The most momentous declaration that came out of the Arab world was the Arab Initiative which was re-adopted by the Arab League in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in March 2007. 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 of 2002. The Arab Initiative 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 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 highjack 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 UN 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-Shia 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 United States 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, the ClintonBarak peace plan, 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 United States and Israel. Both intuitively and psychologically, the Arab communities will relate far more positively to an initiative by their own governments and it will engender wide public support.
Third, since there are many extremist Arab groups, such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah, that oppose the peace process, only the collective Arab political will can rein in by any means these groups. 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 socio-economic and political change, in combination with force if necessary, to achieve that objective.
Fourth, the Arab 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-Shia conflict.
Fifth, since Iran has thrived and continues to thrive on Arab discontent with the United States and Israel, any major progress made on the Arab 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 Hezbollah, Hamas, and other extremist groups.
To be sure, the Arab states have decided to reintroduce the Initiative because of their heightened vulnerability emanating from 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 the Arab leaders, other than those from Egypt and Jordan, which are at peace with Israel, (assigned by the Arab League to pursue the Initiative with Israel), must not sit on their hands and wait. They too must reach out to Israel and demonstrate that their Initiative is genuine and 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 Initiative is allowed to die, except this time there will be no chance of it being resurrected.
Alon Ben-Meiris a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies, (www.alonben-meir.com).