The Arab Peace Initiative has been on the table since 2002. The question that is repeatedly asked is why now? What has changed that means it could provide a path forward for the two-state solution, to peace with the Palestinians, normalisation with the Arab world? And is it all even relevant still?
For over 25 years, I have travelled through this region – as an MP, Prime Minister, Quartet Representative and now with my own Initiative for the Middle East. Over the last 18 months in particular, however, there has been a marked shift in the conversations.
The main reason for the opportunity we have today is that the moderate Arab states and Israelis face the same threats of Iranian-sponsored extremism on the one hand, and Muslim Brotherhood through to ISIS Sunni extremism on the other. There is a genuine, common, strategic interest shared by the Arab states and Israel – and if we work quickly and seize this opportunity for change, we could ensure that we finally replace an outdated enmity between the sides, which serves no one but the extremists.
I do believe that Netanyahu and Lieberman’s remarks in the Knesset that the Arab Peace Initiative contains positive elements were an important signal to key partners that Israel is committed to making progress on the political negotiations. Egypt and President Sisi can be pivotal in moving forward the regional approach given the close relationship between Egypt and Israel on the one hand, and Egypt and the Palestinians on the other. To signal its seriousness, Israel now needs to take action to ease conditions on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank, in a manner that generates genuine political momentum towards reaching a two-state solution.
There is a genuine, common, strategic interest shared by the Arab states and Israel – and if we work quickly and seize this opportunity for change, we could ensure that we finally replace an outdated enmity between the sides.
Urgent steps are needed to alleviate the dire situation in Gaza. Almost two years on from the last war and we’re faced with the very real possibility of another round of violence, even more bloody and intense than the last. Gaza instead could be where we make the first steps to fully investigate the potential for a process under the Arab Peace Initiative.
So many interests converge here – and the price of inaction is dangerously high. Israel should take further steps to increase energy and water supply, and enable accelerated construction while ensuring its security concerns are met. We need to reach an agreement between the Palestinian factions that would allow the provision of essential aid and services and the development of the Gaza Strip. This should then enable the international community to fulfil pledges made at the Cairo Conference on the reconstruction of Gaza in 2014. Greater movement at the crossings between Gaza and Israel, and the PA’s return to Gaza will also allow for an arrangement with Egypt on regular opening of the Rafah crossing. Moderate Arab states can play a vital role in rebuilding Gaza, as well as ending the divide between the West Bank and Gaza.
We need to broaden the support base for the peace process, and bring in the region to work alongside the U.S. and others to finally move us forward. The door between Israel and the Arab states is still closed, but the key is in progress with the Palestinians. Yes, moderate Arab countries are interested in changing and upgrading their relationships with Israel, but that will not happen unless Israel shows commitment to a credible process with the Palestinians, with the goal of two independent, viable and secure states. So in addition to the above-mentioned steps for Gaza, there will also need to be measures on the West Bank to give a political boost for the Palestinian Authority.
In my view, the regional approach gives us a better opportunity to resolve this issue than virtually anything else since the creation of the State of Israel.
The fact that we are in such a deep deadlock means that a return to the traditional bilateral approach to this conflict will not be enough. If Israel signals that it is prepared to commit to a discussion around the Arab Peace Initiative as the context in which the negotiation with the Palestinians takes place, steps to normalisation would be possible.
In my view, the regional approach gives us a better opportunity to resolve this issue than virtually anything else since the creation of the State of Israel. A parallel process, with the Arab world leading to normalisation, and with the Palestinians leading to a final-status agreement and the realisation of the two-state solution, is currently possible. I am under no illusions that it will be straightforward to resolve issues that have stood at the heart of this conflict for decades. But the opportunity here is substantial, and if the sides are now willing to act, we increase the chances for a significant shift in Israel’s relationship with the region, boosting Israel’s long-term security.