The Arab Peace Initiative was presented at an Arab League summit in Beirut in March of 2002 and was revived at an Arab League summit in Riyadh in March 2007. The plan offers Israel full peace and normalization in return for full withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories. To observers, this provided an exceptional opportunity to settle the century-old Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Initiative was all but ignored by both the American administration and the Israeli government. First, it did not coincide with their immediate regional plans, which were not focused on the Israeli-Palestinian track. Second, neither country welcomed a unified Arab position invoking a reference to international law and United Nations resolutions. On the one hand, the United States: 1) was deeply involved in Iraq, or, more correctly, mired there; 2) was facing a continuous challenge from al-Qaeda and other political Islamist factions active in the region; and 3) did not accept a framework of international legitimacy (e.g., the UN) for its war against terrorism and rogue states - a reminder of President George W. Bush's doctrine that there is no middle ground: "You are either with us or against us."

Israel, on the other hand, was in no position to seriously engage in a comprehensive peace settlement at the time, and found many points of contention with the Initiative: 1) the proposed return to the 1967 borders; 2) the inclusion of Arab East Jerusalem in the future Palestinian state; and 3) the right of return for Palestinian refugees, as stated in UN General Assembly Resolution 194. Most importantly, the Initiative was conditional, that is, it offered Israel peace and normalization only if Israel agreed to withdraw from the Palestinian territories it occupied in 1967. This condition was promptly rejected by both Israel and the U.S., and the whole endeavor was in danger of going the way of all other peace initiatives: shelved and forgotten.

However, the reaffirmation of the Initiative at the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia represented a renewed and, perhaps, last push for peace and for putting an end to the protracted Arab-Israeli conflict. This was the standpoint of many political leaders and observers in the region.

The Arab Quartet

Following the re-activation of the Arab Peace Initiative in Riyadh, an Arab Quartet was created, consisting of Egypt and Jordan, which have diplomatic ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), better known as the United Arab Emirates. The Arab Quartet was supposed to be an Arab version of the international Quartet that has been mediating and overseeing the so-called peace process. It was to promote the Initiative, rally international and regional support for it and contribute to the conclusion of a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. This was the first time an Arab League committee had intervened in Palestinian affairs without the inclusion of Palestine, also a full member of the Arab League. This move is ostensibly an attempt on the part of the Arab League to portray the Arab Quartet as a neutral mediating body, just like the international Quartet. Other reasons could be attributed to internal discord within the Arab League.

The moderate Arab states forming the Quartet have much in common in terms of interests, challenges and alliances. They all have strong political and economic ties with the U.S. and the West. They certainly face significant internal challenges posed by the rise of political Islam. Indeed, they form a quasi-alliance with the U.S. and the West, which was further enhanced following the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq war. The 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon further highlighted the schism between the moderate Arabs, and the more radical regimes and movements such as Syria, Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

Political Shiism and a Two-Level Game Perspective

From a games theory perspective, reviving the Arab Peace Initiative can be viewed as a two-level game, in which states conduct negotiations simultaneously on two levels - external (in this case between the Arab states and Israel and key international players) and internal (within the Arab League). While the Initiative was directed primarily at Israel and the key international players in the region, it was also meant to address a separate concern that troubled the Arab League members: their capacity to garner a unified Arab position regarding the current challenges in the region. In addition to the continued instability caused by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Arab states are facing another threat from the East. The growing influence of Shiite Iran has disrupted the status quo in the region, creating a new phenomenon dubbed "political Shiism" and promoting a "counter-hegemony" through political and cultural resistance against what is perceived to be an alliance between the U.S., Israel and moderate Sunni Arab states. Therefore, the most important objective of the Arab League summit was for Arab diplomacy to maintain a unified Arab position that can meet the pressing demands of the key regional and international players.

Indeed, had it not been for the Initiative being reaffirmed, many moderate Arab states were on the verge of establishing bilateral economic and political relations with Israel. Such an outcome would have deepened the rift between the states and marred the fa├žade of unity provided by the Arab League.

I do not share the view that the Arab Peace Initiative can be taken literally - simply an initiative for peace - without a simultaneous consideration of the other criteria as well, namely, the need to maintain a unified Arab position on the international stage. That calculation would have drastically altered the expectations and we would not have been wondering why the Initiative had not met with success. In fact, given the challenges that the Arab states were facing both internally and externally, the Arab Peace Initiative was a rare success. <