Regional Players Key to Salvaging Peace Process

by , December 06, 2008

One of the biggest foreign policy challenges facing the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama will be reinvigorating what looks like a completely stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

Repeated failures in the struggle for peace make clear that a change in direction is needed. And many observers think that taking advantage of the Arab Peace Initiative put forward by the Arab League in 2002 is just the ticket to jumpstarting the process.

A push by Pres. George W. Bush in the final year of his two-term presidency yielded the Annapolis process which, though having made minimal procedural gains and bringing in regional players, largely ignored the existing Arab proposal spearheaded by then-Crown Prince and now King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

The Annapolis track ended up failing to meet its own goals of having an agreement signed by the end of Bush’s time in office.

The failure leaves Obama and the US with the task of jumpstarting the oft-troubled process. Many close observers of the conflict see some hope for the peace process, but even the optimists think that Obama’s tenure in the Oval Office may be the last chance for the two-state solution.

"This next administration may well be the last administration that could realistically pursue a two-state solution," said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli negotiator, at a conference at the New America Foundation. He was encouraged that Obama had mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of his top three foreign policy priorities when announcing his national security and foreign policy team earlier this week.

If Obama truly looks to tackle the long-burning Middle East conflict early in his term, he appears to have the support of the Arab League to use the proposal.

"I don’t think the new president has to invent anything new," said Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family and former ambassador to Washington, on Tuesday morning. Al Saud laid out a number of positive steps from previous peace plans that could be selectively farmed, among them, the Arab Initiative.

"The Arab Peace Initiative created in 2002 is also on the table," he said. "It’s up to the next president to do what is necessary. And he has raised a lot of expectations, particularly in our part of the world."

Al Saud isn’t the only player in the Mid East supporting the initiative.

"There are more and more voices from the region making the case for the Arab Initiative as an organizing principle," Levy told IPS, saying that one of the reasons that Bush’s Annapolis plan had failed was that it ignored the Arab League’s proposal.

The Arab Initiative is such an appealing proposal to many proponents of the peace process because it represents the idea of resolving regional tensions with other Arab nations at the same time as creating a viable Palestinian state.

"I see the Arab League Initiative as incorporating all the other [peace processes]," MJ Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum told IPS. "Under its auspices you still have negotiations and [UN resolutions]."

But precisely because the initiative comes from the Arab League and is signed by 22 Arab countries, it offers special incentives.

"It’s more like a symbolic rubric to achieve peace with the whole Arab world in one swoop," said Rosenberg. "The thing that makes the initiative unique is that it’s not just offering peace, it’s offering normalization [of relations with Arab neighbors]. That’s something that the most idealistic Israeli never dreamed of."

Another reason that Obama may turn to the initiative is exactly because so many other attempts at peace have stalled or failed.

"[The Arab Initiative] is the only game in town," said Naomi Chazan, a longtime Israeli peace activist and former deputy speaker of the Knesset, at the New America Foundation. Chazan pointed out that the Oslo Accords had failed, been retooled, and failed again, and that the halfhearted and late Annapolis process had never really taken off to begin with.

She said the initiative provides "an element of hope," and that as an Israeli, she, too, was particularly excited at the prospect of normalization

And the initiative could bear other fruits as well. Levy said it could provide an avenue for Western interests like Israel and the US to approach and deal with Iran. Chazan, an activist herself, mentioned that the initiative would open up the doors of the process to civil society to deal with, for example, the issue of Palestinian refugees in neighboring Arab countries.

Another and perhaps more important element of working through the Arab Initiative could be the reunification of the Palestinian territories – currently divided after armed hostilities between Palestinian factions.

"Building on a divided Palestinian house," Levy has said many times, is not a good recipe for creating a Palestinian state.

Egypt, an Arab league heavyweight, is already moderating discussions between the Fatah and Hamas factions, but using the initiative to put the full weight of the Arab world behind Palestinian unity would facilitate this important step, said Levy.

Doing so would "regionalize the solution," he said, a mantra he borrowed from Chazan’s presentation which both speakers on Wednesday repeated often.

But the unique opportunity to utilize broad-based Arab support for a peace process, like the two-state goal of the process itself, may be fleeting.

"The first and second time they put it on the table, the Israelis and Americans ignored it," Rosenberg told IPS, especially referring to the "amazing offer" of normalization

"I think if Obama doesn’t do something and push the Israelis to act on it, the moment will be lost forever," he said. "It’s hard to imagine some president after Obama will pursue this if Obama doesn’t."

Rosenberg, for his part, thinks it’s likely that Obama will take up the Arab League on its offer.

"He approves of the initiatives, but that doesn’t say anything," said Rosenberg, noting that nothing is certain until Obama takes office and starts making official decisions. "My feeling is he’s going to go with it."

Read more by Ali Gharib