The Joint Understanding issued at the Annapolis summit on November
27, 2007 failed to mention the Arab Peace Initiative as a possible
basis for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
However, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did refer to the plan
in his speech, stating: "I value this initiative. I acknowledge its
importance, and I highly appreciate its contribution. I have no
doubt that we will continue to refer to it in the course of the
negotiations between us and the Palestinian leadership."2 Though
vague and unsatisfactory in many ways, this statement was the most
positive Israeli response to the plan since its inception in
On February 17, 2002, Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York
Times that he had suggested to the Saudi crown prince the idea
of full Israeli withdrawal according to United Nations Security
Council Resolution 242 for full peace with the entire Arab world.
Abdallah claimed that he had intended to call, at the Arab League's
upcoming Beirut Summit, for full withdrawal from all the occupied
territories including (East) Jerusalem for full normalization of
relations (tatbi'), but had decided not to because of
then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's oppressive policy.3 This
plan would become the Saudi or Abdallah Initiative, later called
the Arab Peace Initiative.
Four reasons may explain the Saudi move at this particular
juncture.4 First, it meant to strengthen the Saudi image as a loyal
American ally. The involvement of 15 Saudis in the 9/11 terrorist
operation had turned Saudi Arabia's image in the United States into
that of a terrorist-supporting state. Moreover, the Initiative
could bring the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian issue
back to the forefront of international politics and show that the
Saudis in particular and the Arabs in general are not belligerent
but peace-loving people. If the Americans and Israelis rejected the
Initiative, at least the responsibility would rest on their
Second, the continuation and the escalation of the al-Aqsa intifada
caused greater instability in the entire Middle East, threatening
to erode the legitimacy and credibility of moderate pro-Western
Arab regimes such as the Saudi dynasty. A successful Saudi peace
initiative could stabilize the region.
Third, in the absence of any serious Arab role in the peace
process, the Saudis attempted to fill what they perceived as a
leadership vacuum in the Arab world.
Finally, perhaps Abdallah thought that such an initiative would
strengthen the moderate faction within the Saudi elite against the
radical fundamentalists that challenge the legitimacy of the
al-Saud dynasty.5 At home Abdallah described the plan as a "trial
balloon" - a face-saving formula that would enable him to
immediately withdraw it in case reactions were too harsh and
Shortly afterwards, two additional factors became evident: First,
it was not directed at the Israeli government. Based on their
hard-line and aggressive image of Sharon, the Saudis assessed that
he would immediately reject it; the Initiative was aimed at the
peace camp in Israel, with the hope that it would either exert
political pressure on the government to accept it or would trigger
a change in government. Second, the Saudis hoped that the UN
Security Council would endorse the Initiative. Such a step would
enable the replacement of UN Resolution 242, which was perceived as
inappropriate and too pro-Israel, since it did not relate to the
Palestinian rights and did not specify the withdrawal of Israel
from all the territories.7
Adhering to traditional Arab world policy, the Saudis first sought
the approval of the Arab states.8 The Beirut Summit in late March
2002 endorsed the Initiative with three expected modifications:
First, it called for full Israeli withdrawal "from all the
territories occupied since 1967, including the Syrian Golan
Heights, to the June 4, 1967 lines, and the remaining occupied
Lebanese territory." Second, it called for a just solution to the
Palestinian refugee problem "to be agreed upon in accordance with
UN Resolution 194." Finally, instead of normalization, it called
for the establishment of "normal relations with Israel."9 The text
clearly addressed Syria's demands, while the Palestinian and
Lebanese demands for introducing the right of return was only
partially dealt with by a phrasing that would hopefully be
palatable to Israel and the U.S. Thus, the Arab states successfully
completed their diplomatic maneuver: The Saudi initiative turned
into an Arab initiative. The ball was now in the Israeli and
The Israeli response was muted. Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at
the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, exclaimed that this
"dramatic change" in the Saudi position "seems to have been greeted
with a yawn by the Israeli government."10 Sharon's inaction seemed
to substantiate his negative image in the Arab world. Moreover, his
decision to ground the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah
following a series of terrorist attacks was perceived as a
deliberate Israeli move to frustrate the Initiative.11 Only in
early March did the Israeli government formally respond, voicing
opposition on the grounds that it threatens Israel's very security
by calling for its full withdrawal from all the territories, thus
attempting to replace UN Resolutions 242 and 338 that call for
Israeli withdrawal from territories.12
One unofficial Israeli response was that "there was nothing new in
the resolutions" at the summit and that Israel cannot accept a
resolution calling for the return of the Palestinians and
withdrawal to the 1967 borders. A more positive response came from
the Labor Party and the leftist peace coalition.13 In reality,
however, it seems that the Israeli government could not seriously
respond; on March 27, during the Passover seder, a suicide bomber
from the Hamas organization killed 29 and wounded more than 100
Israelis in a hotel in Netanya. On March 31, after another
terrorist action that killed 15 people in Haifa, the Sharon
government felt domestically compelled to retaliate, announcing the
launch of a massive military operation aimed at uprooting terrorism
and isolating Arafat.14 From an Arab perspective, the military
operation reflected Sharon's "true" response to the Arab peace
The U.S. response was more forthcoming. President George W. Bush's
first 14 months in office were characterized by a "hands-off
approach" with regard to the Middle East,15 as a result of his
preoccupation with international terrorism and Afghanistan.
Moreover, Middle Eastern problems, including the peace process,
were seen through the prism of their possible implications for the
Iraqi question. It seems that Bush did not fully grasp the
Initiative's potential. On February 21, the State Department
defined it as a "significant and positive step."16 The growing
diplomatic activity around the Initiative led Bush to publicly
support it on February 26, with the qualification that only after
the cessation of hostilities and terrorist attacks could it be
implemented.17 In an April 4 speech, Bush acknowledged the
importance of the plan.18
Bush then invited Abdallah to his Crawford ranch in Texas - an
honor reserved for special guests - on April 25.19 Abdallah
presented a modified peace plan20 that attempted to offer a
synthesis between the "vision" of the original Saudi Initiative and
the necessity to deal with the "reality" - that is, the violence
and terrorist operations. Significantly, the proposal was
"friendlier" to the U.S. and Israel: It did not mention the refugee
problem and did not specify Israeli withdrawal to the 1967
borders.21 In submitting a plan that had not been approved
by the Arab summit, Abdallah showed a measure of statesmanship.
Though largely motivated by the Saudi need to improve its image in
the U.S.,22 it was an ingenious plan which could have led to the
renewal of the peace process. Strangely, Israel immediately
rejected the proposal, stating that there was "nothing new in the
The U.S., therefore, searched for a new formula for negotiations.
In late April 2003, it launched the Road Map, which stated that one
of the bases of a future settlement was the Arab Peace
Initiative.24 Though Israel eventually accepted the Road Map, it
objected to the inclusion of any reference to the Saudi plan. Thus,
the Abdallah Initiative, which had become an Arab initiative
expressing willingness to recognize Israel and sign a comprehensive
peace with it, slowly but steadily faded from public discourse.
Instead, the Road Map and Israel's plan of unilateral disengagement
from the Gaza Strip became the two avenues through which a
settlement was sought. Also, the fact that both Israel and the
Palestinian Authority were engaged in domestic problems kept the
Initiative "on ice."
Following the Second Lebanon War, a renewed dialogue began between
the Arab states, Israel and the U.S. The reasons stemmed from
several political-strategic changes that had occurred since 2003:
First, the U.S. occupation of Iraq changed the balance of power in
the Gulf in favor of Iran. This was strengthened by its quest for
nuclear arsenal. Second, the rise of the Shia in the Arab world,
particularly in Iraq and Lebanon (Hizbullah), led to another shift
in the balance of power: between Sunnis and Shia. Third, the Second
Lebanon War was perceived in the Arab world as an Israeli defeat.
And finally, the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections
resulted in a deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian track. These
interrelated processes gave the radical forces an opportunity to
set the regional agenda, which threatened the West, Israel and the
so-called moderate Arab countries. Under such circumstances, Saudi
Arabia, Egypt and Jordan attempted - with U.S. support - to set a
new political agenda, with the resolution of the Israeli-Arab
dispute at the top. In light of the failure of the Road Map and the
Israeli unilateral disengagement, the Arab Peace Initiative seemed
a possible avenue. The March 2007 decision of the Arab summit in
Riyadh to reaffirm it can be interpreted in this context.
The Arab-Israeli-American dialogue included a visit by the Egyptian
and Jordanian foreign ministers - as representatives of the Arab
League - in Israel in late July 2007.25 Olmert and Foreign Minister
Tzipi Livni accepted certain parts of the Initiative in their
public declarations and generally gave the impression of a more
positive Israeli attitude toward it.26 Still, Israel remained
opposed to the plan's call for full withdrawal to the 1967
boundaries and the phrasing of the clause regarding the Palestinian
refugee problem.27 In any case, the U.S. call for an international
conference focusing on the Palestinian track in November 2007 once
more relegated the Initiative to the sidelines.
The significance of the Initiative is rooted in a few advantages:
First, it was approved by the Arab League, which represents a
consensus of 22 Arab states, and as such, the plan enjoys the
legitimacy of the higher Arab institution. Second, the plan was
initiated and led by Saudi Arabia, which enjoys a special status in
the Arab and Islamic worlds as the custodian of the Islamic holy
places. The fact that the kingdom has no relations with Israel is
an advantage, as it cannot be blamed - like Egypt and Jordan - of
being a Western stooge. Finally, the plan deals with all the
remaining parts of the conflict (Syria, Lebanon and the
Palestinians) and can serve as a basis for a comprehensive peace.
In addition, given the impasse in the Palestinian track as a result
of the Fateh-Hamas split, the plan can offer a multilateral track,
bypassing the deadlocked bilateral track. In such a case, an Arab
solution may be imposed on the recalcitrant Palestinians.
Several reasons may be suggested for why the Initiative failed to
take off as a basis for Israeli-Arab dialogue: First, Israel
remains inflexible, still focusing on the plan's perceived negative
aspects rather than on its positive elements. Second, Saudi Arabia
has not been fully committed to advancing the plan because of
domestic and regional considerations. And finally, the U.S. has
never fully promoted the plan, either because it prefers the Road
Map or because it wishes to keep open channels to all the parties.
Thus, the Annapolis meeting has not been used as a lever to promote
the plan and engage the parties in what I termed "multi-bilateral
In spite of our limited historical perspective, it seems that the
Arab Peace Initiative constitutes a missed opportunity. Israel
should have responded to the Initiative more vigorously. Bearing in
mind the memory of the 1967 Khartoum Summit resolutions, which
negated the very existence of Israel, the Beirut resolutions should
be seen as a consummation of a long and painful process in the Arab
world of recognizing the Israeli state. More than five years after
the publication of the plan, it seems that Israel missed an
opportunity to achieve some progress - if not to reach an agreement
- in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is about time that Israel
formally declared its willingness to accept the plan as a basis for
Arab-Israeli negotiations and began a serious dialogue concerning
1 This article is an abridged and updated version of From Fahd to
Abdallah: The Origins of the Saudi Peace Initiatives and Their
Impact on the Arab System and Israel, Gitelson Peace Publications,
No. 24 (Jerusalem: the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the
Advancement of Peace, 2003). See also my article "In Favor of the
Multi-Bilateral Approach," in Kobi Michael (ed.), The Arab Peace
Initiative - A Historic Opportunity (Jerusalem: The Jerusalem
Institute for Israel Studies, 2007), pp. 75-80 [in Hebrew].
2 Haaretz, 28 November 2007 [English Edition].
3 New York Times, "An Intriguing Signal from the Saudi Crown
Prince," 17 February 2002.
4 This analysis is based on: interviews with Ghazi al-Qusaibi, the
Saudi ambassador in London, al-Sharq al-Awsat, 19 February, 14
June; interview with Crown Prince Abdallah, Time Magazine, 25
February; Interview with Adil Jabir, Abdallah's foreign affairs
advisor, CNN, 26 February; Samir Attallah, al-Sharq al-Awsat, 21
February; Zain al-Abdin al-Rikabi, ibid., 22 February 2002.
5 See Joshua Teitelbaum, Holier Than Thou: Saudi Arabia's Islamic
Opposition (Washington: the Washington Institute for Near East
6 Abdallah's interview with Saudi TV, as quoted in al-Watan, 30
7 Adil al-Jabir's interviews with CNN, 26 February; AP, 27
February; Ghazi al-Qusaibi's interview with MBC TV, 1 March; Saud
al-Faysal's interview with al-Hayat, 29 March 2002.
8 See editorial in al-Madina, 25 February 2002.
9 See Palestine-Israel Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1 (2002), p. 181.
10 New York Times, 21 February 2002.
11 Editorials, al-Sharq al-Awsat, 27 February; 1 March.
12 Haaretz, 4 March 2002.
13 Haaretz, 29 March, 2 April 2002.
14 For the text of the government resolution, see Haaretz, 31 March
14 For the text of the government resolution, see Haaretz, 31 March
15 New York Times, Editorial, 5 April 2002.
16 Haaretz, 24 February 2002.
17 Haaretz, 27 February 2002.
18 For the text of Bush's speech, see New York Times, 5 April
19 "The Prince and the President," New York Times, 25 April 2002.
Only Russian President Putin and British Prime Minister Blair were
invited to the Texan ranch.
20 Since there is no formal text of the proposal, the description
is based on several sources: New York Times, 27 April; Haaretz, 28
April; al-Watan, 28 April 2002.
21 For an emphasis of the differences in favor of Israel, see
al-Quds al-Arabi, 29 April 2002.
22 On the Saudi advertisement campaign, see Todd Purdum, New York
Times, 28 April 2002.
23 The Saudi new proposal was presented to Sharon by the US
ambassador, Dan Kurtzer, on 28 April, see Yedioth Ahronoth, 3 May;
Haaretz, 29 April 2002.
24 For the text of the plan, see Haaretz, 1 May 2003.
25 Haaretz, 26 July 2007.
26 See, e.g., Olmert in Maariv, 24 May 2007; 6 June 2007; and
Livni's first article in Arabic, "the Peace Option," al-Sharq
al-Awsat, 18 June 2007. It seems, however, that Olmert sees the
plan in a more positive way than Livni.
27 With regard to the refugee problem, the Israelis usually
interpreted the clause in the plan as a call to implement the
Palestinian "claim of return," while the text explicitly said that
any resolution would be "agreed upon in accordance with UN General
Assembly Resolution 194."
28 Elie Podeh, "Four Tracks, Simultaneously," Haaretz, 14 June