28 March marks 10 years from the launch of the ground-breaking, Saudi-led, Arab Peace Initiative (API). But don't expect to hear the sound of celebrations. A decade later, the proposal, which seemed so promising on paper, has failed to make a mark on the ground. Progress towards a two-state outcome in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute remains vital. But in the context of the current regional turmoil, incremental steps on the ground may achieve more than grand statements.
In many ways the API was a huge step forward. The 22 Arab League states offered to normalise relations with Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal to pre-June 1967 borders, the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a "just solution" to the Palestinian refugee problem. Prior to this only Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians had established relations with Israel.
However, there were significant problems in the initiative's content and presentation. The first was timing. If Israelis remember 28 March 2002, they remember waking up to the news that a Hamas suicide bomber had killed thirty at a Passover meal in a Netanya hotel. This was the peak of the Second Intifada. Israel was in daily conflict with Palestinian armed groups in Gaza and the West Bank, many of whom were opposed to the peace process on any terms. Against the backdrop of a wave of terrorism, many Israelis perceived the Saudi initiative as a PR stunt.
As for the content, the demand for full withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines was unacceptable to Israel, which seeks adjustments to make Israel's borders more secure and incorporate major West Bank settlements. Equally problematic was the issue of refugees. Israel's future depends on the Palestinian refugee problem being solved in a new Palestinian state, not in Israel. The API was vague on this point, as it was on the question of Jerusalem.
Rather than setting out its term as a basis for negotiations, the Arab League seemed to present a 'take it or leave it' deal. Israelis were unclear as to whether the proposal was supposed to give backing to the Palestinians to negotiate a deal, or to tie their hands and prevent them making concessions beyond what the API proposed. The Arab states made little effort to turn the statement into a process or dialogue. It was, in effect, all dressed up with nowhere to go. Though Israeli leaders warmed to the potential of the API over the years, major developments such as the Roadmap, Israel's Gaza withdrawal, and the Annapolis talks, happened with little involvement from Arab states.
In 2009, the Obama administration tried to turn the API into a process by calling on the Arabs to make gestures towards normalisation in return for an Israeli freeze on settlement building. Unfortunately, the Arab states were unwilling to challenge popular anti-Israel sentiment in the region by offering anything to Israel up front. Nor did they do much to support President Abbas and give him political cover to enter negotiations.
It did not help that the atmosphere was soured by Operation Cast Lead in early 2009, and by the replacement of Ehud Olmert's government by a centre-right coalition under Benjamin Netanyahu. But even after Netanyahu announced a partial, ten-month moratorium on settlement building in November 2009, the Arab states offered nothing in return.
Today, Islamist parties opposed to Israel's existence are on the rise in the region. War with Israel may not be their priority, but peace is not on their agenda either. Relations between Israel and Egypt are in serious trouble. Such an unstable Arab world cannot be expected to provide big solutions to unjam the peace process.
To move towards the goal of a conflict-ending agreement in an increasingly unstable region, rather than thinking bigger, we may have to think smaller. As I argued, along with Alan Johnson, in a recent policy brief for the Foreign Policy Centre, the focus should be improving conditions to make a deal possible in the future. The bottom-up state building process in the West Bank has been one of the few positive trends in recent years. To keep this going, Israel and the Palestinians, with international encouragement, need to avoiding provocations and take incremental steps to increase Palestinian autonomy and shape a two-state reality on the ground.
When it comes to the wider region, as a paper for BICOM by Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Michael Herzog proposes, the West should use its economic leverage to press Islamist actors to refrain from anti-Israel rhetoric, and in the case of Egypt, to avoid calling into question the existing peace agreement.
Ten years on from the Arab Peace Initiative, region-wide peace may not be around the corner, but the proposal remains a tantalising hint of what could be. The international community, and the parties in the region, must act where they can to preserve the conditions for realising it in the future.