The Arab Peace Initiative

Saudi-brokered plan offered Israel recognition of its right to exist in exchange for withdrawal from Arab lands.

King abdullah of Saudi arabic
The Saudi-brokered peace plan was given renewed support by Washington [GALLO/GETTY]

The Saudi-brokered Arab Peace Initiative, which was endorsed by the Arab League’s 22 members during the March 2002 Beirut summit, outlined comprehensive steps to ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Arab leaders collectively offered Israel recognition of its right to exist and a normalisation of diplomatic ties in exchange for its complete withdrawal from Arab lands captured since 1967.

The plan, first floated by King Abdullah, then crown prince of Saudi Arabia, called for the restoration of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital and a “fair solution” for the 3.8 million Palestinian refugees, including but not limited to the Syrian Golan Heights and Israeli-occupied territory in southern Lebanon.

Barack Obama, the US president, said in an interview to the Al Arabiya news station on January 26, that he appreciates the Saudi peace plan.

He said the US remained committed to protecting its long-time ally Israel, but also believed that there were Israelis who recognised the need for regional peace and would be willing to make the necessary sacrifices to achieve that.

Secure boundaries

The Saudi plan is based on UN resolutions 242 and 338 which collectively called for Israeli withdrawal in exchange for peaceful ties with its Arab neighbours and the “respect for the right of every state in the area to live in peace within secure and recognised boundaries”.

It also reaffirmed an Arab League resolution taken in June 1996 at the Cairo Extraordinary Arab Summit that “a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East is the strategic option of the Arab countries, to be achieved in accordance with international legality, and which would require a comparable commitment on the part of the Israeli government”.

The Saudi plan received further backing at an Arab League summit in 2007 [AFP]

The Arab League proposed the Arab Peace Initiative at the height of the second intifada in 2002.

Though the plan was supported by George Bush, the then US president, and Tony Blair, the then British prime minister, it was opposed by factions in both the Arab and Israeli camps.

Syria opposed the use of the term “normalisation”, while Palestinian factions such as the armed wing of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade rejected the Saudi plan outright.

The plan also did not receive full diplomatic backing as only 10 of the 22 heads of state were able to attend the Beirut summit.

Israeli authorities also barred Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian president, from travelling to Lebanon to attend the sessions when it said it would not guarantee his return to Ramallah, the Palestinian administrative capital.

On the same day the plan was announced in Beirut, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 20 people and injured more than 160 others at the Park Hotel in Netanya, Israel.

Israeli offensive

On March 29, Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield, a massive Israeli military operation in the West Bank, in response to the Netanya attack. Israeli military forces briefly occupied Ramallah, Jenin, and Nablus.

More than 500 Palestinians and 29 Israeli soldiers were killed in the four-week military operation.

The Saudi-initiated peace plan did not resurface as a viable deal until the Arab League summit in Riyadh in March 2007. This time, 21 heads of state attended the summit (Libya did not send a delegation) and fully re-endorsed the pleace plan.

Though Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, endorsed the plan, Ismail Haniya, the then Palestinian prime minister, abstained.

The European Union, the US and the UN fully backed the plan as the only means forward.

Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary-general, said: “The Arab peace initiative is one of the pillars of the peace process … it sends a signal that the Arabs are serious about achieving peace.”

Israeli reaction

Though Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, supported the plan, the official Israeli response says there are several items in the Saudi-brokered plan which are unacceptable.

Israeli peace negotiators have objected to the repatriation of some 3.8 million Palestinian refugees.

Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, said in October that Israel would not rule out negotiations with Arab countries on the basis of the Saudi plan.

“We accept the Arab peace initiative in order to bring peace to the entire region,” Peres said in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, after talks with Mubarak.

He said that while he does not accept all of the Saudi plan and it “needs to be negotiated” further, its spirit is “correct”. 

Source: Al Jazeera