It is the peace plan that refused to die. While the Annapolis process has been and gone, the Road Map is a distant memory, and Gaza is on fire, somehow the Arab League Initiative remains the perennial best-seller of the jaded peace industry.
First proposed by the Saudis in 2002, it presents an apparently simple deal: Israel gets peace with 22 Arab states in return for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders.
Neat and pleasingly symmetrical, it experienced something of a revival in the latter months of 2008. Full-page advertisements in the Israeli and international press gave details of the plan and called for support. Then, at the Palestinian investment conference in London last month, Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave it his strongest endorsement yet. David Miliband calls it “our best hope for peace” and, according to Israel’s President Shimon Peres, US President-elect Barack Obama also sees it as a key part of his Middle East policy.
So what could be wrong? Quite a lot, according to the Israelis. When the plan was finessed at the Riyadh summit in 2007, a clause was inserted stating that the Palestinian refugee issue should be resolved “in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194”, crucially adding that the Arab states would refuse to allow any form of resettlement within their own borders. The plan’s sponsors are refusing to accept that refugees and their families — some of whom have been resident in Syria, Lebanon or Jordan for several generations — can have a permanent future there
Israel, too, is clearly not going to accept the return of millions of Palestinian refugees. At best, it will take in a very limited, symbolic number for “family reunification”. The rest, say the Israelis, will need to settle in a future Palestine or be resettled in a third country.
The other contentious element is the insistence on a two-state solution “based on” the 1967 borders. Israel wants settlement blocs including Gush Etzion and Ariel to stay within its future borders, and territory swaps to be the basis for any final-status agreement. From Jerusalem’s point of view, Bush’s 2004 Rose Garden letter, acknowledging Israel’s “facts on the ground”, is the best expression of this vision.
There is also the question of just what kind of peace the Arab countries are offering Israel. What kind of diplomatic relations? At what level and at what stage?
Unwilling to be churlish but with nothing to offer in its place, Israeli officials have taken to soothing away questions about the initiative with reassurances that they see the Saudi Plan as one of many ongoing processes. Israeli ambassador Ron Prosor wrote in the Guardian last month that it was “an interesting starting point for negotiations” but that “to move that vision from rhetoric to reality, the wealthier Arab states must do more, politically, diplomatically and economically, to steer their less fortunate counterparts towards the path of moderation and progress.”
But this kind of response won’t wash if Obama really does embrace the Arab League Initiative (which would be even more likely if America found itself facing an intransigent Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, should he triumph in the Israeli elections in February). For the Obama administration to take the radical step of renouncing the Rose Garden letter would be a major blow to Israel.
As the world waits for Obama, the UK is tightening up its demands over West Bank goods and settlement expansion. And so long as Israel cannot counter the Arab League with a credible plan of its own (while fearing the possibility of others filling the vacuum), the Saudi initiative will remain the sexiest peace plan for the world’s most popular conflict.