Global Policy Forum

Israel Responds to Arab Peace Initiative


By Dominic Moran

International Relations and Security Network
April 4, 2007

In their recent summit in the Saudi capital Riyadh the 22 member states of the Arab League voted unanimously to renew the pan-Arab body's 2002 peace offer to Israel. Under the terms of the plan, League members agreed to end the Arab-Israeli conflict and to the full normalization of relations with Israel in return for an Israeli withdrawal from territories captured in 1967; the resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue; and the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The Arab League Initiative was rejected by then-Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon's government in its 23 May 2003 "Response to the Road Map," which demanded the removal of all references to "the Arab Initiative adopted in Beirut" from the final Road Map agreements. However, recent domestic and regional changes have raised Israeli interest in the peace offer. Following the collapse of his West Bank convergence plan, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has increasingly expressed his interest in the "positive aspects" of the Initiative, while articulating his reservations regarding its reference to the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. With devastatingly low poll numbers feeding calls for his ouster and members of his ruling Kadima party jostling for position in a future leadership contest, Olmert is under significant pressure to propose a new foreign policy agenda. The Israeli prime minister announced on Sunday that he wished to "invite all Arab heads of state, including the king of Saudi Arabia, to a meeting," on the Middle East conflict. "I am telling the heads of Arab countries that if the Saudi king initiates a meeting of the moderate states' leaders and invites both me and the Palestinian Authority president [Mahmoud Abbas], I would gladly come there and speak our mind," he said in comments carried by the Israeli daily Ha'aretz newspaper. Referring to the Initiative, he added: "I think the readiness to accept Israel as a fact and to debate the terms of a future solution is a step that I cannot help but appreciate." Professor Shmuel Sandler from Jerusalem's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies told ISN Security Watch, "It is a sort of a game between the two [Olmert and the Saudis] and it has to do with two interests that coincide. The Saudis have an interest now [in peace with Israel] because of the Shi'ite threat in Iraq and Iran; and Olmert because he needs desperately a change in domestic support." "And as a result, there is a place, I would say, probably for negotiations that wasn't there before, he said. According to former Labor party legislator and current Tel Aviv Deputy-Mayor Yael Dayan, the Initiative is "an instrument in order to get to a complete and final peace agreement." "The Initiative [builds on] all of the things that were before, in Oslo, in the Bush Road Map and so on, but [.] its mere initiation in the Arab world is the most important aspect," he told ISN Security Watch. Government spokesperson Avi Pazner, told ISN Security Watch the Initiative was a sign that the Arab world was changing and "talking about possible solutions. This is itself a positive step forward, although, of course, we do not agree to the outline of their solutions."

US pressure

Ha'aretz reports that both the US and Egypt have been pressuring Israel in recent weeks to agree to a rapid transition to talks with an Arab League working group, charged in Riyadh with diplomatic negotiations on the basis of the Initiative. In an effort to preserve a unified position, the Arab League recapitulation of the Initiative came without substantive emendations or addendums despite intense US lobbying. This failure and the growing centrality of the League Initiative to peace efforts are clear symptoms of the Bush administration's hands-off approach to the Israeli-Arab conflict, close relationship with Israel and waning influence in the region. It would have been unthinkable up until the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000 that the US role as primary mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict would be usurped by the Arab League and Saudi Arabia, which have no official relations with Israel and no significant history of engagement in peace-making efforts. The official Bush administration position on the Arab League Initiative remains unclear, despite a flurry of diplomatic activity in the month before the Riyadh summit. Dayan argues that US involvement remains crucial to future breakthroughs: "Olmert is not committed [to the Initiative], but with a little bit more pressure from the States - not just pressure but understanding that they will go along with it - it's a possibility now."

Right of return

In expressing their reservations regarding the Initiative, Israeli government officials and analysts have focused on the document's reference to the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. Asked if potential peace talks could be substantive, Sandler said: "They can be until they hit the two hard points - which at this point I can't see how they are going to overcome them - the [Palestinian] right of return and Jerusalem." "These are the two hard points I think no one, even the left in Israel, can accept - maybe in Jerusalem, but definitely not the right of return [.] It's taboo because the minute you're compromising on one refugee then there [will be a] flood," he said, expressing a widely held Israeli fear. Pazner agreed: "They know our position is unshakable: We cannot afford any return of Palestinians refugees to Israel because this would alter the demographic balance that there is now and create, in effect, another Palestinian state. And this is the sine qua non of our position as is the return to the '67 boundary." The Arab League Initiative speaks of a "just" and "agreed" solution to the refugee issue based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194. The resolution stipulates "that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date." Given that this form of resolution is not considered binding on UN member states, the Arab League formulation can be interpreted as an indication that the Palestinian refugee crisis should not be seen as standing in the way of the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Dayan said the Initiative was not "militant" in its demand that refugees be allowed to return to Israel, describing the peace plan as "an opening step to negotiations."


In a response to the Riyadh summit published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Israel's former ambassador to the UN, Dore Gold, writes, "The Arab peace initiative got off to a bad start when Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal warned Israel that its rejection of the plan would leave its fate in the hands of the 'lords of war.'" To Gold, this constitutes an "ultimatum," which exacerbates the Initiative's negation of the territorial flexibility afforded under UN Resolution 242 through "demanding" a full Israeli withdrawal from territories captured in 1967. At a recent conference organized by the Israeli Regional Peace Movement, Walid Salem, the director of Palestinian Panorama civil reform movement, argued that the Initiative's stipulations must be read in the context of previous understandings reached in bilateral negotiations regarding territories and the resettlement of refugees. In a speech to the conference, former Meretz party lawmaker Mose Raz attacked the Israeli government for playing on the refugee issue, alleging its true interest lay in protecting Israeli settlements in the West Bank. "The quid pro quo would be that Israel gives up its historic claim to the land of Israel and the Arabs give up on the right of return." Sandler said. "The Arabs must commit themselves to stopping terror. In exchange, Israel will have to start removing settlements." Olmert has made no commitment to further settlement or illegal outpost evacuations since shelving the West Bank convergence plan, making it hard to envisage full negotiations on an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank or Golan Heights under his leadership.

Saudi role

Saudi Arabia appears to have been prodded by the US in recent years into a more active role in regional diplomacy, drafting the Arab League Initiative in 2002. The increased profile of Saudi officials on the international stage appears tied to the role of Saudi extremists in the 11 September attacks in the US; the centripetal force exerted by the collapse of Iraq; and related concerns regarding the Iranian nuclear program. "They carry a lot of weight in the Arab world because of their oil," Pazner said. "Traditionally they would always take a step back and not get involved at all. Now, for the first time, in the last few years, they are involved and they have the means to influence other Arab states." The Israeli Prime Minister's Office failed to follow the Saudis in refuting persistent rumors in the Israeli press of meetings between Olmert and Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. Asked if there had been direct contacts between Saudi and Israeli officials, Pazner said, "I have no idea."


Crucially, the Arab League working group charged with furthering the Initiative on the international stage was whittled down in Riyadh from the initial 11-member states of the 2002 agreement to only four - the US-allied Arab Quartet: the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Much will now depend on whether Saudi Arabia and the UAE are willing to sit down openly with Israeli representatives. It is unlikely that either would be coaxed into an open dialogue through Olmert's summit offer unless the Israeli prime minister makes a further commitment to a full discussion on key issues. Asked if the Arab Quartet would be willing to talk with Israeli representatives Pazner said, "Possibly, but we have not been invited to talk to them so it is difficult for us to know what can come out of this." "More diplomatic efforts, more contacts may be needed to know more on the Arab position," he said, "but what happened in Riyadh is enough for us to describe it as a positive first step."

More Information on the Security Council
More Information on the Saudi Peace Plan
More Information on the Peace Process
More Information on the Right of Return of Palestinian Refugees
More Information on Israel, Palestine and the Occupied Territories


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