America and the Arab Initiative

Dr. Imad Harb : America and the Arab Initiative

  • 11 April 2007

The once ignored Arab initiative, which was first proposed at the 14th summit of the Arab League in Beirut in 2002, is suddenly receiving its due attention by the United States and Israel. Although there are still objections to some of its provisions, Israel now sees in it positive aspects, while the United States promises to treat it as a basis for future Arab-Israeli peace talks and the settlement of the Palestine question. Notwithstanding the debate on the merits of the plan within the Bush Administration, between Condoleezza Rice's State Department and Vice President Dick Cheney's office, it is necessary to decipher the reasons for what seems to be a change of heart in Washington on the road ahead.

Proposed by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia (then the Crown Prince), the initiative calls for an Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 borders, a rejection of the settlement of Palestinian refugees in Arab countries and a just solution to their plight, and the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. In return, the plan promises a cessation of the state of war and the signing of peace agreements between Arabs and Israel that would guarantee security for all. The initiative was ignored by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his very-friendly Bush Administration then preparing for war with Iraq, preoccupied with the 'war on terror,' and half-heartedly pushing its 'Roadmap' for a two-state solution. The Arabs have since re-adopted the plan at three subsequent Arab League summits to no avail.

This time around, however, there seems to be some re-thinking of past mistakes despite the seriousness of the ongoing debates within the administration or the possible attempts to scuttle Secretary Rice's diplomatic moves. Israel has many friends in Washington who can sway political and public opinion against her, best of whom work within White House circles. If the past six years of political life in the United States have shown anything it is that the Bush Administration considers itself to be the best friend Israel could ever hope to have in the world.

America's change of heart has domestic and international reasons. Domestically, there appears to be a serious rollback in the influence of the neo-conservatives within the administration on Middle Eastern matters. The takeover of the Department of Defense by Robert Gates after the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld and the appointment of John Negroponte as Undersecretary of State seem to be at the heart of this shift. Mr. Gates was a member of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group that recommended a stronger American engagement in peace efforts in the Middle East and Mr. Negroponte served as an Ambassador to Baghdad and was Director of National Intelligence.

Also domestically, the administration appears to be in desperate need to be politically agile after its internal and external defeats since last autumn. Most important of those defeats was the loss of both houses of Congress to the Democrats in the November 2006 midterm congressional elections and the Iraqi plunge into a state very close to civil war. A political agenda on the Arab-Israeli track may provide just the shot-in-the-arm the Bush team needs to live out its remaining two years in office.

Finally, moving on the Middle East track is politically more possible since neither the president nor his vice president are running for the White House in 2008. It is inevitable that hooking the American wagon to the horse of an Arab peace initiative that will require painful Israeli concessions will be politically dangerous domestically. While Vice President Cheney and his neo-conservative friends may raise objections for ideological reasons, the administration as a whole is more immune to the Israeli lobby in the US during the presidential campaign and can thus exploit an opportunity that may move the peace agenda forward.

On the regional front, the United States needs a rallying program that would help ensure Arab support for the, so far, failing American enterprise in Iraq. What the US calls the 'moderates' in the Arab world have grown weary of simply 'tagging along' when the Bush Administration needs them. Secretary Rice's attempts to sideline the important Palestinian issue in favor of a so-called 'coalition of moderates against extremism' have finally proven ineffective as these moderates have emphasized the centrality of Palestine to peace in the region. Thus, the American belief in the Arab initiative is an attempt to mollify the Arab moderates who want to help in Iraq but cannot because of the intractability of the Palestinian dilemma.

Second, the US needs the unwavering support of the Arab states in the ongoing confrontation with Iran. The Arab states, especially those in the Gulf region, are just as concerned about Iran's interference in Iraq and its nuclear program as the United States but may prefer to be more accommodating to the Islamic Republic for fear of Shi`ite-inspired unrest in their countries. If the United States is seen as heeding their advice and adopting their initiative, they may be counted on to be more steadfast vis-à-vis Iran.

Finally, it is possible that the American administration sees an opportunity in the general weakness of the Israeli governing coalition and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The cabinet is teetering on the verge of an institutional collapse because of the weakness of the ruling Kadima party, while the Prime Minister himself has the lowest approval ratings of any sitting Israeli politician at 2%. Combined with the fact that neither the president nor his vice president will suffer politically, this clear opportunity may allow an open-ended scenario if the administration decides to have a novel approach to peace in the Middle East.

It appears that the Arab leaders have held fast to their initiative in Riyadh and have promised to actively exploit both its positive nature and the American acceptance of it. There should be an organic relationship between America's needs and Arab abilities. Any American expectation of an Arab commitment to help the United States must be met by an Arab demand of America's continued commitment to a just and active peace process. Anything less than this trade-off would only be an exercise in futile diplomatic maneuvering.