Arab Peace Initiative
In 2002, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah introduced a new formula for Arab-Israeli peace. His ideas were developed and endorsed by the Arab League and are now known as the Arab Peace Initiative (API), offering full peaceful relations and normalizations between the entire Arab world and Israel, provided Israel comes to a conflict-ending agreement with the Palestinians.
Specifically, the API envisions:
The establishment of a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital
The achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194
An end to the Arab-Israeli conflict
Peace treaties and normalized relations with Israel
The API was endorsed by all 22 members states of the Arab League and 57 states in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Few ideas are more popular in the Israeli discourse than the prospect of regional peace. While not intimately familiar with the API, Israelis intuitively understand the benefits of ending isolation from the Arab and Islamic world, with added international legitimacy, increased trade, and security cooperation — even shorter international flights that could cross Arab airspace.
Still, when it was proposed in 2002, amid the Palestinian violence of the second intifada, the Israeli government — which opposed Palestinian statehood — was focused on counterterrorism. To Israelis across the political spectrum, the original API seemed flawed: it was perceived as a take-it-or-leave-it proposal, envisioned full withdrawal to the 1967 lines without mentioning land swaps, called for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, and implied, by referencing United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, a right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Israelis feel more than ever that their interests are aligned with many Arab states — especially the Gulf — against Iran. Years of quiet coordination between Israel and Gulf states are an open secret, and many Israelis ask why these relations can’t finally go public. With the traditional peace process stalled, some Israeli leaders support an “outside-in” approach — achieving Arab-Israeli peace first, separate from the Palestinians. This approach would achieve the benefits of normalization with the Arab world, and could also strengthen the Israeli position with the Palestinians, and show that Israel is not isolated internationally. However, Arab states have yet to pursue this option.
Palestinians have endorsed the API, and accept its principles as a basis for negotiations. However, as Israel and certain Arab states strengthen their quiet ties, many Palestinians feel increasingly abandoned by their traditional allies. Palestinians have a longstanding mistrust of Arab leaders — believing that they only champion the Palestinian cause to win popular support at home, and will forget the Palestinians if not for constant pressure by Palestinian leaders. Although Arab states still vote against Israel at the United Nations, and publically reject normalization with Israel before the establishment of a Palestinian state, Palestinians fear that this is only lip-service, and eventually, they will be cut out of the Arab-Israeli conversation altogether.
Arab States Perspective
Arab support for Arab-Israeli normalization has shifted significantly from the 3 “No’s” policy (no peace, no recognition, no normalization) to today.
On one end, Syria is still formally at war with Israel, although it has negotiated in the past to normalize relations. On the other end, Egypt and Jordan have signed peace treaties with Israel and coordinate extremely closely on security, although it is a “cold peace” that does not include true reconciliation between peoples and is domestically unpopular. For their part, Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, are in different stages of engagement with Israel, having quietly coordinated against Iran for years, but are still far from formal normalization.
Overall, most Arab states no longer oppose Israel in any meaningful way, and are exploring new ways for limited security and economic cooperation. But at the same time, popular majorities within these countries overwhelmingly oppose Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state and its policies toward the Palestinians. Many Arab leaders are deeply concerned that any movement toward normalization with Israel — absent significant progress in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations — would be exploited by their domestic and regional rivals — especially Iran. Thus, they are happy to benefit from behind-the-scenes cooperation with Israel without paying the price of making it public before an Israeli-Palestinian peace is reached.
Helpful Realities: 2013-14 Kerry Initiative
As part of the US-led Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2013, then-Secretary of State Kerry convened representatives of the Arab League to amend API to include “comparable and mutual agreed minor swap of land” as part of a two-state solution. By endorsing land swaps to accommodate Israeli demographic realities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Arab League brought API closer to the Israeli and Palestinian positions on borders.
Future of Regional Security
Although regional peace as modeled by the API has not yet been achieved, at least certain elements of it have been adopted by most of the major stakeholders in the Middle East. At times, Israeli leaders cite the promise of API, although they oppose certain aspects of it. And the Palestinians, in addition to officials from the United States, United Nations, Europe and the Arab world, all refer to API as a constructive basis for regional talks alongside bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.