The story so far
Arab states have supported the Palestinian cause in various ways (giving diplomatic, military and sometimes financial support; hosting Palestinian refugees) over the past 70 years. However, the Arab regimes that supported the Palestinians were only half-heartedly committed to the Palestinian cause. At times, they exploited it for their own ends. At the very least, despite their pro-Palestinian rhetoric, these regimes made sure that when their national interests clashed with those of the Palestinians, they gave priority to the former.
Arab regimes that supported the Palestinians were only half-heartedly committed to the Palestinian cause. At times, they exploited it for their own ends
While generally maintaining official positions supportive of the Palestinians, several Arab states have therefore, over the years, established relationships of various kinds with Israel. In 1979, Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel, abandoning initial attempts to secure a parallel agreement for the Palestinians. Jordan had informal relations with Israel for decades before it felt able, following the signature of the Oslo agreement by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel, to sign its own peace treaty with Israel in 1994. Representatives of Arab countries attended the US-sponsored Madrid peace conference in 1991 and took part (some more enthusiastically than others) in the multilateral track of the peace process.
The Arab Peace Initiative
In early 2002, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia floated the idea of a peace initiative in which the Arab states would give Israel unqualified acceptance in the Middle East if it withdrew from all the Palestinian territories it had occupied in 1967.
In March 2002, an Arab League summit unanimously adopted a resolution based on Abdullah’s ideas. The resolution, which became known as the Arab Peace Initiative (API), offered Israel an end to the Arab–Israeli conflict, along with comprehensive peace and normal relations. In exchange, Israel would have to end its occupation of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza ‘in implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338’, accept an independent Palestinian state in those territories with its capital in East Jerusalem, and accept ‘a just solution’ to the Palestinian refugee problem. The solution to the refugee problem was ‘to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194’.
The API, being based on UN resolutions, did not introduce new thinking into the business of Israeli–Palestinian peacemaking. Two aspects of the API were new, however. One was that the initiative had come from Saudi Arabia, normally regarded as one of the back-markers in terms of acceptance of Israel in the region. The other was that all Arab states had voted for the API, thus offering Israel a comprehensive deal.
The API could have served as the basis for renewed Israeli–Palestinian negotiations. However, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had no intention of relinquishing control of the West Bank, rejected the API. Publicly, Sharon justified this by portraying the API as a package of non-negotiable demands that Israel could not be expected to accept. Many Israelis objected to the inclusion in the API of a provision for the resolution of the refugee issue ‘in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194’, something that implied the ‘right of return’. Moreover, there was no public pressure on him to do otherwise: ‘the launch of the API took place in the midst of the Second Intifada, which included a series of major terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians that greatly reduced Israeli receptivity to talk of peace and the concessions it might entail.’ Palestinian Authority (PA) president Yasser Arafat, no doubt eager to secure as much international support for the Palestinian cause as he could, and to repair his image in the wake of the ‘Karine A’ arms-smuggling affair and the violence of the Second Intifada, accepted the API.
The Arab League re-endorsed the API at its 2007 summit. Six years later, at a meeting in April 2013 hosted by US Secretary of State John Kerry, a delegation representing the Arab League softened the API’s demands of Israel by accepting the idea of mutually agreed land swaps.
At its summit in March 2017, the Arab League once again endorsed the API. However, this officially agreed Arab position did not translate into vigorous diplomatic action against President Trump’s December 2017 announcement on Jerusalem, despite the call in the API for Israel to accept East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Nor was there more than the most muted Arab support (for example, a statement on the Arab League website by the secretary-general of that organization) for the declaration to the UN Security Council in February 2018 by Mahmoud Abbas, the current president of the PA, that the API was a necessary component of any relaunched peace process.