Riyadh’s Arab summit: a precious opportunity

Yossi Alpher
27 March 2007

The Arab peace plan of March 2002 offers the best opportunity in recent years for Arabs and Israelis to get back on the peace track. But only if the Arab summit in Riyadh on 28-29 March 2007 goes beyond merely reaffirming the plan, and if Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah once again displays dynamic leadership.

To be sure, the plan is flawed, as was the process that launched it in 2002. Its compromise formula for solving the Palestinian refugee issue still implies support for the right of return (which was reconfirmed explicitly in the Arab League's next four resolutions, lest Israel err in interpreting it). Its demand for the 1967 borders ignores United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 as well as compromises long agreed between Palestinian and Israeli leaders.

Yossi Alpher is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak

This article was first published in bitterlemons

Also by Yossi Alpher in openDemocracy:

"An international solution? "
(9 May 2002) – with Ghassan Khatib

"Two separate roadmaps: an Israeli view"
(29 May 2003)

Moreover, it addresses all relevant states save Israel, thereby seemingly constituting an Arab diktat rather than a platform for negotiation. This last feature was a particularly striking demand in Israeli eyes back in late March 2002, insofar as Arab League approval of the Arab peace plan coincided with the particularly traumatic Pesach suicide-bombing in Netanya, which the league proceeded to ignore.

On the other hand, the Arab peace plan offers Israel normalisation and even security arrangements with all twenty-two Arab countries in return for making peace with Palestine, Syria and Lebanon along lines that respect Israel's sovereignty and integrity. This is a serious offer that Israel has ignored too long. Both the Arab states and Israel must not miss the opportunity to do better by the plan.

There would appear to be two courses of action that the Arab summit could take in order to make the plan more attractive as a basis for a new regional diplomatic departure. The first is amending the plan so that it conforms more closely to legitimate Israeli negotiating needs; this appears impossible in view of divisions within the Arab world. The second approach is to reconfirm the plan in language that makes it clear that it is understood as a basis for negotiation with Israel, with the latter free to table its reservations, and to "market" the plan more openly and effectively with the Israeli public through direct contact.

It was none other than then prime minister Ariel Sharon who responded to the plan in April 2002 by inviting Abdullah to come to Jerusalem to present it. Knowing Sharon, the invitation was probably made tongue-in-cheek. Still, that is what Abdullah should now do.

Also in openDemocracy on Arab diplomacy and Israel-Palestine:

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas’s path to reinvention"
(10 October 2006)

David Govrin, "The Sadat precedent"
(27 November 2006)

Khaled Hroub, " Palestine’s argument: Mecca and beyond"
(6 March 2007)

Ghassan Khatib, "The Arab League summit: two challenges"
(28 March 2007)

Israel, too, has to do better with the plan this time. It has to present its own vision of the framework for comprehensive peace and market it to the Arabs, meeting them halfway with compromise ideas and offers. Here the big problem is that Israel does not currently have the kind of resolute and inspiring leadership displayed lately by Abdullah. Hopefully, that may change in the not-too-distant future. Experience tells us that the Israeli public, if challenged positively by Arab leaders, will respond by giving its leaders a firm peace mandate.

The United States, too, as leader of the international quartet (the United Nations, European Union, Russia, and the US itself), can do better. In meetings I have participated in recently with opinion-makers from throughout the Arab world, the United States and Europe to discuss the regional dimension of Arab-Israel peace, we concluded that the single most important consensus step the quartet could take after the Riyadh summit would be to convene the principal parties - Israel, the PLO, the quartet and the Arab quartet (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates) - to consult regarding a new peace process based on four pillars.

First, the new process should clarify the endgame of a permanent settlement in order to motivate both sides. Second, it should establish a comprehensive regional rather than a bilateral approach. Third, it must encourage concerned Arab states to assist and motivate. And fourth, it should enlist the Arab summit to legitimise the diplomatic process and its outcome.

Assuming the Riyadh summit comes through with an improved framework for the Arab peace plan, this is too good an opportunity to miss.

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