For the first time since it was first proposed in March 2002 in Beirut, the Arab Peace Initiative is taking center stage again. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas insisted during his speech before the recently-concluded Arab League Summit in Jordan, that the Initiative is the only solution on the table; asserting that it will not be changed or even tweaked.
At the time, Head of the PA and Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the late Yasser Arafat, was not allowed to attend that conference in Beirut. Israeli Prime Minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, had Arafat placed under house arrest in Ramallah. He told Arafat that if Israel was to allow him to leave he would not be allowed back. I was in Israel at the time and literally came face to face with Ariel Sharon’s Merkava tanks as they prepared to invade Ramallah and other villages across the West Bank. That visit, my first of six trips to Israel/Palestine, was the basis for my book Israeli and Palestinian Voices: A Dialogue with both Sides.
The Arab proposal was largely a reiteration of United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338. It promised complete normalization between Arab States and Israel should Israel withdraw from Palestinian and Arab land it occupied in 1967. Its major flaw was its lackluster attitude towards the Right of Return of Palestinian refugees.
It was cautiously welcomed but then quickly overlooked by Washington at the time since Sharon had dismissed it as a ‘non-starter’. Subsequent Israeli leaders have hardly shown any interested either in bold initiatives to resolve the conflict, either by the Arab or the Americans.
Why, then, is this Initiative, originally put forward by Saudi Arabia fifteen years ago, now infused back into the already congested Middle East’s political discourse, despite the fact that Israel has rejected it repeatedly, and the US has shown little interest in enforcing it?
Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu is interested in the idea of unconditional normalization with the Arab world.
He told the daily Hebrew newspaper ‘Yediot Ahronot’ recently that he sees “a real chance that, within five years, Israel will be able to reach an inclusive peace deal with its enemies.” Circumventing the Palestinians and signing peace deals with Arab countries to break Israel’s regional isolation has been paramount in Israeli foreign policy since its inception in 1948. Since then, it has signed a peace deal with Egypt and Jordan and has informal contacts and ties with various other governments.
This explains Mahmoud Abbas’ recent reference to the Arab Peace Initiative. It is his way of saying that any normalization between the Arabs and Israel should take place through the Palestinian channel, and specifically though his leadership in Ramallah.
Israel, however, likes the idea of renewed interest in the Arab Initiative because it could galvanize efforts, led by the Americans, to achieve normalization with its Arab neighbors without peace with the Palestinians.
Donald Trump, since his election, has further contributed to the demise of any prospect of a just solution to the crisis by pushing America’s support of Israel to new levels. He has assigned his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, an Orthodox Jew and a strong supporter of Israel’s right wing, to supposedly broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians. As recently as a few days ago, Trump’s pick as US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, was approved by the US Senate. Even in the eyes of some Israelis Friedman is controversial because of his close association with extremist Jewish parties whose goal it is to seize as many Palestinian properties as possible in Occupied East Jerusalem and expel them.
Under the guise of peacemaking, Kushner and Friedman are likely to focus on advancing Israel’s position and standing in the region. For them, the issue of normalization is at the helm of their prospective policies.
The Palestinians’ fear is that Trump’s Middle East policy will focus on trying to break down whatever little consensus Arab countries still have on Palestine and agree to normal relations with Israel.
Abbas, who is heading to Washington in April, knows only too well that his position is terribly weak and, without Arab backing, however symbolic, he will find himself cornered by a belligerent Trump regime.
While the US administration may try to re-brand its approach to the conflict, what truly interests Israel and its Americans backers is breaking Israel’s isolation through regional ‘peace’ pacts and separate deals – in other words, normalization under Occupation.
Israeli and Palestinian Voices: A Dialogue with both Sides is available for purchase here: