by Ron Pundak
The Arab Peace Initiative (API) of March 2002 was intended to revolutionize the Middle East. The new regional agenda offered by the 22 countries of the Arab League represented a historical paradigmatic shift in the relations between Israel and the Arab world. More than a century of conflict between the Arab world and the Zionist movement were to come to an end. If we were to summarize the provisions laid out in the League’s decision in Beirut, the fundamental principles are quite simple: All Arab countries would normalize their relations with Israel in return for full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem). An independent Palestinian state would be established, and a just and agreed solution would be found for the Palestinian refugee problem, in accordance with Resolution 194 of the United Nations General Assembly. All Arab countries would consider the Arab-Israeli conflict to be over and done, enter into peace agreements with Israel and provide security to all countries of the region. All League members accepted the proposal, and it was also endorsed by all 57 states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (all Muslim countries) at their meeting in Tehran.
Since 2002 the political process has witnessed its fair share of ups and downs, and until the arrival of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the API received almost no attention in the official Israeli discourse, except for instances of criticism. Olmert, who conducted very serious negotiations on final status issues with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), began to express a positive attitude toward the initiative. However, since Binyamin Netanyahu’s rise to power in early 2009, the API has once again been demoted from the political arena. The current Israeli government, which is not interested in any negotiations leading to a real, final and comprehensive agreement, has rejected outright the provisions of the initiative, and by this exacerbated Israel’s relations with the Arab world heading into the new period which erupted at the beginning of 2011.
The 2011 earthquake in the Middle East
2011 has brought with it an earthquake of unprecedented magnitude to the Middle East, and its aftershocks may very well affect the Israeli- Arab front. The first dramatic weeks in Tunisia and Egypt left the world astonished and amazed. The common denominator was clear: The public had had enough with the suppression of its dignity, in every meaning of the word. The immediate targets were the leaders and their families, but this was only half the story. The public outrage was in fact directed at the system itself, and its version of the “modern Arab state”: the lack of transparency; the arbitrariness; the lack of social justice; the exaggerated power of the police, security, and intelligence establishments; the huge gap between rich and poor; the lack of democratic institutions; the increasing unemployment; and the overall feeling that the middle class has no future.
Those who led the uprising and first flooded the streets were the oppressed youth, who represent the first generation formed by the global communications revolution, online social networks, satellite television and free access to information, and who had become attuned to the world, attuned to itself, exposed to the existing political and social alternatives and modern human rights discourse, and demanded that the old regime give them their dignity. Marginalized by their regimes, many of them were without work, without homes and without hope. These were not “bread riots,” nor a revolution of the poor. The Arab street — the same one that had been fabricated and controlled by the old regimes as demonstrations of their popular support, of the struggle against Zionism, of the resistance to imperialism, of the fight against the infidels of Islam — suddenly had its own awareness and social consciousness.
The Islamist Issue Deserves Special Attention
However, eventually the Islamists — who at the outset were hardly present on the ground — jumped on the bandwagon of the demonstrations and exploited the situation. The Islamist issue deserves special attention not only because of the popular fear it arouses in the West, and especially among the Israeli leadership and public, but also because of the fear among many forces in the Arab world itself, including those who were behind the uprising from the start. From their point of view, while there are moderate Muslims, there are no moderate Islamists. After a year, it is clear that those parties affiliated with Islam have come out as victorious. The possibility that Salafist forces (radical Sunni movements that work to renew the ancient form of Islam through violence and Jihad), may lead or influence decision-making processes, when democratic tools at their disposal are limited, and the agenda that runs through them is religious extremism, is very worrying. There is also the very real issue of where to place the Muslim Brotherhood — who currently seem to be the real winners, though they may be perceived as relative moderates — both in the short-term and long-term contexts of this change. In this context, the question arises whether it will be possible to harmonize between the state and religion, between Shari’a and democracy. Can the Arab world produce a model that holds together these two ostensibly contradictory concepts at the same time, and how will this influence its relations with Israel?
Challenges Facing the Arab Spring
The critical question is: What are the chances of the Arab Spring achieving a positive change? The way to liberation, democracy, and change of priorities remains a long way off. Toppling an incumbent president and bringing him to court, or even executing one, is easy in comparison to the real task of bringing about fundamental structural change in government procedures.
The realization of change will occur — if at all — very slowly. Moreover, instant and short-sighted reforms will bring with them serious economic implications for the countries which already face very real and fundamental problems, such as being unable to maintain a reasonable and balanced budget. Who will pay for the reforms? Are there any financial reserves available? What will happen to their foreign currency reserves or their growing national debts? Nothing can move swiftly in the existing systems, which are weighed down by red tape, bureaucracy, nepotism and management problems. These challenges are extremely hard to face, and even an ideal government could not deal with them with the speed which the public demands.
Egypt provides a clear illustration of the depth of the problems faced by most Arab countries these days: a country of some 82 million people, which has more than doubled its population in 35 years, and in which, according to the Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) conducted by the UN Development Program in 2009 (using 2005 data), 33% of the population are under the age of 15, 30% of those aged 15 and over are illiterate, a GDP per capita of U.S. $1,207 (equivalent to U.S. $4,337 PPP — while the average for that year in OECD countries was $29,197), a poverty rate of around 41%, poor infrastructure, excessive bureaucratic centralization, an inefficient and outdated economic system, and where resource management is, at best, lacking. In other words: Egypt is, objectively speaking, facing extremely deep problems. Therefore, even the most enlightened, transparent and incorruptible alternative who will fill the shoes of the outgoing regime will find it difficult to provide quick solutions.
In order to survive, the economic and social problems must be the primary issues to preoccupy the next generation of leadership in the Arab world, and not their struggle with Israel. The profound contradiction between the Arab street demanding instant change and the trends and forecasts shown in the AHDR on Arab society is enormous. According to the report, if in 1980 the Arab countries’ populations totaled about 150 million people, then in 2015 there will be nearly 400 million people. About 60% of this population is under 25 years old; poverty rates are high, and about 20% of the Arab population lives below the $2-a-day international poverty line. According to the 2009 edition of the AHDR (“Challenges to Human Security in the Arab Countries”), about 30% of the young population is unemployed. Considering that more than 50% of the population in Arab countries is under the age of 25, 51 million new jobs are needed by 2020 in order to avoid an increase in the unemployment rate.
Interaction between the Arab Spring and the Arab Peace Initiative
The best way forward is to establish maximum political and security stability in order to allow for the necessary social and economic reforms, the growth of a strong and healthy civil society, a strong and innovative private sector and a fair and transparent governmental system. Here enters the interaction between the Arab Spring and the API. The underlying assumption is that keeping the initiative alive is an interest for all parties involved — the Arab League, Israel, the Middle East region and the international community. One fact is remarkable in this context: Hundreds of thousands took to the streets across the Arab world, with almost no mention of Israel, the historic conflict and the fact that Israel is still occupying a significant part of the territories it conquered in 1967. The message was clear this time: the issue is not “them,” but “us” — we no longer seek respect on the battlefield, but rather personal dignity and social justice.
However, we must not ignore the fact that resentment against Israel in the Arab street is increasing. Yet, despite vociferous opposition calls to cancel the agreements with Israel, or even to deny the legitimacy of Israel’s right to exist, the majority appear to accept Israel as a fait accompli, and would like to see peace and an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but on one condition: an end to the occupation and the immediate creation of an independent Palestinian state next to Israel. The Arab public is thus suspicious of Israel and has become skeptical of Israel’s calls for peace, but ready to cement and foster the peace process.
The Average Israeli Has Had Enough of the Occupation
The Israel of today, however, seems unconcerned with the occupation and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. This claim is particularly accurate in the context of the Netanyahu government, though much less so with regard to the public’s wishes. Despite the fact that the center-right public has no desire to deal with the issue, the reality is that all opinion polls have shown repeatedly that the average Israeli has had enough with the occupation, opposes settlement activities, approves of the Palestinians’ right to selfdetermination as part of an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and will vote for a peace settlement based on the parameters known to all.
In this context it is worth mentioning the sense of threat that struck the Israeli public and political leadership as a result of the changes in the Arab world. The message from Jerusalem focused on describing the worst-case scenario, and how this may lead to a cancellation of the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement and even a military threat. That concept is contrary to the position of the Egyptian military, which very much understands the costs of war and of canceling the peace agreement, and therefore do not consider this option seriously. Moreover, Egypt is completely dependent on the United States financially, economically and militarily. Any future Egyptian leadership — military or civilian — will clearly understand that the Americans will not accept an Egyptian regime that goes against the peace process. Furthermore, confrontation with Israel will hit Egypt’s main income sources — gas, trade, tourism and revenues from the Suez Canal. If political realism is to prevails, the conclusion for any future Egyptian regime should be to seek a continuation of the peace treaty with Israel.
Israel should likewise consider the tools of political realism, and thereby perceive the new Arab environment not as a threat but as a fact. Therefore, Israel should adopt a positive and open approach, which would in fact preempt the extremists who would expect, and count on, it to adopt an uncompromising stance. Adopting this approach will also help to keep the API alive, even in the case of the rise of a regime which is clearly not a stalwart ally of Israel or of peace.
The API Can Become a Significant Tool
The API is clearly not a direct answer to the demands of the demonstrators, but it can definitely become a significant tool for the structural changes required. This is also consistent with the Arab world’s need to continue the integration of their local markets into the regional and global economy. After all, in order to be truly engaged within one’s home, one should ensure that one’s backyard is secure as well. Peace would increase investment, encourage cross-border cooperation, reinvigorate regional economic processes that broke down in the 199 0s, allow Europeans to renew the Barcelona Process and broaden the European Neighborhood Policy, and offer a true opportunity to realize the Union for the Mediterranean — and all of the associated financial benefits for Middle Eastern states and their societies. Progress in the form of a comprehensive peace agreement between the Arab world and Israel — an agreement that would transform the political order at the heart of the Middle East — would transmit hope and inject new energy to an area that badly needs a boost to promote these complex, existential processes.
Thus, despite the dramatic changes sweeping across the region, it is still in the general interest of both the Arab world and Israel to preserve the Arab Peace Initiative and to continue to advance the only plan that can bring about true stability and prosperity. Regional peace will release existing resources and generate new ones for economic development, heightened intraregional trade — which is sorely underdeveloped — and interconnectedness between the Middle Eastern market and Europe and beyond. The strength of the initiative – despite the fact that it represents the “old world” — is in part that it produces a vision for the Middle East and gives the forces of peace in Israel hope to continue fighting for change in the public and political agendas. One should stress that we are not dealing with the dreams of a “new Middle East,” and if and when the change comes, we must be attuned to the emerging reality in the Middle East, and not alienate those who fear change, including those who are afraid of an Israeli “takeover” of the Arab economies. The Arab societies are both strong and proud enough to cooperate with Israel and the world, without fear of recolonization, and enjoy the prosperity that the Arab initiative — if realized — can bring to the area.
A Better Future for All Players
The real goal is to create a better future for all players threatened and/or affected by the Israeli-Arab conflict. That future should be based on stability, cross-border cooperation, win-win equations, good neighborliness and reconciliation. The current situation forces parties to be obsessed about the past, to busy themselves with immediate solutions for the present, and blinds them from the future. The Arab Peace Initiative is the future; it is a discourse that can be adapted by the younger generation, and its implementation can make the paradigmatic change in the Middle East.
This article is based on research done for the Aix Group — an Israeli-Palestinianinternational think tank dealing with economic-political issues related to Final Status.