Despite international efforts, there have been no substantive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for more than five years. While Israel has always insisted that only direct bilateral talks can lead to a peace agreement, Arab states say they are more interested in a regional peace agreement, and that the outline of a deal was offered in 2002.
Called the Arab Peace Initiative (API) or the Saudi plan, it is a ten- point initiative that calls for an Israeli withdrawal from all of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, as well as the Golan Heights which Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and later annexed. It also calls for a “just” solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees. In exchange, Israel would receive peace treaties with dozens of Arab states in the region.
The plan was overshadowed by an attack on the Park hotel in Netanya during a Passover seder when gunmen from the Islamist Hamas movement killed 30 Israeli civilians. Now regional players in the Middle East say it might be time to try to revive the plan.
“In our opinion the Arab Peace Initiative is the way (to proceed) when we talk of regional peace,” Ambassador Walid Obeidat, the Jordanian Ambassador to Israel told the 2016 Herzliya Conference. “We had international legitimacy, it is supported by 58 countries. What could Israel ask for more than this?” Israel has had a peace treaty with both Egypt and Jordan for decades, and while there is extensive security cooperation Israeli hopes for a “warm peace” with mutual visits and extensive economic ties have not been realized.
Palestinians have long supported the Arab Peace Initiative which would give regional backing to any deal they made with Israel.
“It provides Israel with a prize for recognizing the state of Palestine,” Elias Zananir, the Deputy Chairman of the PLO Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society told the same conference. “We tried bilateral negotiations and 22 years have passed without a result. I think we are living the last minutes of a chance for peace and time is of the essence.”
Some Israelis have embraced the idea of a broader regional peace as well.
“The Arab Peace Initiative is a historic landmark,” Knesset member Yaakov Peri, the former head of the Israeli security agency the Shin Bet told The Media Line. “Israel has wanted Arab recognition ever since it was established. It is in Israel’s interest to separate from the Palestinians. It is time for us to stop reacting and to start to take the initiative.”
Just two weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did not discount the plan when he spoke at the swearing-in ceremony of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
“I want to clarify that I am committed to achieving peace with our Palestinian neighbors and with all our neighbors,” Netanyahu said. “The Arab Peace Initiative includes positive elements that could help revive constructive negotiations with the Palestinians.
We are prepared to conduct negotiations with the Arab nations about updating the proposal so as to reflect the dramatic changes in our region since 2002, but maintain the agreed-upon goal of two states for two peoples.”
However, earlier this week, Netanyahu backpedaled telling a Likud ministers that it cannot be a basis for talks.
“If the Arab nations grasp the fact that they need to revise the Arab League proposal according to the changes Israel demands, then we can talk,” Netanyahu said, according to the Ha’aretznewspaper. “But if they bring the proposal from 2002 and define it as 'take it or leave it' – we’ll choose to leave it.”
Israel has long said it would not withdraw from the Golan Heights, territory it conquered in 1967 from Syria and annexed in 1981.
Even many left-wingers in Israel say that given the past five years of the civil war in Syria, it would be a mistake to even consider withdrawing from the Golan Heights right now. Former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer told The Media Line that Israel is not being asked to “accept” the API, which is an Arab initiative but to respond to it.
“The Arabs have been looking for some Israeli response – some sense that “we welcome the fact that you did this, but we have some issues and let’s proceed to negotiate,” he said. “Israel has not yet done that.”
The revival of the API comes as Israel and Saudi Arabia have been moving closer over the past few months. Israeli Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold has held several public meetings with Saudi officials, and, according to the Israeli press, a series of secret meetings as well. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia see Iran as a growing threat in the Middle East.
“It is no secret that there is a strategic convergence between Israel and many of the Sunni Arab countries,” Gold said. “Many of the countries to our east fear the rise of Iranian power. We see intense Iranian involvement with boots on the ground in Syria and in Iraq.”
Gold said that most Arab countries do not really care about a solution to the Palestinian issue, although admitted that the Arab population continues to see it as important.