Will the Arab Peace Initiative rescue the two-state imperative?

Once the principles of the API were elaborated, 55% of the Israelis interviewed said they would support it to some degree, a figure that climbed to 69% if Prime Minister Netanyahu accepted it and reached a final status agreement with the Arab states.

Tony Klug
24 June 2013

To begin with a question: what do the following pivotal events have in common?

The 1956 Suez war.
The 1967 Arab-Israel war.
The 1973 Arab-Israel war.
The Sadat Initiative.
The first Palestinian Intifada.
The Oslo Accord.
The second Palestinian Intifada.
The uprooting of Israeli settlements in Gaza.
The 2006 election victory of Hamas.
The Arab uprisings.
The mass social protests in Israel.
The 2013 election result in Israel.
The tearing apart of Syria.
The widespread demonstrations in Turkey.   
The decisive 2013 election result in Iran.

Answer: none of them was anticipated.

At least, not in advance. In retrospect, of course, clever experts were able to explain, with great insight, why these events happened. Even, in some cases, why they were all but inevitable. But only ever after they occurred. Beforehand, few people, if any, saw them coming. Critical future developments that were confidently predicted frequently failed to materialize.  

Always fascinating, often chaotic, the Middle East is full of surprises. How to plug into the myriad currents and undercurrents and make sense of them is the key question for which there is no easy answer. Viewing events through an empathetic lens, however, rather than just taking a hard-nosed realpolitik approach can provide some useful insights.

So maybe a dose of scepticism is warranted when the cynics – doomsayers, defeatists and fantasists alike - proclaim with such certainty the death of the two-state paradigm, the futility of the Arab Peace Initiative (API) and the impossibility of peace between Israel and its Arab and Palestinian neighbours. But then again, they could be right.

I myself have authored a string of articles and talks over past years under such titles as The last-chance saloon[i], Is it too late for the two-state solution?[ii], and Two states for two peoples: solution or illusion?. I reflect on these questions as someone who has been calling for two states since the early 1970s and fully expected to see the proposal implemented by the mid-1970s.[iii] Some forty years on, I worry, as others do, that we may be getting perilously close to the point of no return.

Yet to surrender to despair rather than continue to search for possible new openings strikes me as an irresponsible indulgence, especially on the part of those of us who are not direct participants in the conflict but who are concerned about it. The important question at every point, I believe, is what can be done? Where is the chink in the wall? I remain personally committed to the two-state outcome, not through misplaced optimism or stubborn habit, but because, in the non-fantasy world, I don’t see a plausible alternative. 

Eventually, I expect it will transpire in one way or another, given that national sentiment on both sides has, if anything, hardened over the decades and both peoples, with few exceptions, remain firmly dedicated to their own self-determination within their own state. If we don’t achieve a two-state result soon, peacefully, by design, I fear the most likely alternative will be two states by disaster, following a prolonged period of turmoil and violence, atrocity and counter-atrocity.[iv]

The prospects of avoiding such a calamity might be considerably enhanced if ‘being in the right’ were viewed by all parties as less of a priority than bringing the conflict to an end, and if each of the protagonists were to focus a little less on telling others – especially the foe - what they must and must not do and thought a little more about what constructive steps they themselves could take. 

I have long held the view that the Arab Peace Initiative is a worthy but insufficient attempt by the Arab League to grasp this nettle. What is now needed is for all other parties to grasp the nettle for themselves and produce a cluster of complementary peace initiatives: a UN peace initiative, an EU peace initiative, a US peace initiative, an Israeli peace initiative[v], a Palestinian peace initiative, and so on.

EU member states, collectively and individually, should be prepared to take their own initiatives and not robotically rely on the United States to take the lead. Blind faith in the efficacy of US diplomacy in the past has stymied inventiveness and leadership from other sources. What matters is that the assorted initiatives and strategies are broadly in harmony, with a common aim.  

So what might an overarching international peace strategy comprise?

First, it needs to be goal-driven. In other words, any strategy worthy of the name must have a clear and realistic destination. I believe it remains the case that the only workable formula for resolving - rather than perpetuating or exacerbating - this conflict is the one adopted by the 22-member Arab League in 2002 that held out the promise of full peace and normalization of relations between Israel and every Arab country in exchange for Israel evacuating Arab territory captured in 1967 and accepting the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with east Jerusalem as its capital. This proposal subsequently received the endorsement of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Following the Arab League meeting in March of this year (2013), it was clarified that the initiative could include agreed reciprocal and equal border adjustments, an amplification that was welcomed by John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, who had been pressing for this modification as part of his aim to revive the API as a framework for a comprehensive regional settlement.

In decisively reversing the three uncompromising ‘no’s’ of the Khartoum summit of September 1967 – no peace, no recognition and no negotiations with Israel - the Arab Peace Initiative provided a measure of the distance the Arab world had travelled since that time.[vi] Moreover, the novel use of the construct ‘east’ Jerusalem to refer to the future capital of the Palestinian state – rather than just ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘noble Jerusalem’ as in the past - insinuated the prospect of future Arab recognition of west Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a remarkable development that would give the green light for countries around the world to follow suit, fulfilling an Israeli dream since the establishment of the state in 1948. There was a time when Israelis would have been dancing in the streets at such an offer.

But the Israeli response has in the main, with some keen exceptions, ranged from mild interest to indifference to outright hostility. However, according to a recent poll, once the principles of the API were elaborated, 55% of Israelis interviewed said they would support it to some degree, a figure that climbed to 69% if Prime Minister Netanyahu were to accept it and reach a final status agreement with the Arab states.

If outside parties are serious about the goal of two states, their strategies need to be consciously shaped by this vision. In effect, this means resurrecting the old ‘green line’ by sharply distinguishing between Israel proper and the occupied West Bank – the very opposite of the blurring of the two entities that seems to be the policy aim of the current Israeli coalition government, curiously aided and abetted by the proponents of one unitary state.

Bizarrely, nothing does more to undermine the legitimacy of Israel and the right of its people to self-determination – the abiding principle that underpins its moral, legal and historical claim to statehood - than the persistent denial of this same right to a neighbouring people which it holds instead under indefinite military occupation (now in its 47th grinding year).

In the light of the Israeli government’s policy aim, reviving negotiations at this time is pointless. Or at least premature. Bilateral talks are no more likely now than in recent years to accomplish anything. Thus, other paths to ending the occupation, securing Palestinian statehood and reaching a peace agreement need to be explored. 

An alternative strategy could be for the world community - possibly in the guise of the Quartet of the US, UN, EU and Russia - to require all of the conflicting parties to formally declare, within a limited time-period, what moves they are willing to take to advance the international consensus vision, as encapsulated by the API. But the parties should be denied an effective right of veto as in the past through such manoeuvres as not co-operating or attempting to indefinitely extend the deadlines.

This initial step could be followed by the issuing of a definitive international plan - a new road map - comprising a timetabled schedule of material targets for each party to meet en route to the final destination. Ideally, the plan would be endorsed by the UN Security Council. A package of powerful inducements – positive and negative – would be attached to each way-station. This would constitute the enforcement mechanism, so fatally missing from earlier peace plans.[vii]

The process would need to be transparent, so that if the leaderships continually fall short of their designated targets, the penalties incurred and the rewards foregone at each stage would instantly be known to their general publics. As the failures accumulate, this could help to spark new political currents within the respective societies and reshape the political climate. 

Indeed, in view of the make-up of the current Israeli coalition government, progress may depend crucially on its break up and the formation instead of an alternative combination of parties, or on the Israeli electorate returning at the next election - ideally within the next couple of years - a peace-oriented rather than a settler-oriented majority. 

In the light of the notable swing away from the right in the Israeli election earlier this year, this is not an implausible scenario. Indeed, there is recent polling evidence that “the Israeli public is becoming more pragmatic and veering to the left”. Nourishing this tendency should be an implicit part of any international strategy. Even now, the margin is quite thin and it would not take much more of a shift to achieve the desired outcome, which would be further advanced if Israel’s Palestinian citizens disregarded all calls for an electoral boycott and voted next time more in proportion to their numbers, then swung their greater clout behind the pro-peace path. 

Meanwhile, benefits of potential value to the conflicting parties should not continue to be given away for nothing. With every ‘reward’ there should be an associated quid pro quo from the party in question.[viii] Similarly, penalties should be ‘smart’, meaning they should be directly related to achieving, or preventing, a specific outcome rather than conceived as a blanket punishment for generally errant behaviour. It follows that serious work needs to be done on devising practical and creative incentives and disincentives for each party.  

In doing so, it is important to distinguish between measures to alleviate some of the hardships of occupation and measures to end the occupation. Reducing the impediments to free movement, for example, or promoting so-called ‘economic peace’, may make the occupation easier to bear in some ways but there is also a danger that they will serve to normalize and prolong occupation rather than achieve genuine peace

In the 1970s, often in the company of Israeli and Palestinian colleagues, I regularly drove through the West Bank and back and forth into Israel, only rarely encountering a checkpoint or roadblock. Yet the occupation was firmly entrenched.

The strange concoction, known as ‘economic peace’ - a novel term devoid of real meaning - is probably best understood as the latest manoeuvre, in an ongoing series, on the part of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to postpone indefinitely any prospect of Palestine taking its place among the family of nations in the context of a proper peace agreement. In the probable event (I hesitate to be more definitive!) that his shuttle diplomacy finally hits the buffers, it is to be hoped that John Kerry does not, in desperation, get behind this empty slogan on the sham ground that it is the only game in town. It is up to him to ensure that it is not the only game in town by formulating an alternative strategy that is at once fit for purpose and robust.

The need to think and act strategically applies too to the architects of the Arab Peace Initiative. They have a good product but their marketing, or lack of it, in the place where it matters most has been woefully deficient, even if great strides had been made compared to the past.

The Sadat initiative of November 1977, while understandably unpopular in the Arab world at the time, may have some important indicators for the current situation. I remember it well, for I was in Egypt shortly before the Egyptian president’s dramatic visit to Jerusalem, in Israel during his brief stay there, and back in Egypt for the two-week farce of the so-called Cairo peace conference.

President Sadat eventually achieved his purpose, primarily by appealing, not so much to Israeli Prime Minister Begin and his government but, more importantly, over their heads to the Israeli people, who were electrified by his visit. He took command of Israeli public opinion because they came to believe and trust him. He addressed them directly on their own soil, not as a future reward for peace but as a way of attaining it. Simultaneously, Egyptian spiritual leaders were urged to stress those portions of the Koran that call on Muslims to make friends with the Jews and downplay those parts that speak ill of the Jews. Sadat understood and played to the psychological need. He had a goal and went for it.

By contrast, it seems the authors of the API, at least initially, felt it was enough to lay the document on the table and let it speak to Israel for itself. While the Arab League mandated its representatives to support the initiative “on all levels, including the United Nations, the Security Council, the United States of America, the Russian Federation, the Muslim States and the European Union”, it notably omitted Israel from that list. It merely “called on the Israeli government and the Israelis as a whole to accept this initiative…”.

This was poor psychology and only served to reinforce the predominant Israeli view – shared by many Jews and other supporters of Israel around the world - that its true purpose was to gain favour with global powers rather than to reach a genuine peace with Israel, a perception reinforced by the continuing rhetoric and propaganda hostile not just to Israel per se but also to Jews as a people and to Judaism as a religion.

For all its ingenuity, the main failing of the Sadat Initiative was that it left the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to fester. As a result, its toxins have leached back into the Egyptian-Israeli relationship and threaten once again to destabilize it - as some of us did indeed predict those many years ago! [ix]  It is vital for everyone’s sake that the same mistake is not made again, meaning that the big prizes of full peace and normalization should be held back until the Israeli government meets in full its side of the bargain.

However, within that constraint, Arab leaders - in particular of states that do not have formal relations with Israel - need to find a way to appeal direct to the Israeli people - and in turn to the Palestinian people - and elaborate to them the plan’s explicit and implicit benefits. The API needs to be promoted not as a take-it-or-leave-it ‘generous offer’- reminiscent of Ehud Barak’s self-styled ‘generous offer’ to Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000[x] - or as a capricious proposal that could be withdrawn at any time, but as an adroit, persistent campaign, designed to win over Israeli public opinion to its genuineness. Provided there is proper reciprocation at each stage, a sequence of tangible gestures in keeping with the spirit of the API could help transform the atmosphere and drive the process forward.[xi]

In this context, civil society in Arab states might feel it appropriate to reassess whether shunning all contact with Israeli civil society – particularly with those segments that agitate against the occupation - is the most productive way of delivering support for the Palestinian cause.

Nelson Mandela once said “It always seems impossible until it’s done”. Martin Luther King warned “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now”. Now is indeed the fiercely urgent time to do the seemingly impossible – and, in the process, to prove the bevy of cynics wrong once again!

This article is an expanded version of a speech to a conference on promoting the Arab Peace Initiative held in Amman, Jordan in June 2013, with participation from Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iran plus a smattering of internationals. 

[i] Palestine-Israel Journal Vol 15 No. 1 & 2, 2008

[ii] Talk delivered at Limmud, Warwick University, 30.12.08.

[iii] Middle East conflict: a tale of two peoples, young fabian pamphlet 32, January 1973, ISBN 716320320

[iv] For the author’s elaboration of this argument, see here

[v] Wanted: an Israeli Peace Initiative, Dec 2008. 

In 2011, an Israeli NGO, called Israeli Peace Initiative, was formed that campaigns for the Israeli government to put forward its own peace plan in the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative.

[vi] For the original 2002 text of the API, see here

[vii] For a fuller elaboration of this proposal, see the author’s Visions of the Endgame: a strategy to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict swiftly to an end.

[viii] For example, in the past few years, Israel has been admitted to the OECD, the EU pharmaceutical market and the EU Open Skies Agreement free of any requirement to take concrete steps towards ending the occupation.

[ix] The meaning of the initiative, Tony Klug, New Outlook Vol 20, No. 9 (180), February/March 1978.

[x] The infernal scapegoat, Tony Klug, Palestine-Israel Journal Vol.8, No. 3, 2001.

[xi] For an imaginary scenario, see the author’s How peace broke out in the Middle East: a short history of the future.

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