Israel just marked its 59th birthday and like a typical baby boomer, tends to vent its frustration at dreams not realised.
Yet a core Israeli dream — to not only establish a state, but to have that state accepted in the Middle East and live at peace with its neighbours — is within reach. If only Israel, having finally got to yes with the Arab world, would recognise it.
Amidst all the Middle East doom and gloom, there are at least three reasons for real hope, Israeli, Palestinian, and regional.
On the Israeli side, there is a belated realisation that the absence of an agreed border, the ongoing occupation, and unfettered settlement activity have all been extremely costly in security, financial and moral terms. Israelis are increasingly cognisant that military force delivers, at best, partial solutions and are keen to find a negotiated way forward. They are distrustful of the Palestinians’ intentions and capacity to deliver, but view the Arab world as a more reliable and robust partner.
On the Palestinian side, and contrary to conventional wisdom in the US, the Mecca unity government deal between Fateh and Hamas in many ways represents a broadening Palestinian consensus around the inevitability of a two-state solution and acceptance of Israel as an irreversible reality. According to the unity government platform, President Mahmoud Abbas is authorised to negotiate with Israel, with any agreement reached having to be approved by a referendum or PLO vote, the legitimacy of which all parties would accept. External Arab states’ involvement helped to lock in this deal and would presumably be again required to back up a Palestinian sign-off on a permanent status peace deal with Israel.
That is why the third element, the regional role, is so important and why renewed peace efforts could take the Saudi Arabia initiative as a key point of departure.
While the clauses of the relaunched Arab Peace Initiative are essentially the same as those of the original 2002 initiative, the context in which the current initiative is launched is very different.
The person who launched the 2002 initiative, then Crown Prince Abdullah is now king of Saudi Arabia that has assumed the leadership mantle of the Arabs, brokering the new Palestinian coalition government, mediating between the factions in Lebanon and formulating regional strategy over Iran.
In addition, the Arab world is witnessing a rarely seen unity over the initiative, signalling a fundamental shift towards accepting Israel as a neighbour and partner.
Israel has oscillated between enthusiasm and concern in its response to the initiative. Israeli criticism of a take it or leave it proposal or of the refugee or border clauses largely miss the point.
The Saudi and Egyptian foreign ministers have stressed that Israel should accept the initiative “in principle” and as “a framework”, after which all issues were open for negotiations. The border clause says that borders should “be based” on the 1967 lines, implying that the exact borderlines would be negotiated. On the refugees, the key terminology in the clause is the phrase “agreed upon”. By definition, “agreed upon” means Israel signing off on a solution to the refugee issue that it, too, accepts.
An additional bonus is that influential non-Arab Muslim states have also signed up to the logic behind the initiative — peace for normalisation. Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia all fall into this category.
It is no longer an act of wide-eyed naiveté to envisage an Israel at peace with its neighbours and accepted by the Arab and Muslim worlds. Israel did it; it got to yes. Now it is time to recognise it and act on it.