Everybody but Israel

The Arab Peace Initiative concludes with an appeal to a large and comprehensive collection of world bodies and countries to "gain support for this initiative at all levels". The United Nations, the Security Council, the United States of America, the Russian Federation, the Muslim states and the European Union are all mentioned. Each of these bodies and countries has addressed the API differently, some expressing full-fledged support, others expressing reservations.

Israel is not mentioned. This has always seemed strange to Israelis. Why does the Arab League address its appeal, which after all is about Israel, to every relevant player except Israel? There appear to be several possible answers to this query.

First and foremost, the operative portion of the API begins by requesting Israel "to reconsider its policies and declare that a just peace is its strategic option as well". It then "further calls upon Israel to affirm" an intricate and well-known series of specific policy moves toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians and peace with Syria and Lebanon. So the formal Arab reply to the Israeli query is presumably that Israel is indeed addressed directly by the API with regard to concessions toward peace, whereas the international community is asked essentially to rally behind the API and thereby apply additional pressure on Israel to commit to it.

There is another, darker interpretation of this dichotomy in the API, advanced primarily by skeptics on the Israeli and American political right wing. The API, they argue, was developed by the Saudi Arabian leadership as a way of improving the Saudi image, which had been badly damaged a half-year earlier by the 9/11 attacks in which most of the perpetrators, not to mention the late Osama Bin Laden, were Saudis. This explains the perceived need to disseminate the API in quarters where damage control was seemingly necessary. According to this take on the API, it is little more than a cynical ploy.

This interpretation is belied by the history of the API both before and since late March 2002 when it was accepted by the Arab League. The concept of the API apparently began in Jordan, which was not involved in 9/11, and not initially in Saudi Arabia. Its composition and structure reflect the contributions of a wide spectrum of Arabs, not just Saudis. And it has continued to "live" long since Saudi-American relations were repaired. It was even reaffirmed by the Arab summit in 2007.

Still, Arab leaders were sufficiently bothered by the Israeli argument, seconded here and there in the western world, according to which the API should be formally presented to Israel and its adherence formally requested, to make a gesture in this direction. In July 2007, the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan were dispatched to Jerusalem to explain the initiative to Israeli leaders. The latter, however, were not impressed, if only because it was so obvious that the League had chosen to send diplomats who in any case visit Israel regularly within the framework of the three countries’ peace treaties and relations.

No attempt by the Arab League to explain the API directly to Israelis has been made since then. In 2010, the Palestinian Authority did publish the API in Hebrew in full page ads in Israel’s major daily newspapers. But even this important gesture was financed by a pro-Israeli American Jewish multi-millionaire and not by an Arab source.

Would it have made a difference if, following the March 2002 Arab summit, a delegation of Arab heads of state had invited itself to Jerusalem to present the API in the Knesset? The suggestion was made at the time, almost certainly cynically, by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Israel, we recall, was at the time under siege by Palestinian suicide bombers and was reoccupying Palestinian Authority land. These, to say the least, were not the best circumstances for such a gesture. On the other hand, we know how a similar gesture by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat completely turned Israeli public opinion around in late 1977: from rejection of exchanging the Sinai peninsula for peace with Egypt, to overwhelming acceptance.

Israel is certainly mistaken in not accepting the API with one or two reservations. Yet this does not exonerate the Arab world. It does not appear to have drawn any positive lesson from Sadat’s experience, and that’s a pity. Nor has the Arab League’s appeal to half the world to "gain support for this initiative" generated any really significant pressure on Israel from countries and institutions that it is dependent on.