Time to revive the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002
Two realities have been highlighted by the recent flare-up in Gaza and South Lebanon. One is the presence of a vigorous and consistent resistance movement, which is linked to Iran and able to trigger war at will, and the other is the total absence of any peace plan for the Palestinian-Israeli issue or any Arab-led alternative.
When the region is on edge, about to blow up, it is wise to calm things down. We have seen this with the recent Saudi Arabia-Iran agreement, with hopes that this will bring stability and help to resolve other conflicts. The eruption in Gaza and Lebanon reminds us that the absence of justice for the Palestinians makes us all vulnerable. It is time to revive the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 to fill that gap.
There is a pattern emerging. First, TikTok clips go viral, showing images of Israeli brutality against Palestinian civilians praying in Al-Aqsa Mosque or celebrating in Jerusalem during the holy month of Ramadan. Hamas then seizes the opportunity to attack and assert its position as the sole protector of the holy site and defender of the cause. The Palestinian Authority is thus embarrassed and made to look both weak and like a collaborator. Finally, the media of the so-called axis of resistance goes wild, not only against Israel but also against the Arab states that are pursuing peace and normalization.
This also happened in May 2021. Then, the clips were of a Palestinian woman pleading with an Israeli settler who had just taken over her home in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem and of Israeli police beating up Palestinians during Ramadan celebrations and storming the Al-Aqsa Mosque during prayers. We also saw images of Israeli radicals making hateful statements. The flare-up inevitably followed, with Hamas sending rockets into Israel in retaliation, provoking a predictable reaction and more atrocities.
This time round, Hezbollah has joined in. No one believes that it had no part in the firing of rockets from southern Lebanon into northern Israel. Both Hamas and Hezbollah were the winners — they asserted their resistance credentials and demonstrated once again that their agenda of violence and armed struggle is the only one that works. The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, also known as the Abdullah Plan, is the only viable alternative.
The first hint of the plan was revealed to Thomas Friedman of The New York Times in a meeting with then-Crown Prince (later King) Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Friedman told the story in a column on Feb. 17, 2002. He had suggested in an earlier article that there should be a clear Arab initiative for peace with Israel and he spoke about this with Crown Prince Abdullah, who replied that it was exactly what he had in mind and he was going to announce it in a speech ahead of the Arab League Summit in Beirut the following month.
The eruption in Gaza and Lebanon reminds us that the absence of justice for the Palestinians makes us all vulnerable.
The international and regional conditions were even more explosive then than they are today. The dust had barely settled since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York by Al-Qaeda. One month later, the US invaded Afghanistan, and there was already talk of an American invasion of Iraq, which everyone in the region predicted would create far more problems than it would solve. The Palestinian Second Intifada was still ongoing and there was a right-wing government in Israel headed by Ariel Sharon. Tensions were high. It looked like the whole region was on the verge of blowing up in a major confrontation with the West.
It was in these circumstances that the Arab Peace Initiative was proposed. The carefully worded plan built on the previous Arab League declaration of 1996 that a just and comprehensive peace remained a strategic option. It put forward three conditions to Israel, asking it to reconsider its policies and accept the idea of a just peace, while offering normalization with the Arab world in return for declaring the conflict over.
The first condition was that Israel withdraw from the Occupied Territories to the June 4, 1967, lines, including the Syrian Golan Heights and remaining territories in South Lebanon. The latter was in reference to the Shebaa Farms.
Second was the achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, to be agreed in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194. This was a watered-down wording from a version asserting the right of return of refugees, leaving it to be agreed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Third was accepting the establishment of a sovereign independent Palestinian state on the Palestinian territories occupied since June 4, 1967, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital. The wording here was also moderated by accepting sharing Jerusalem as the capital of both states.
However, the Arab Peace Initiative went nowhere, as it was overshadowed by the fact that, one day before its declaration, a Hamas suicide bombing in a hotel in Netanya killed 30 Israelis and injured 140 during a Passover Seder feast. This was the deadliest attack of the Second Intifada and became known as the Passover massacre. It was followed two days later by the start of Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield, which lasted more than a month and during which Yasser Arafat was besieged in the Mukata’a. It was the biggest military operation by Israel since 1967 and the Arab Peace Initiative was forgotten with it.
Twenty years later, a revival of the Arab Peace Initiative could be a game-changer in terms of relations with the US and Europe, who would be involved in its implementation. This would also be a test for the Iranian-Saudi agreement. After nearly 40 years of continuous conflict, there is a need to change course; the people of the region deserve stability and better prospects for the future.
• Nadim Shehadi is a Lebanese economist.