(Previously published in The Jerusalem Post)
In 2002 Saudi Arabia proposed the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which seemed at first to promise an end to the Arab world’s rejection of Israel, and a path to resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Initially it appeared that full normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world was being offered.
Unfortunately, “full normalization” evolved into “normal relations,” which then became almost meaningless as Adil al-Jubayr, the Saudi ambassador to the US, then said normalization would happen only after the achievement of peace.
This allowed the Palestinian leadership to hold a veto over any initiative and the chance of advancing Israeli-Sunni Arab relations.
What started as a dramatic possibility turned into a take-it-or-leave-it offer. It insisted Israel return to the indefensible 1949 armistice line, i.e. 1967 line, while guaranteeing an unlimited right of return for descendants of Arab refuges, i.e. the demographic destruction of Israel.
But times change, and there may be a real opportunity now.
Over the past 16 years Israel has participated in five wars, while the Arab Winter of 2011 upended the legitimacy of the arbitrarily chosen Sykes-Picot borders.
American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were replaced by retreat, and Islamists of all stripes filled the resulting power vacuums. Meanwhile, the ill-conceived JCPOA (Iran deal) has given the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism the green light for a nuclear bomb with full international approval in 10-15 years, and access to billions for its war chest. Meanwhile, Palestinians are so disgusted with the Palestinian Authority’s pervasive corruption that Hamas has seemed to many a better choice.
Which brings us to a golden window of opportunity that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
The Obama administration’s gift to the Iranians is a dark cloud with the following silver lining: Shi’ite Iran’s threats are directed not just at America and Israel, but also at Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states that are in Iran’s path of aggression.
Israel and the Saudi monarchy have been unofficially cooperating on a number of security issues for the past few years. There have been a few public handshakes – previously unthinkable – between present and former Israeli and Saudi leaders (Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal).
As Lesley Terris of IDC Herzliya wrote in The Jerusalem Post earlier this year, The API “deserves serious consideration because a process based on a document endorsed and supported by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and… the Arab League would enjoy legitimacy in large parts of the Muslim and Arab world.”
So the magic question is, can the 2002/2007 API be tweaked to create a document that will allow all parties to save face, and bring the relationship into the public and diplomatic sphere? A simple document can state up-front that all issues are not going to be resolved immediately, but that it is the basis for an immediate process of normalization of relations between the parties so that they can work together.
Here are some ideas.
- Negotiations will be based on UN resolutions 242 and 181. This would allow both sides to move forward without imposing the indefensible Green Line as the final offer on borders.
- An Israeli gesture allowing 5,000 Arab refugees from 1948 immediate entrance into Israel, or compensation.
This symbolic gesture would acknowledge the hardships of Palestinians, while at the same time make clear that the deal-breaking UNWRA definition of refugees as descendants of refugees, unique to Palestinian refugees, cannot be on the table.
- Normal diplomatic and commercial relations, with embassies opened in the second phase of negotiations. America can sweeten the pot with preferred trade agreements for Arab states that sign onto the revised API.
- The issue of the Golan Heights and Jerusalem will be deferred due to regional realities.
A simple document could transform the region.
Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will be coming to visit members of the Senate and House Foreign Relations Council. He has already shown great foresight in his vision to restructure the future Saudi Arabian economy away from its reliance on oil revenue. He and his security establishment know that if anyone is going to oust the Saudi regime and lay waste to or nuke their country, it’s Iran waving a Shi’ite banner, not Israel or the US.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog recently revealed that he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have had many recent discussions over the API, and no doubt could join a unity government if this moves forward.
Unfortunately the myopic Obama administration foreign policy team believes any new initiatives are deliberate plans to sabotage the president’s foreign policy legacy.
It is time for the American Congress to come to the rescue, to take a leading role in forging foreign policy initiatives.
For far to long the legislative branch of the American government has avoided its constitutional responsibilities on foreign policy, allowing presidents of both parties too much executive overreach in foreign affairs.
We should call on respective chairmen of the Senate and House foreign relations committees, Senator Bob Corker and Congressman Ed Royce, and ranking members Senator Ben Cardin and Congressman Eliot Engel, to take up the mantle of forging regional Middle East stability, while promoting American national security interests.
The author is the director of MEPIN™.
He regularly briefs members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset and journalists on issues related to the Middle East.