Opinion |

Led by Saudi Arabia, We Arabs Are Talking Peace. But Israelis Aren’t Listening

For years, a potent Saudi-led Arab camp has been offering Israel security and regional cooperation. Annexation will slam that door shut

Nawaf Obaid
Nawaf Obaid
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A traffic sign in front of the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. June 15, 2020
A traffic sign in front of the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. June 15, 2020Credit: AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS
Nawaf Obaid
Nawaf Obaid

For two decades now, the most important Arab states have been sending Israelis messages of hope for a better common future. Astonishingly, even though Israelis claim to be interested in better relations with leading Arab nations, they have failed thus far to respond in kind.

Until recently, those messages conveyed a simple proposition: we will reciprocate progress on the Palestinian front with progress in bilateral relations and regional cooperation. But should Israel annex the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, it will doom all hope for peace with the Palestinians, shut the door on regional strategic ties, and reverse all the progress that has been made with certain Arab countries.

LISTEN: How Netanyahu could fudge annexation, hoodwink Gantz and cling on to power

It all began in 2002, when the then Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia launched the Saudi peace initiative, a version of which was later embraced by both the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Conference as the Arab Peace Initiative (API). Jointly comprising some 57 countries, they declared readiness for full normalization of relations with Israel once its conflict with the Palestinians was resolved in a negotiated two-state agreement.

But much has happened in the region over these two decades. Several Arab countries underwent traumatic domestic upheavals from which some are yet to recover. Concurrently, faced with destabilizing efforts of hostile forces such as Iran, ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and various regional Shia militias, the main Arab states and Israel found themselves on the same side of the regional divide, seeking to check those destructive forces.

The Arabs, led in that effort by the Arab Quartet – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan – and others in the Arab Gulf and beyond, chose not to resign themselves to the repeated failures of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but rather to enhance prospects and eventual success by demonstrating to both Israelis and Palestinians the potential regional benefits of traveling the bilateral road of peace.

A demonstrator holds Palestinian flags during a protest against Israel's plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank. Kfar Qaddum near Nablus, June 6, 2020Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS

The first to articulate this vision in public was Prince Turki Al Faisal, the former longtime head of Saudi Intelligence. His courageous demarche in Hebrew in the pages of Haaretz on July 7, 2014, invited Israelis to "dream how this war-torn land will look like following an agreement between the two peoples: imagine that I can fly to Jerusalem and invite you to Riyadh."

This was not Prince Turki’s last message to Israelis, and other Arab dignitaries have followed with their own public peace gestures. Some involved invitations to Israeli athletes, experts in various fields and diplomats to participate in international events hosted by Arab Gulf states. Others even went further, inviting Israeli officials – cabinet members and the prime minister included – for bilateral meetings.

Concurrently, some initial, minor steps have been taken on such issues as shortening Israelis’ travel time to the Far East by overflying the airspace of countries with which Israel is yet to establish diplomatic relations. Official statements by Bahrain’s foreign minister, the UAE's UN envoy, and other Arab diplomats, as well as local media in these countries, increasingly reflect a nascent popular preparedness for a new chapter with Israel. The main theme of it all: Peace, cooperation, prosperity, security and stability.

But this entire evolutionary wave rested upon one single premise: once Israelis realize that the message of the Arab Peace Initiative is no mere rhetoric, once they see evidence that it holds the promise of mutually beneficial regional cooperation in all spheres – business, investment, tourism, sports, security and more – they will urge their elected officials to reciprocate those indications of goodwill with the one factor which can make it all come true: a clear Israeli government commitment to a negotiated two-state solution and irrefutable evidence of concrete progress towards that end.

Aerial view of Mecca’s Grand Mosque on the first day of Ramadan, deserted due to a five day coronavirus curfew. Saudi Arabia, April 24, 2020Credit: STRINGER/ REUTERS

Nearly four decades since the first Arab peace plan was introduced on August 7, 1981 by then Crown Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia, repeated failures have not deterred those in the Arab world who have long been convinced that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians will support courageous leaders in making the bold decisions required. To encourage it all, time and again, collective and individual commitments to the Arab Peace Initiative have been tirelessly reiterated. And yet, Israel is yet to respond. One must wonder: Where is Israel’s silent majority?

A potent Saudi-led Arab camp still extends Israel a hand of cooperation based on long held clear Arab Peace Initiative guidelines that counter the delusional Trump peace plan that aims to humiliate the Palestinians into submission. The Saudis, as the authors of the Arab peace plan and the only ones capable of ultimately legitimizing this Israeli peace overture to 1.5 billion Muslims across the world, will be watching very closely for a last minute reversal of the annexation decision that will signal that when Arabs talk peace, Israelis are willing to listen.

If the West Bank annexation bill is pushed through the Knesset, all these opportunities will be reduced to a footnote of history. A unilateral annexation will send the region one clear message: Israel has decided to slam the door shut on a negotiated two-state solution, and with it on all hope of normalizing relations with the Arab and wider Muslim worlds.

Nawaf Obaid, a former Saudi Arabian government adviser from 2002 to 2015, is the author of "The Failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab World" (Praeger, 2020), and was a Harvard fellow from 2012 to 2018. He is currently a senior fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London

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