Can Trump revive the Arab Peace Initiative?

Can Trump revive the Arab Peace Initiative?
Comment: Egypt, Jordan and Palestine's leaders are all visiting Washington this month. Is a regional summit on the horizon? If so, Palestinians are right to remain wary, writes Yousef Munayyer.
5 min read
03 Apr, 2017
2017 marks 15 years since the Arab League endorsed the Initiative for Israel-Palestine [Getty]

When the Arab Peace Initiative (API) was first embraced by the Arab League in its meeting in Beirut, Fahd was still King of Saudi Arabia, Yasser Arafat was still alive, and George W. Bush had not yet invaded Iraq.

A decade and a half has passed since then, and the Arab League met again last week, this time in Amman, for its 34th summit. In the fifteen years since then, the population of Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank has approximately doubled.

The API was noteworthy for both its simplicity and its scope.

Adopted by both the Arab League and the then Organization of Islamic Conference, the initiative paved the way for normalised relations between Israel and 57 Arab and Muslim countries. All Israel had to do in return, was abide by international law as a framework for achieving peace with the Palestinians. Needless to say, Israel was not interested.

At times, some Israeli officials expressed interest in the initiative but formally, their government always viewed the position of international law on various core issues, whether it was refugees, settlements, or Jerusalem, to be a non-starter.

The United States had welcomed the API while recognising that gaps existed between it, and what the Israelis desired, but often referred back to it as a reminder of what was possible if an agreement could be reached.

During the Obama Administration's late attempts at brokering an agreement, Secretary of State John Kerry sought out and achieved modifications to the initiative which agreed to the concept of land swaps, taking away yet another Israeli excuse not to consider the framework.

The flurry of traffic in Washington is a clear indication that something is brewing

Nonetheless, Kerry's efforts faltered and the Obama Administration's time was up before any further efforts were made to utilise the API.

Today, while the API itself is no longer a topic of discussion at the international table, the notion of a regional approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue has been revived in part as a result of Israeli initiatives, and in part as a result of the Donald Trump White House's seeming receptivity.

Before the Trump Administration, it was revealed that Secretary Kerry had attempted to broker a regional approach, bringing together Netanyahu, Egypt's President Sisi and Jordan's King Abdullah. Netanyahu ultimately was reportedly unable to carry the initiative forward because of an intransigent coalition. 

In Trump's meeting with Netanyahu in mid-February, the President hinted at the aim of a regional approach that would bring together various players in an effort to push for peace.

For Netanyahu, the dream is to divide Arab and Muslim states and use this wedge to weaken Palestinians to the point of accepting whatever scraps he will throw them

He said at a press briefing, in response to Netanyahu mentioning a regional approach, "we have been discussing that, and it is something that is very different, hasn't been discussed before. And it's actually a much bigger deal, a much more important deal, in a sense. It would take in many, many countries and it would cover a very large territory. 

"So I didn't know you were going to be mentioning that, but that's - now that you did, I think it's a terrific thing and I think we have some pretty good cooperation from people that in the past would never, ever have even thought about doing this. So we'll see how that works out."

Indeed. We will see how that works out and we may see soon.

Read more: The roots of Israeli apartheid

April will feature an Arab Spring in Washington D.C. In the first week, King Abdullah of Jordan is coming to Washington to meet with President Trump for the second time in as many months. Both President Sisi and Abbas are also scheduled to visit.

It is not clear yet where this is headed, but the flurry of traffic is a clear indication that something is brewing and while it may just be a series of exploratory meetings to gauge the viability of a regional approach, the meetings may also result in the announcement of next steps toward some sort of regional summit, the likes of which have not happened in DC since 2010.

At that time, Mubarak was still President of Egypt and Obama used the occasion of the summit to announce the resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians. 

The peace push was in good part designed to quell Arab publics, as the US prepared to launch an invasion of Iraq

We are not quite there yet this time around, but the possibility is real, especially considering this is something Netanyahu wants, and something the US will press Abbas into with the help of Arab states looking to stay in Trump's good books.

For Netanyahu, the dream is to divide Arab and Muslim states and use this wedge to weaken Palestinians to the point of accepting whatever scraps he will throw them. 

Palestinians, and Arab publics alike, are wary of this though in part because of the history of the Arab Peace Initiative, and the peace push that surrounded it in 2002 by George Bush and Tony Blair.

This included a Rose Garden speech that for the first time identified a Palestinian state as a goal of US peace policy. Ultimately, however, we learned that the peace push was in good part designed to quell Arab publics, as the US prepared to launch an invasion of Iraq, the aftermath of which continues to cause suffering today.

Any regional peace approach with an ulterior motive, whether it's to divide the Arabs in order to squeeze the Palestinians into accepting Apartheid, or to prepare for an attack or further marginalisation of Iran - or indeed both - will not only fail to achieve peace, but will further disenchant Arab publics who continue to be dissatisfied with their leaders, and remain highly suspicious of and antagonistic towards the US and Israel.

Dr. Yousef Munayyer is a Middle East Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC and Executive Director of US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.

Follow him on Twitter: @YousefMunayyer

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.