New talks reflect a broad range of regional and international developments in recent years.
The Arab Peace Initiative (API) is receiving a great deal of attention these days, primarily from Israel, but also from Egypt, the Gulf states, and others. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said the plan had “positive elements,” after almost 14 years of ignoring or dismissing the proposal. Even more unusually, new Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said he agreed with Netanyahu’s positive assessment of the plan. First floated by Saudi Arabia and unanimously adopted by the Arab League in 2002, and reaffirmed in 2007, the initiative basically suggests that the whole Arab world would normalize relations with Israel in the event of a peace agreement with the Palestinians and an end to the occupation of Arab lands seized in 1967. It’s not hard to see what all parties find attractive in refocusing attention on the proposal. But is the API actually and at long last really in play, and could it be the basis of forward movement in the stalled Palestinian-Israeli negotiating process?
The Israeli media almost unanimously sees the Israeli government’s renewed interest in the proposal as a ploy designed to soften the international image of what virtually all observers agree is the most right-wing and reactionary government in the country’s history. The coalition now not only includes Lieberman, but also right-wingers such as Naftali Bennett and several leaders of the settlement movement. The highly negative international reaction to the new coalition, which is seen as unresponsive to the international imperative of reviving peace talks, dovetails with spats between right-wing Israeli political leaders and the country’s military establishment over the conduct of soldiers toward Palestinians especially following the release of a video depicting an Israeli soldier summarily executing a wounded Palestinian assailant. These developments have rocked Israel’s international image, and many Israeli commentators have argued that Netanyahu and Lieberman are attempting to offset that negative impression by giving the appearance of an interest in reviving peace talks.
Several Israeli commentators also have noted that Israel’s government may be attempting to use the API to neutralize European, and especially French, efforts to kick-start a new international initiative on Middle East peace, beginning with a peace conference on June 3 in Paris. Plans for the Paris conference had been postponed at the last minute when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced that he would not be available to attend, having first agreed to do so, although European states continue to work on advancing their new initiative. Kerry is again scheduled to attend the conference, but is not evincing much enthusiasm for it. Israel does not trust such European efforts, strongly preferring U.S.-brokered mediation, especially because of French talk of rigid timelines for achieving a final status agreement and outcome. Israeli commentator Ben Caspit wrote that “The Europeans are gathering ammunition, the danger is real. [Netanyahu] is bracing for all this with a regional initiative that has cost him only words for now.” According to this analysis, Netanyahu is attempting to play the API off against European moves, paying lip service to the former in order to sabotage the latter.
Moreover, Israel is increasingly concerned with the growth of interest in the “boycott, divestment, and sanctions” (BDS) movement, which exists in two separate incarnations. While Israeli rhetoric tends to conflate them, they are very different, although both are problematic for Israel. The first iteration of BDS, which is largely rhetorical and exists mainly on U.S. and European college campuses, calls for a broad-based boycott of Israel in general. This agenda has met with very little practical success in Europe and virtually none in the United States because there is almost no institutional support for boycotting Israel as a whole. It has, however, captured a great deal of attention, with a recent survey showing up to one-third of U.S. students having sympathy for BDS. Even more worrying are official European initiatives, which are quickly gaining ground, that seek to distinguish Israel from its settlements in the occupied territories, label or even prohibit Israeli settlement products, and restrict investment in settlement-related economic activities. Such initiatives are growing in Europe in both the public and private sectors, and posing an even more serious problem for Israel than rhetorical BDS because the sanctions are real, pursuant to peace based on international law (which clearly mandates a two-state solution), and impossible for Israel to dismiss as irrationally hostile or “anti-Semitic.”
So there are ample grounds for suspecting that Israel is feigning interest in the API in an effort to soften its international image and mitigate its reputational crisis in the West. However, there are also reasons to suspect that Israel might be more interested in a Middle East-based, API-centered, initiative than mere hasbara (the Hebrew term for propaganda) or to neutralize European proposals it mistrusts. In fact, the API potentially offers Israel the breakthrough it has been seeking since its founding in 1948: a chance to normalize its relations with most, if not all, of the states of the Middle East and to gain acceptance as a legitimate regional entity and player. Moreover, Israel’s potential interest in the API could stem from its evaluation that the actual price of such acceptance by the Arab side has never been, and may never again be, as low as it presently appears.
Key Arab states, notably Egypt and the Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia, have also been expressing interest in a revival of the API and reaching out to Israel on that basis. Each has its own clear motivation. The Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, have radically restructured their strategic calculations in recent years. Israel is no longer perceived as the primary threat or destabilizing force in the region. Indeed, it may now be seen as a potential stabilizing force, and even a possible ally, because the main threat is now perceived as coming from Iran. Israel is at least as wary of Iranian intentions and activities as are the Gulf states. There is thus a strong potential basis for greater cooperation between the Gulf states and Israel as they both seek to block any further expansion of Iranian power and influence in the Middle East.
However, deeply entrenched domestic and regional political expectations, established by decades of strong and principled rhetoric about the need for Israel to end the occupation (a position reflected in the API), mean that Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states cannot move closer to Israel without first obtaining some concessions from it. In the past this would have required either an end to the occupation outright, or a clear path to that end. Since the strategic need for cooperation vis-à-vis Iran is perceived as so great, it is now likely that Israel could achieve a significant degree of de facto Arab recognition and legitimation by engaging in peace talks that, in the end, fall short of a guaranteed end to the occupation but do actually produce some substantial progress. Such measures could include: an explicit or implicit understanding about areas in which Israeli settlement activity will not take place, thereby preserving the prospects for an eventual two-state solution; additional understandings on Muslim holy places in Jerusalem, possibly in coordination with Jordan; greater autonomy and authority for the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Areas A and B, and possibly even access to Area C, in the occupied West Bank; and other measures promoting Palestinian movement and access, strengthening the PA security forces, and reducing Israel’s incursions into Palestinian-administered areas.
Such a package of inducements might be sufficient to provide the political cover for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states to move closer to Israel on several axes. It will not, of course, be enough for full normalization or a formal end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But, given the urgency of the strategic challenge posed by Iran to both sides, it could be the basis for much greater coordination. Palestinians are evidently nervous about how far key Arab states like Saudi Arabia might be willing to go without securing an end to the occupation. But they, too, would benefit from such measures, and, presumably, from new aid packages from the Gulf and other inducements designed to win their cooperation with such a process, however grudging it might be. Indeed, faced with the choice of these benefits or nothing, the Palestine Liberation Organization and the PA might find themselves with little choice, particularly if they have reason to believe these developments might strengthen their hand against Hamas (which also strongly opposed the French Paris peace conference), particularly in Gaza, but also in the West Bank.
Egypt’s cooperation would be crucial in brokering such a development, and creating the necessary inducements for Palestinians, particularly regarding Gaza. Indeed, it was an initiative by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in mid-May, strongly backed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, that raised the potential for a Middle East-based peace initiative centered on the API. Sisi has been calling for the revival of the API since 2014, but his recent efforts have struck a chord with Israeli and Arab power centers. The Egyptian president has many motivations for taking the lead in these efforts. Both in Egypt’s national interest and for domestic political reasons, Sisi needs to reassert Egypt’s regional role, particularly after the highly controversial recent ceding of Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, apparently in exchange for large amounts of aid. Moreover, Egypt’s interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is strongly linked to its all-important war against extremist groups in the Sinai Peninsula, and its insistence that Hamas and other radical groups in Gaza are cooperating with the Sinai-based fanatics. Egypt’s long-term goal cannot be endless containment, but rather must involve the eventual restoration of a moderate-nationalistic Palestinian leadership in the Gaza Strip rather than the Hamas Islamists and their allies with which Cairo can deal, but never trust. Egypt is also undoubtedly seeking to further cement its strategic ties with both Saudi Arabia and Israel (with which it has reportedly rarely enjoyed closer military cooperation).
Saudi Arabia, too, is evidently seeking to use the revivification of the API to underscore its regional role and emerging Arab leadership position. This would be greatly strengthened by demonstrating that, in coordination with Cairo and others, Riyadh is able to secure otherwise unattainable cooperation and concessions from Israel on behalf of the Palestinians, even if they fall short of fully ending the occupation. All parties understand that a final status agreement with the Palestinians is almost certainly not achievable under the present ultra-right-wing Israeli government. But there is a potential for reviving some kind of peace process under the rubric of the API, given that almost all parties would significantly benefit from it. France and other European powers might be disappointed if a Middle East-based process replaces their own initiative, but they would almost certainly support such a development given that it springs directly from the parties in the region.
The United States, too, would surely welcome a peace initiative that secures progress between Israel and the Palestinians and that is brokered by its traditional partners in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. A strong U.S. role would be indispensable and Washington shouldn’t be skeptical of a Middle East-based process in the same way it seems threatened by the European initiative that could replace the well-established (albeit currently paralyzed) triangular Washington-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace process. A formula that links Arab and Israeli interests in stronger ties, the urgent Palestinian need for improvements on the ground, European interest in renewed negotiations, and Washington’s cooperation in making it all happen could actually result in an unexpected revival of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy that yields some practical progress, although not, almost certainly for the foreseeable future, a fully-realized final status agreement.
What will really determine whether any initiative based on the API can move seriously forward are the intentions of the Israeli government. If, as most Israeli commentators seem convinced, Netanyahu, Lieberman, and others are merely seeking to improve their international image and offset the threat of European peace initiatives and BDS, these proposals will go nowhere. However, if Israel’s leaders understand that they are facing a historic, and possibly unique, opportunity to advance their long-cherished national goal of regional recognition and legitimation at an unprecedentedly low political and diplomatic cost, then a genuine process really could emerge in the near future.
The conundrum is this: Israel’s new ultra-right-wing government is uniquely positioned to sell the necessary (and now relatively modest) concessions required to achieve these goals to the most skeptical constituencies in the country. But it is also the government least likely to be willing to agree to them at all. Key figures in Israel’s national security establishment clearly understand that the country confronts a historic opportunity. Netanyahu and some other key political leaders might – just might – as well. Whether the Israeli government and political system as a whole will be capable of taking advantage of it, or will squander this rare moment, remains to be seen.
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