Opinion |

It’s Time for Arab States to Drop Another Bombshell on Israel

Saudi Arabia should revisit its surprise 2002 initiative by pushing the four Arab states who have normalized relations with Israel to lobby for a proper peace. One that includes the Palestinians

Yossi Beilin
Yossi Beilin
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Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud attends the 28th Ordinary Summit of the Arab League at the Dead Sea, Jordan March 29, 2017
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud attends the 28th Ordinary Summit of the Arab League at the Dead Sea, Jordan March 29, 2017Credit: MOHAMMAD HAMED/REUTERS
Yossi Beilin
Yossi Beilin

The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 was a kind of a bombshell: it was launched in the heat of the second intifada, against the background of ongoing violence between Palestinians and Israelis. That violence erupted a day after the provocative "visit" to the Temple Mount/Al Aqsa compound of the then-leader of the opposition, Ariel Sharon, and a thousand supporters. 

The initiative declared the readiness of all members of the Arab League to make peace with Israel and to normalize relations with it, if it made peace with the Palestinians, based on the two state solution, and with Syria (since ousted from the Arab League).

The Arab Peace Initiative was very surprising, and it gave a crushing answer to the main claim of the Right in Israel: that the heart of the Middle East conflict is the absolute refusal Arab states to recognize Israel, and not the territorial dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. Suddenly, out of the blue, came the Arab world and declared, as a collective, a conditional readiness to recognize Israel.

First there was the Saudi Initiative, born in a February 2002 interview that Saudi Arabia then-Crown Prince Abdullah gave to Thomas Friedman in the New York Times. It was a way for the Saudis to deflect President George W. Bush from domestic democratization, if not substitute for it. In a matter of weeks, and with few changes, the Saudi Initiative became the Arab League one.

It was also important for the PLO, because the Initiative’s other purpose was to preserve the power and unity of the Arab collective, by preventing those Arab countries which had toyed with the idea of establishing, independently, full diplomatic relations with Israel (like Mauritania, which had done just that, in 1999) to do it before there was consensus agreement on a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement. 

A general view of the 29th Arab League Summit in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, April 15, 2018.
A general view of the 29th Arab League Summit in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, April 15, 2018.Credit: BANDAR AL-JALOUD/AFP

Israel’s government was quick to reject the Initiative, reading into it the intention to "destroy Israel," according to Sharon. 

But the Arab Initiative wasn't an eternal promise. During the years, more and more Arab countries developed secret relations with Israel to benefit from its strategic proximity to the U.S., from its technological achievements, and from its military power, as a part of a coalition against common enemies in the region. The Arab Peace Initiative became an obstacle on their way to fully and openly cooperate with Israel, which had never been their real enemy. 

The possibility of presenting normalization as a compromise, in order to convince Israel not to unilaterally annex part of the West Bank, was a nice way to justify something which they wanted to do with or without an excuse. 

Bahrain's foreign minister, Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu and UAE foreign minister display their copies of the signed Abraham Accords while Donald Trump looks on, at the White House, September 15, 2020.
Bahrain's foreign minister, Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu and UAE foreign minister display their copies of the signed Abraham Accords while Donald Trump looks on, at the White House, September 15, 2020.Credit: Tom Brenner/Reuters

This is the background of the normalization agreements between Israel, and the UAE and Bahrain, which were signed in Washington last week.

Saudi Arabia supports these decisions, in its own reticent way (it seems unlikely either the UAE, and – for sure – not Bahrain would have taken such bold decisions without its acquiescence), and continues to declare that it is totally committed to the Arab Initiative. But the Saudis understand perfectly that the Initiative is based on both unanimous collective action and conditionality, and neither exist anymore, whether they like it or not.

The decisions to normalize relations with Israel, to end the anti-Israeli boycott, and to declare an open skies policy for Israeli flights are historic and very consequential for Israel. 

But we should bear in mind that they cannot and should not circumvent the need for a peaceful solution with the Palestinians, based on two states, under the umbrella of a confederation or without it.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends a summit between Arab league and European Union member states, in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, February 24, 2019.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends a summit between Arab league and European Union member states, in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, February 24, 2019.Credit: \ MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/ REUTERS

This is the only way for us to assure that a Jewish minority will not dominate an Arab majority in the future. No peace with any other Arab state nor any number of Arab states can assure us of that. 

For the Palestinians, it is the only way to end occupation and to have independence. They also need to adapt to the new reality: they should stop calling the peace makers "traitors," but rather use the fact that there are today four important countries in the Arab League who have made peace with Israel, and that bloc can and should become a dedicated lobby for an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The Arab Peace Initiative is irrelevant nowadays in its original formulation as a promise to normalize relations with Israel on condition that it would make peace with the Palestinians. But it played an important role to show both sides the potential accessibility of a peaceful horizon. 

Now, the Arab Peace Initiative should be upgraded into an intensive peace pressure group, empowered by good relations with both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, and which is able to shuttle between them, talk to them seriously, and help each of them walk the extra mile towards peace.

Yossi Beilin is a former Israeli Minister of Justice, and a co-initiator of the Oslo Process

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