the Arab and Islamic worlds as the custodian of the Islamic holy places. The fact that the kingdom has no relations with Israel is an advantage, as it cannot be blamed — like Egypt and Jordan — of being a Western stooge. Finally, the plan deals with all the remaining parts of the conflict (Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians) and can serve as a basis for a comprehensive peace. In addition, given the impasse in the Palestinian track as a result of the Fateh-Hamas split, the plan can offer a multilateral track, bypassing the deadlocked bilateral track. In such a case, an Arab solution may be imposed on the recalcitrant Palestinians.
Several reasons may be suggested for why the Initiative failed to take off as a basis for Israeli-Arab dialogue: First, Israel remains inflexible, still focusing on the plan’s perceived negative aspects rather than on its positive elements. Second, Saudi Arabia has not been fully committed to advancing the plan because of domestic and regional considerations. And finally, the U.S. has never fully promoted the plan, either because it prefers the Road Map or because it wishes to keep open channels to all the parties. Thus, the Annapolis meeting has not been used as a lever to promote the plan and engage the parties in what I termed “multi-bilateral talks.”28
In spite of our limited historical perspective, it seems that the Arab Peace Initiative constitutes a missed opportunity. Israel should have responded to the Initiative more vigorously. Bearing in mind the memory of the 1967 Khartoum Summit resolutions, which negated the very existence of Israel, the Beirut resolutions should be seen as a consummation of a long and painful process in the Arab world of recognizing the Israeli state. More than five years after the publication of the plan, it seems that Israel missed an opportunity to achieve some progress — if not to reach an agreement — in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is about time that Israel formally declared its willingness to accept the plan as a basis for Arab-Israeli negotiations and began a serious dialogue concerning its application.
1 This article is an abridged and updated version of From Fahd to Abdallah: The Origins of the Saudi Peace Initiatives and Their Impact on the Arab System and Israel, Gitelson Peace Publications, No. 24 (Jerusalem: the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, 2003). See also my article “In Favor of the Multi-Bilateral Approach,” in Kobi Michael (ed.), The Arab Peace Initiative – A Historic Opportunity (Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, 2007), pp. 75-80 [in Hebrew].
2 Haaretz, 28 November 2007 [English Edition].
3 New York Times, “An Intriguing Signal from the Saudi Crown Prince,” 17 February 2002.
4 This analysis is based on: interviews with Ghazi al-Qusaibi, the Saudi ambassador in London, al-Sharq al-Awsat, 19 February, 14 June; interview with Crown Prince Abdallah, Time Magazine, 25 February; Interview with Adil Jabir, Abdallah’s foreign affairs advisor, CNN, 26 February; Samir Attallah, al-Sharq al-Awsat, 21 February; Zain al-Abdin al-Rikabi, ibid., 22 February 2002.
5 See Joshua Teitelbaum, Holier Than Thou: Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Opposition (Washington: the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2000).
6 Abdallah’s interview with Saudi TV, as quoted in al-Watan, 30 March 2002.
7 Adil al-Jabir’s interviews with CNN, 26 February; AP, 27 February; Ghazi al-Qusaibi’s interview with MBC TV, 1 March; Saud al-Faysal’s interview with al-Hayat, 29 March 2002.
8 See editorial in al-Madina, 25 February 2002.
9 See Palestine-Israel Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1 (2002), p. 181.
10 New York Times, 21 February 2002.
11 Editorials, al-Sharq al-Awsat, 27 February; 1 March.
12 Haaretz, 4 March 2002.
13 Haaretz, 29 March, 2 April 2002.
14 For the text of the government resolution, see Haaretz, 31 March 2002.
14 For the text of the government resolution, see Haaretz, 31 March 2002.
15 New York Times, Editorial, 5 April 2002.
16 Haaretz, 24 February 2002.
17 Haaretz, 27 February 2002.
18 For the text of Bush’s speech, see New York Times, 5 April 2002.
19 “The Prince and the President,” New York Times, 25 April 2002. Only Russian President Putin and British Prime Minister Blair were invited to the Texan ranch.
20 Since there is no formal text of the proposal, the description is based on several sources: New York Times, 27 April; Haaretz, 28 April; al-Watan, 28 April 2002.
21 For an emphasis of the differences in favor of Israel, see al-Quds al-Arabi, 29 April 2002.
22 On the Saudi advertisement campaign, see Todd Purdum, New York Times, 28 April 2002.
23 The Saudi new proposal was presented to Sharon by the US ambassador, Dan Kurtzer, on 28 April, see Yedioth Ahronoth, 3 May; Haaretz, 29 April 2002.
24 For the text of the plan, see Haaretz, 1 May 2003.
25 Haaretz, 26 July 2007.
26 See, e.g., Olmert in Maariv, 24 May 2007; 6 June 2007; and Livni’s first article in Arabic, “the Peace Option,” al-Sharq al-Awsat, 18 June 2007. It seems, however, that Olmert sees the plan in a more positive way than Livni.
27 With regard to the refugee problem, the Israelis usually interpreted the clause in the plan as a call to implement the Palestinian “claim of return,” while the text explicitly said that any resolution would be “agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.”
28 Elie Podeh, “Four Tracks, Simultaneously,” Haaretz, 14 June 2007