Israel has never been short of pretexts for obstructing progress towards a Middle East peace settlement. But recent moves to push Arab and Muslim states to normalize ties with Israel as a reward for agreeing to freeze settlement construction will likely provide Israel with more opportunities for obstruction rather than incentives for cooperation.
The Arab Peace Initiative (API), approved by the 2002 Beirut Arab summit, offered Israel full peace and normal ties with all 22 members of the Arab League, if only Israel ended its occupation of the Arab land it seized in 1967. This offer already implicated Arab states that were never directly linked to the conflict. At a later stage, the API was expanded to include all 56 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
Israel could now insist that the 56 OIC members, as well as every Arab state, must first commit to specific normalization steps, and perhaps even recognition, before it makes any substantive moves itself.
Any progress towards a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict may therefore have to wait until Benin, Somalia, the Maldives, Brunei, Afghanistan, Iran, or Suriname, for example, decide if they were willing to meet Israeli conditions.
After concluding peace treaties with Egypt in 1979, and Jordan in 1994, Israel needs to end its remaining conflict with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians. Neither Bangladesh nor Burkina Faso need to be drawn in.
So why should the scope of a conflict, initially confined to few countries, be expanded to involve remote states on several continents? Doesn’t this provide validation to Israel’s false claims that the conflict stems not from Israeli usurpation of specific land and rights, but from the failure of Muslims — due to inherent anti-Semitism — to accept a “Jewish state”?
There is nothing in international law that obligates states to establish diplomatic relations or to agree to normalization of relations as part of conflict resolution. This is a sovereign matter for states to decide upon voluntarily or as part of bilateral arrangements. The absence of diplomatic or other relations between states does not necessarily indicate hostile relations, nor does their presence guarantee the opposite.
UN Security Council Resolution 242, passed months after the 1967 war, laid down the long-accepted basis for resolving the conflict. It neither required nor even mentioned treaties or even diplomatic relations. All it demanded was “termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”
In this respect the resolution was only referring to states in the area, emphasizing peaceful relations and mutual recognition. But that can all be guaranteed in the absence of diplomatic relations.
Neither did the eight-point peace initiative of 7 August 1981, put forward by Saudi Prince Fahd, offer peace treaties or diplomatic relations with Israel, despite the fact that this initiative was launched just more than two years after the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty had been signed.
It was during the peace negotiations with Egypt that Israel insisted that the treaty should include full diplomatic relations with resident embassies in the relevant capitals. It was hard for the Arab people at the time to imagine the Israeli flag flying in an Arab capital but it has since become a precedent. For this, and many other reasons, the majority of Arab states boycotted Egypt for pursuing a unilateral peace with Israel, and moved the Arab League headquarters from Cairo to Tunis.
The 1981 Fahd peace plan, later adopted by an Arab summit, laid out all the familiar elements of what has come to be known as the two-state solution, with implementation to be guaranteed by the UN: Israeli withdrawal from all Arab territories occupied in 1967 including Jerusalem; dismantling of all Jewish settlements including those in Jerusalem; guaranteed freedom of worship for all in the holy places; affirmation of the right of the Palestinians to return to their homes and compensation for those who do not wish to return; transitional international trusteeship for the West Bank and Gaza Strip for no more than a few months and the creation of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.
Prince — later King — Fahd’s plan was no more than an elaboration of resolution 242 and similarly states that “All States in the region should be able to live in peace in the region.” It sought to place matters back on a correct course following Egypt’s deviation. Obviously it was rejected by Israel which never seriously considered evacuating the rest of the occupied territories (after returning Sinai to Egypt) and which it had already started to annex or colonize.
Initially, the Zionist program targeted Palestine — not necessarily as it was defined under the British mandate; the idea was to expand Palestine north and east to include parts of Lebanon, Syria and Transjordan. The Arab League, which sought at the time to confront the threat, was composed of only seven states: Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Transjordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Yemen.
So far, irrespective of the competence of its handling, the conflict was kept in its proper context. It was the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative that unnecessarily enlarged the constituency of the belligerent states on the Arab side and then added all 56 OIC member states. Why give an intransigent foe such as Israel, which never offered one positive move or one meaningful contribution towards the resolution of the conflict, so much leverage to further hinder and obstruct?
There are two possible explanations. The first is that the 2002 Arab Initiative was not aimed primarily at Israel, but at the United States. After the 11 September 2001 attacks some Arab states found themselves accused of incubating the culture of terrorism that led to those attacks. They may have believed that the fastest way to appease the US was by offering concessions to Israel.
Another scenario is that for a long time the Arab governments have lost all initiative. Their repeated offers to settle the conflict on very generous terms were ignored. They had declared peace as their “strategic choice” — in effect assuring Israel that it could do whatever it wanted with a guarantee that the Arab states would never do anything in response to aggression. The Arabs have been repeating empty slogans, such as the “two-state solution” for decades, while on the ground Israel has assured there is no room for a second state.
The Palestinian Authority and the supporting Arab states have been desperately trying to extend the life of a dead peace process through endless negotiations just to pretend that there is movement, while the striking reality hits us in the face every minute reminding us that neither Israel nor the US give any consideration to Arab groveling.
In the absence of any Arab states’ ability for effective collective action, the only option left to disguise weakness was to increase Arab generosity in hope of finally enticing Israel to pay attention. But since the Arabs have already conceded all they can concede, they decided to offer normalization with the Muslim states as a reward for Israel as well. The other side, aware that such moves stem from helplessness not from strength, will not take such measures seriously, except as further opportunities to advance its own aggressive agenda.
Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. This essay first appeared in The Jordan and is republished with the author’s permission.