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Edition 10 Volume 2 - May 04, 2011

"To gain support for this initiative at all levels"
Everybody but Israel  - Yossi Alpher
Why does the Arab League address its appeal to every relevant player except Israel?

The Arab states were never that interested  - Ferry Biedermann
The API was never meant to be actively pushed.

Pakistan: in lockstep with Saudi Arabia  - Irfan Husain
A solution to the Middle East conflict would reduce the appeal of Muslim extremism.

A view from Russia  - Irina Zvyagelskaya
Endorsement of the API would become a central part of the conference.

Everybody but Israel
 Yossi Alpher

The Arab Peace Initiative concludes with an appeal to a large and comprehensive collection of world bodies and countries to "gain support for this initiative at all levels". The United Nations, the Security Council, the United States of America, the Russian Federation, the Muslim states and the European Union are all mentioned. Each of these bodies and countries has addressed the API differently, some expressing full-fledged support, others expressing reservations.

Israel is not mentioned. This has always seemed strange to Israelis. Why does the Arab League address its appeal, which after all is about Israel, to every relevant player except Israel? There appear to be several possible answers to this query.

First and foremost, the operative portion of the API begins by requesting Israel "to reconsider its policies and declare that a just peace is its strategic option as well". It then "further calls upon Israel to affirm" an intricate and well-known series of specific policy moves toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians and peace with Syria and Lebanon. So the formal Arab reply to the Israeli query is presumably that Israel is indeed addressed directly by the API with regard to concessions toward peace, whereas the international community is asked essentially to rally behind the API and thereby apply additional pressure on Israel to commit to it.

There is another, darker interpretation of this dichotomy in the API, advanced primarily by skeptics on the Israeli and American political right wing. The API, they argue, was developed by the Saudi Arabian leadership as a way of improving the Saudi image, which had been badly damaged a half-year earlier by the 9/11 attacks in which most of the perpetrators, not to mention the late Osama Bin Laden, were Saudis. This explains the perceived need to disseminate the API in quarters where damage control was seemingly necessary. According to this take on the API, it is little more than a cynical ploy.

This interpretation is belied by the history of the API both before and since late March 2002 when it was accepted by the Arab League. The concept of the API apparently began in Jordan, which was not involved in 9/11, and not initially in Saudi Arabia. Its composition and structure reflect the contributions of a wide spectrum of Arabs, not just Saudis. And it has continued to "live" long since Saudi-American relations were repaired. It was even reaffirmed by the Arab summit in 2007.

Still, Arab leaders were sufficiently bothered by the Israeli argument, seconded here and there in the western world, according to which the API should be formally presented to Israel and its adherence formally requested, to make a gesture in this direction. In July 2007, the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan were dispatched to Jerusalem to explain the initiative to Israeli leaders. The latter, however, were not impressed, if only because it was so obvious that the League had chosen to send diplomats who in any case visit Israel regularly within the framework of the three countries' peace treaties and relations.

No attempt by the Arab League to explain the API directly to Israelis has been made since then. In 2010, the Palestinian Authority did publish the API in Hebrew in full page ads in Israel's major daily newspapers. But even this important gesture was financed by a pro-Israeli American Jewish multi-millionaire and not by an Arab source.

Would it have made a difference if, following the March 2002 Arab summit, a delegation of Arab heads of state had invited itself to Jerusalem to present the API in the Knesset? The suggestion was made at the time, almost certainly cynically, by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Israel, we recall, was at the time under siege by Palestinian suicide bombers and was reoccupying Palestinian Authority land. These, to say the least, were not the best circumstances for such a gesture. On the other hand, we know how a similar gesture by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat completely turned Israeli public opinion around in late 1977: from rejection of exchanging the Sinai peninsula for peace with Egypt, to overwhelming acceptance.

Israel is certainly mistaken in not accepting the API with one or two reservations. Yet this does not exonerate the Arab world. It does not appear to have drawn any positive lesson from Sadat's experience, and that's a pity. Nor has the Arab League's appeal to half the world to "gain support for this initiative" generated any really significant pressure on Israel from countries and institutions that it is dependent on.-Published 4/5/2011 © bitterlemons-api.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

The Arab states were never that interested
 Ferry Biedermann

The Arab Peace Initiative seems to have served its role merely by being promulgated; it was never meant to be actively pushed. Like many of the other clauses, the ones calling for an effort to garner support for the API appear to fulfil a form requirement rather than being meant as an actual call to action.

There are numerous reasons for this, ranging from the API's very inception and the weakness of the Arab League to Israeli intransigence and geopolitical circumstances.

Having achieved its aim of being labelled "historic" at its publication in 2002, very little else has been required of the API. The initiative, as has been remarked before, came in the aftermath of 9/11 when Arab countries and Saudi Arabia in particular needed a diplomatic face-lift.

It would have been naive to expect the Arab League, a fractious, disunited front that has no diplomatic achievements to its name whatsoever, to be able to actively promote its own initiative. It was barely able to agree on it in the first place and even had to amend it after its initial publication.

The initiative's function now is to be trotted out conveniently whenever there is a new burst of international diplomatic activity. Thus it actually weakens the need for an evolving and creative Arab approach to the conflict--it's a comfortable fallback position that lets the Arab League off the hook.

Since the initiative has been incorporated into the Obama administration's Middle East strategy, such as it is, the Arab League has been relieved of any supposed need to promote the plan. Instead it has now reduced its role to greenlighting the Palestinian Authority's positions towards the patchwork of US-mediated virtual peace talks. Indeed, when US President Barack Obama asked the Arab countries to make "goodwill" gestures towards Israel in the context of his mediation attempts, he was brusquely referred to the initiative and its conditions.

But actively promoting the initiative was never in the cards. This goes to the heart of problems with the Arab stance in general towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There has never been active support for the peace process, save from those countries that have a peace treaty with Israel. On the contrary, whenever there was a peace process it has been generally opposed overtly or covertly by most Arab countries.

The lack of clear Arab support, let alone prodding, especially from such a crucial western ally as Saudi Arabia, was generally considered to be one of the reasons behind the failure of the 2000 Camp David talks, which in turn contributed to the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada. At the very least, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat should have had the public backing of the custodian of the two holy places.

The API appears to be intended to create the illusion that such a fiasco will not recur. But its mere existence is a far cry from an active Arab peace-oriented diplomatic strategy, which has been non-existent.

The sclerotic nature of the Arab governments and therefore of the Arab League is partly to blame for this. An uncompromising stance usually is the safe domestic fallback mode for the region's autocratic regimes. The rulers of Egypt and Jordan gambled that they had more to win from a peace treaty but have not been able to convince their peoples of it.

The popular dislike and distrust of Israel may become more important in the wake of the "Arab spring" uprisings. This new dynamic may overtake the Arab Peace Initiative. Certainly, it is hard to see new governments pushing for the initiative at this stage when their domestic politics are so much in flux.

Sadly, none of the above matters much in the light of Israeli intransigence and Palestinian ineffectiveness. Crucial to any diplomatic movement is an Israeli display of willingness to actually engage, including a stop to settlement activity, constructive steps to ease the overall situation in Gaza and the West Bank, and a more equitable approach to its own minorities. Another condition, surely, is Palestinian unity and a government that is willing to engage with Israel on realistic terms too.

The Arab League has been let off the hook mainly by the developments on the ground. Peace initiatives, roadmaps and other constructs have withered in the climate of the past 11 years.

Hands extended in peace have not worked, maybe because they were too often limp and insincere, meant more to catch out the other side or gain some kind of advantage. The Arab Peace Initiative is now on the books, just like the parameters promoted by US President Bill Clinton and other milestones that will shape the future of the region. It is clear by now that, for it to be implemented, more robust international measures will be required.-Published 4/5/2011 © bitterlemons-api.org

Ferry Biedermann is a freelance journalist writing on the Middle East, among others for Jane's Sentinel and The National.

Pakistan: in lockstep with Saudi Arabia
 Irfan Husain

When the famous Arab Peace Initiative was announced with much fanfare in 2002 by Saudi Arabia, there was a stirring of hope. Some genuinely felt that the API's comprehensive, holistic approach to the festering Israel-Palestine conflict might succeed where so many piecemeal solutions had failed. And the fact that Saudi Arabian King (then Crown Prince) Abdullah had put his prestige on the line meant that the proposal would receive serious attention in Washington and Tel Aviv.

Nearly a decade later, the API has joined other initiatives on the dusty shelves of archives in foreign ministries around the world. And yet, although it got little traction in Israel, it remains the only game in town.

In Pakistan, it came shortly before President Pervez Musharraf urged a national debate over the recognition of Israel. As head of the army, he was the only leader who could publicly launch such a bold initiative. But while it triggered a storm of controversy, the proposal soon subsided in the face of a virulent anti-Americanism that has taken root in the wake of the occupation of Afghanistan, the attack on Iraq, and the drone campaign in Pakistan's tribal areas. Nevertheless, the Pakistani foreign minister did meet his Israeli counterpart in Istanbul in 2005.

From the day it was launched, the API has been a central plank in Pakistan's Middle East policy. Quite apart from the fact that it addresses all the Arab territories captured by Israel in 1967, its Saudi parentage would have assured Islamabad's wholehearted approval.

Several factors put Pakistan in lockstep with Saudi Arabia. First and foremost, as custodians of Islam's two holiest places, the Saudi royal family carries enormous prestige. Second, given Pakistan's fragile economy, it is often the grateful recipient of Saudi largesse in the form of deferred payment for oil. Finally, the two largely Sunni states have major issues with Shiite Iran.

Recently, when Saudi Arabia sent security personnel to assist Bahrain in putting down its Shiite revolt, Pakistan was one of the few Muslim countries to support the move. There are rumors in Islamabad that the country's leadership has agreed to send two Pakistani army divisions to Saudi Arabia should the need arise for armed forces to suppress the angry Shiite population in the east of the country.

Given the closeness of these ties, it should come as no surprise that Pakistan has continued to voice its support for the API in the regular sessions on the Middle East at the United Nations. Its diplomats have consistently urged other states to adopt the Saudi plan as a starting point in their discussions on the Middle East.

This is true, to varying degrees, of most non-Arab Muslim states. Even Iran, Saudi Arabia's bitter rival for regional power and the leadership of the Muslim world, has endorsed the plan. Turkey, with its newfound confidence and clout in the region, has strongly backed the API.

One reason for this virtual unanimity is that a solution to the Middle East conflict would reduce the appeal of Muslim extremism, which is a threat felt across the Islamic world. Anything that would help stifle the rallying cry of freedom for Palestine would be welcomed from Jakarta to Rabat.

India, with a Muslim population of around 180 million, has also strongly supported the API. Speaking in Saudi Arabia on a visit last year, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh endorsed the Saudi plan, dubbing it a major contribution to the search for peace in the Middle East.

Only the extremists reject the API because they see the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land as a major factor in their recruitment drive. In a bipartisan paper written by former US secretary of state Zbigniew Brzezinski and nine other major American public servants ("A last chance for a two-state Israel-Palestine agreement"), the authors write: "Although a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace would not erase al-Qaeda, it would help to drain the swamp in which it and other violent and terrorist movements thrive."

But the window for the API is fast closing. With the winds of change sweeping across the Middle East, it is hard to see how the Saudi plan can stay on the table indefinitely. The shape of the new governments that emerge from the debris of old despotisms is still unclear. For Arab and non-Arab Muslim countries alike, the focus has shifted away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This state of flux makes the prospect of cutting the toughest of all Gordian knots even more difficult than it already is. Even those Muslim countries outside the vortex currently blowing across the Middle East are struggling to keep up with the pace of change.

For Israel, the strategic balance might well tilt against it in the near future. Perhaps its best bet would be a bold initiative now, rather than wait for things to get worse in its neighborhood and beyond.-Published 4/5/2011 © bitterlemons.org

Irfan Husain writes two columns a week for Dawn, Pakistan's widest circulating and most influential daily. After a career in the civil service spanning 30 years, he was president of a university in Pakistan for five years.

A view from Russia
 Irina Zvyagelskaya

The Arab Peace Initiative "requests . . . to form a special committee composed of some of its concerned member states and the secretary general of the League of Arab States to pursue the necessary contacts to gain support for this initiative at all levels, particularly from the United Nations, the Security Council, the United States of America, the Russian Federation, the Muslim states and the European Union".

At the moment of its issue on March 28, 2002, the initiative did not get an adequate response from the international community. It did not pass unnoticed, but the attention it deserved was missing. Russia expressed its official support, but no practical measures were taken. One could argue that international attention was diverted at the time to the Quartet, which was officially set up in March 2002 as a joint venture of global mediators. For obvious reasons, the Arab countries were no part of it.

Later on, when the API was referred to in various UN resolutions, Russia felt quite comfortable with it. For a number of reasons, its support for the API has increased considerably since 2007.

For one, Russia has been pursuing the idea of an international conference in Moscow for several years. In the current situation, the very concept of the conference clearly needs serious improvement, and here the API can be more than useful. This was made clear by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who stated after the meeting of the Quartet in Trieste at the end of June 2009 that the goal is to resume direct negotiations between the parties, with priority given to the Palestinian track and to the practical realization of the Arab Peace Initiative. This was the first time that practical realization of the API was mentioned within the context of an international peace conference in Moscow. Earlier, Lavrov had declared that endorsement of the API by all parties without exception would become a central part of the discussions at the conference.

A few Russian experts believe that to make such an international conference a success and ensure results, its organizers should pay more attention to the multilateral talks that proved so successful at and after the Madrid conference of 1991. The issues of security, water and economic development are of great importance to all parties involved--probably even more important now, given the turmoil in the Arab world. The international community can take advantage of the positive results reached at Madrid. Multilateral talks could be carried out simultaneously with Israeli-Palestinian talks. Their resumption would draw more attention to the API. On the other hand the API, with its stress on urgency and appeal for support from the Muslim countries, can help turn the wheels of the conference.

Second, Moscow has been trying to broaden its political role in the international arena. Active steps in the Middle East could contribute to this effort. Russia believes that nowadays new ideas for a peace settlement are hardly needed; all plans and maps are already on the table. The API offers its own contours for a peace settlement and for the future of the region. Once a Palestinian state is established, the Arabs would consider the Arab-Israel conflict ended and enter into a peace agreement with Israel, provide security for all the states of the region and establish normal relations with Israel in the context of this comprehensive peace.

The main question is how to implement these existing proposals and plans. In January 2011, President Dmitry Medvedev visited the West Bank and met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to hold discussions on the failed peace talks. This was part of a regional trip, but a planned visit to Israel had to be postponed due to a strike at the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

While in the West Bank and later in Jordan, Medvedev articulated official Russia's position: an independent Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. This is not a new approach, but the fact that East Jerusalem was specifically mentioned was interpreted by observers as a message to the Israeli government. Some were ready to see in the president's statement an indirect reference to the API, which calls for the establishment of a sovereign independent Palestinian state on the Palestinian territories occupied since June 4, 1967 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Russia is not in a position to singlehandedly overcome existing obstacles. Nor is it ready to present a new initiative of its own--which is actually not needed. However, it is ready to work within the Quartet, to cooperate more closely with the US, EU and all interested parties, and to shoulder a bigger share of responsibility in a Middle East settlement.

Russia is ready to take advantage of its relations with Hamas, Hizballah and Iran--actors that should be associated with peace talks in a way acceptable to all parties. It is necessary to work with these actors at least part of the way. A well-known principle, "nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed" does not look workable any longer. With the advent of the Hamas-Fateh agreement on a single transitional government, many questions concerning the procedure and eventual results of the talks might be answered. The new Palestinian government could help include Gaza. The value of Arab support in this case cannot be underestimated.

The API has been getting more important with the passage of time. Now, due to the Arab revolutionary wave, it deserves special attention on the part of the international community. While that wave creates a negative ideological-political background for searching for peace, at the same time it accentuates the urgency of a breakthrough. Time is obviously running out. The "revolutionary virus" could spread into the Palestinian community, where young and impatient forces who are dissatisfied with the lack of progress and also with their leaders might ruin whatever has been achieved during all these years. The government of Israel should be aware of this and try not to miss this last opportunity.-Published 4/5/2011 © bitterlemons-api.org

Irina Zvyagelskaya is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies (Moscow) and professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations under the Foreign Ministry.

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