The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has fallen down the list of political priorities in recent years as regional and global powers have been preoccupied with more pressing issues—including tensions with Iran; wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya; unrest in Lebanon, Iraq and Algeria; the rise of intestate competition, including with Russia and China, in the region; and a host of internal issues affecting the countries of the region.
The conflict, however, has not gone away, and has historically found a way, often violently, to grab international attention. The Trump administration’s policy decisions relating to key issues of the conflict, alongside ongoing official statements of its intention to table an initiative, have brought the issue back to the international community’s agenda. This despite the administration acknowledging that the main Arab stakeholders are unlikely to embrace the White House’s eventual plan and that Palestinians will reject it. Unfortunately though, as the conflict has seen renewed attention, upcoming elections in the United States, most likely again in Israel and hopefully in the Palestinian Territories mean that an American-led effort is likely to be placed on the back-burner for at least the near term.
However, recent regional developments may present opportunities to reaffirm the tenets that would someday lead to a comprehensive peace. Shared security concerns, particularly over Iran, and American encouragement have opened new lines of communication between Israel and key Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Further, Israel’s next government—whenever it may come—could hold more forward-leaning views toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the current ruling coalition.
More importantly, this year, the Arab world has twice reconfirmed commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative (API)—first, in the March 2019 Arab Summit held in Tunisia, and recently at the September meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo. The historic offer—full peace with Israel following a two-state solution—made at the Beirut Summit of 2002 failed to prompt any official Israeli response. Nonetheless, official Arab support for the API has been consistently reaffirmed since its adoption.
An opportunity now exists for the Arab Quartet (AQ), consisting of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to present a complementary initiative to the API to advance Palestinian-Israeli peace. With the right approach, a package presented to the Israelis and Palestinians may have a chance of success irrespective of the introduction of an American initiative.
Time is of the essence though. The stakes of inaction are at an all-time high: a viable two-state solution is in jeopardy; violence or war remains a possibility around flash points such as Gaza, Jerusalem, Lebanon and Syria, among others; the negotiating positions of the parties continue to widen; Palestinian institutions are losing strength and public confidence; and extremism is on the rise.
The Arab Peace Initiative 2.0: A Three-Track Approach
The 2002 API focused on the essence of the conflict. Today, an initiative to complement the API is needed to address the structures and actions required to achieve peace. This package should be made up of three primary components.
- The Israeli-Palestinian Track: The initiative should include an Israeli-Palestinian track based on an agreed political horizon, to include long-held internationally recognized parameters to achieve a two-state solution, with a clear understanding that implementation will be staged over a reasonable period with stages dependent on clear milestones for both sides. These may include ensuring the end of Palestinian divisions; ensuring Israel’s security; halting settlement expansion; and ending Israeli policies to impose collective punishment, such as home demolition.
This should include a track between the Arab Quartet, Israelis and Palestinians to clarify the regional role that the AQ will play in supporting negotiations, in ending the conflict, and in ensuring peace and prosperity for both sides and the region. The AQ should also work with the parties to agree on a time frame for negotiations and for the implementation of the agreement.
- The Regional Track: The initiative should seek to negotiate a peace agreement that establishes normal relations between Israel and the Arab world in accordance with the API, and perhaps expand it to include Islamic countries as well. Improved ties between Israel and a number of Arab states—highly touted by Prime Minister Netanyahu in his campaigning this year—have clear ceilings and are reversible with the eruption of violence or a change in perceived necessity or value. The next Israeli government should respond to a new Arab initiative by reciprocating in good faith and seeking to lead a skeptical Israeli public to support peace efforts and appreciate the opportunities represented by a final settlement.
Furthermore, this track should also launch a public diplomacy campaign in cooperation with other countries, regionally and internationally, to make the promise of regional support and the steps to be taken by the AQ more tangible to Israelis and Palestinians, while also making clear the concessions expected from both sides.
The regional track must also establish a mechanism to deal in a firm manner with spoilers on both sides and a monitoring mechanism to ensure that both sides are abiding by their commitments.
- The Multilateral Track: A final track—involving Arab countries, the donor community, Palestinians and Israelis—should be developed to support Palestinian state building and advance regional cooperation, building on lessons learned from the Madrid multilateral process in the early 1990s.
All three tracks must be designed to be mutually reinforcing, which is a difficult task. One of the failures of the Madrid Peace Process was the lack of synchronization between the bilateral and multilateral tracks. A concerted effort to develop an effective monitoring, coordinating and synchronizing mechanism can achieve these aims.
Parallel to a new regional initiative, Palestinian division must come to an end. A successful Palestinian election may also be a key factor in achieving this objective. For years, Egypt has led intra-Palestinian reconciliation efforts. These efforts must be intensified and supported by the other members of the AQ, Israel, and with the involvement of Qatar and Turkey. Qatar has been providing generous financial assistance to Gaza, with the acceptance of the U.S., Israel, Egypt, and the U.N. Relatedly, Turkey should be persuaded to play a constructive role. While relations between regional players are not at their best, on this crucial issue they may be able to rise above their differences.
In the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a major effort is needed to break through the current stalemate, build confidence and incentivize progress. The AQ can play a crucial role in calibrating synchronized steps to encourage the parties to move forward. This is a daunting task, requiring courageous leadership, innovative ideas and good faith. Despite developments that indicate that time may be running out for the two-state solution, new opportunities may emerge to bring this decades-old conflict to a close.