The Arab Peace Initiative, which was re-adopted by the Arab League in March 2007 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is the most momentous declaration to come out of the Arab world in recent years. It would be tragic to allow the Initiative to die the way it withered and died in Beirut, Lebanon, when it was first introduced by Saudi Arabia in March 2002. It offers the only hope for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace and has the potential to extinguish many of the horrific fires and extremism that have engulfed the Middle East, to the detriment of America and its allies in the region.
The continued benign neglect of the Initiative by the United States and Israel will send a dangerous message to the Arab world that neither country is interested in ending the debilitating 60-year conflict. As such, it will be left to the extremist Islamic groups - the terrorists, the jihadis and the Takfiries - to hijack the political agenda and make today's turmoil and bloodshed seem a mini-rehearsal of the ominous days to come.
Essentially, the Initiative calls on Israel to agree to full withdrawal from the occupied territories; to arrive at a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, based on United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194; and to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as the capital. Having spoken about the Initiative with scores of Arab and Israeli officials, I feel strongly that the demands made by the Initiative can be fully reconciled with Israel's core requirements for peace, which are: 1) ensuring Israel's national security and territorial integrity; 2) sustaining Israel's Jewish national identity; 3) securing the unity of Jerusalem as Israel's capital while accommodating the Palestinians; and 4) establishing normal relations with the entire Arab world.
Why is the Arab Initiative so critical to the future stability of the Middle East?
First, timing: The Iraq war continues to rage with no end in sight; Iran has ambitions to become the region's hegemon armed with nuclear weapons; there is a major Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq threatening to engulf the entire region; and extreme Muslim radicalism and terrorist groups are gaining popular support and pose a clear and present danger to the U.S. and its allies, especially Israel and the Sunni Arab states in the region.
Second, unlike any other peace proposal, including the Road Map, the Geneva Initiative or the Clinton Parameters, this Initiative is an Arab one and represents the entire Arab body politic. This is particularly important because the Arab streets today are openly antagonistic toward the U.S. and Israel. Both intuitively and psychologically, the Arab communities will relate far more positively to an initiative from their own governments, and it will engender wide public support.
Third, since there are many extremist Arab groups that oppose the peace process, such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizbullah, only the collective Arab political will can rein in these groups by any means. Moreover, without such a collective effort, it will be impossible to successfully combat terrorism unless the communities that support such terrorists groups are alienated from their leadership. Here too, only the Arab states working in concert can bring about the communal socioeconomic and political changes, in combination with the use of force if necessary, to achieve that objective.
Fourth, the Initiative is comprehensive in that it covers all outstanding conflicting issues between Israel and the Arab states. To achieve a comprehensive peace, the conflict between Israel and Syria over the Golan Heights must also be settled. Syria is a critical player, and the efforts by the Bush administration to isolate or marginalize it have done nothing but further aggravate the security conditions in northern Israel, Lebanon and Iraq. Moreover, luring Syria back into the Arab Sunni fold will suck out much of the wind that fans the Sunni-Shiite conflict.
Fifth, since Iran has thrived and continues to thrive on Arab discontent with the U.S. and Israel, any major progress made on the Initiative will erode Tehran's influence in the region and offer Iranian moderates a greater say in the affairs of their state. Distancing Syria from Iran will also force Tehran to limit its outreach to the Mediterranean, reassess its regional ambitions and dramatically limit its sway with Hizbullah, Hamas and other extremist groups.
To be sure, the Arab states have decided to reintroduce the Initiative because of their heightened vulnerability caused by the convergence of events resulting from the war in Iraq and its explosive regional potential. They see an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict as a precondition to effectively addressing many of the problems that have plagued the Middle East, stabilizing the region and securing their regimes. But they must not sit on their hands and wait. All the Arab leaders, not only those from Egypt and Jordan (assigned by the Arab League to pursue the Initiative with Israel), must reach out to Israel and demonstrate that their Initiative is genuine and that they are ready to engage the Israelis on any level, while remaining true to the Initiative's principles.
Many opportunities have been missed in the Middle East, resulting in as many tragedies. Is it any wonder why, 60 years later, we are still mired in the same senseless, bloody and debilitating conflict? I submit that no greater tragedy will befall the Middle East if the Arab Peace Initiative is allowed to die, except this time there will be no chance of it being resurrected.