x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Bitter pill for Mideast peace remains the best alternative

The decade-old Arab Peace Initiative still has a lot to tell us about the eventual shape of an Arab-Israeli settlement.

It has been 10 years since the Arab League endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative (API) at the Beirut Summit in March 2002, in which the leaders of the Arab World asserted that they would recognise and normalise relations with Israel if Israel were to withdraw from the territories occupied in the 1967 war and negotiate with the Palestinians a resolution of their decades-old conflict.

In issuing this API, the Arabs made clear that their problem with Israel was not existential, but was a matter of borders, territory and rights. This should have been seen as a dramatic breakthrough and a potentially transformative moment in the history of the conflict. Sadly it was not. Instead, Israel scoffed at the initiative and dismissed it, while the administration of George W Bush undervalued its importance.

To be sure, for some in the Arab world, the API was a bitter pill. Historical grievances were real and ran deep. Many could not forget the betrayal they had experienced at the hands of the British and French who had, at the end of the First World War, occupied the Arab east, dismembering it and fostering a Jewish homeland in the area of Palestine. This betrayal continued throughout the 20th century, leading ultimately to the dispossession and dispersal of the Arabs of Palestine in the bitter defeat of 1948.

While the newly declared state of Israel complained that no Arabs recognised it, Arabs countered that the core of the problem was the West's and the Zionist movement's failure to recognise Palestinian rights. Like other victims of colonialism, the Arabs remained steadfast in maintaining the illegitimacy of the new state that had displaced indigenous people. And so the conflict continued and intensified, in 1967, when Israel occupied the whole of Palestine.

When Palestinian and Israeli negotiators completed the Oslo Accords in 1993, it appeared that at long last a resolution was at hand. By recognising each other's national rights (which was the essential breakthrough of Oslo), the ground was prepared for negotiations to establish a two-state solution.

For many Palestinians, Oslo was a difficult step but one they knew they needed to take to normalise their situation, secure the right to establish their own state and rebuild their national community. It was not a perfect outcome and would not, they understood, redress all of their legitimate grievances. But they put their faith in negotiations, believing that the future they could create through the Oslo process would be better than the future they would face through continued conflict.

I spoke with Rafiq Hariri a few years after that Beirut Summit and he remarked how much had changed in intra-Arab discourse since that event. He told me that just a decade earlier it would not have been possible to propose or even discuss peace with Israel. Now, he said, majorities across the Arab world openly discussed, supported and even yearned for this outcome, if only Israel would take the steps needed to make it happen.

Sure enough when we have polled on the Arab Peace Initiative across the Arab world we now find that almost three-quarters of all Arabs support a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict that would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. That's the good news. At the same time, over half of all Arabs do not believe that Israel will be willing to take the steps that would allow this outcome to occur.

The need to change this dynamic, to restore hope, and to work for peace is the order of the day. That is why this week, in Washington, DC, the Arab American Institute and J Street, the pro-Israel lobby group, together with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, will host an event to mark the 10-year anniversary of the API. There will be naysayers, just as there were 10 years ago. And we recognise the challenges. But for there to be peace, there must be a constituency that supports and advocates for peace. And we remain committed to working toward that goal.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

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