After rejecting the French proposal for an international peace conference, Benjamin Netanyahu claims that he is now willing to discuss the Arab Peace Initiative. The Israeli prime minister has been a long-standing critic of the plan which was proposed by the late King Abdullah when he was the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, and adopted by the Arab League in 2002.
Although his announcement may seem to be a remarkable U-turn towards peace, this is far from the case. In reality, it is nothing but a crude attempt to exploit the region’s political turmoil and extract every possible gain from Israel’s relations with its so-called “moderate” allies.
Since 2011, Israel has used all of its political power and influence to roll back popular demands for democracy and freedoms across the region. To this end, it found willing accomplices in Egypt and the Gulf States. All of the parties among this bunch of strange bedfellows shared one thing in common — a deep-seated fear and hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood. Now that the transition to democracy has been reversed in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, they are, it seems, turning their attention to Palestine.
As far as the Israeli government is concerned, its aim is much more than just containing Hamas in the Gaza Strip or pre-empting its rise to political authority in the West Bank. It is, above all, preventing the emergence of an independent Palestine state in the occupied territories with Jerusalem as its capital and the return of the refugees. However, even with the soft power of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) involved as well as its controversial protégé Muhammad Dahlan, there is no guarantee that the Israelis will ever succeed.
By announcing his willingness to discuss the Arab plan Netanyahu is, in a sense, testing the water to see if the Arab world will take his bait. Saudi Arabia has already declared its position: there will be no alterations to the plan proposed by King Abdullah at the 2002 Beirut summit. According to the initiative, Arab states are offering full recognition of Israel and its right to exist, as well as a normalisation of relations, in exchange for its complete withdrawal from Arab lands captured since 1967. It also calls for the restoration of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and a “fair solution” for the Palestinian refugees.
There is a lot at stake here for the Saudis; after all, the initiative is often called the Saudi peace plan. Riyadh thus has more to lose than gain from any alteration of the proposal. To begin with, a compromise could be seen, at worse, as an undermining of Saudi’s regional authority and, at best, as its political eclipse by its smaller Gulf neighbour. Even so, the possibility of a deal with the Saudis cannot be ruled out in the long term. Its need for Egypt’s military cover in the present circumstances could create the conditions for a softening of attitudes.
Moreover, Egypt’s strong ties with Israel place it in a unique position to facilitate an agreement between Tel Aviv and Riyadh. Indeed, that process may have started with Saudi Arabia’s recent acquisition of the Egyptian-owned Red Sea islands of Sanafir and Tiran. The ink on that agreement had hardly dried before the Israelis announced that they were consulted and that the Saudis had given them guarantees over shipping rights and free passage in the off-shore waters around the islands.
As for the UAE, the fourth party in this complex web of relations, its ability to influence events in Palestine should be neither underestimated nor overstated. Already, the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah is heavily dependent on UAE aid and, like Egypt, has long lost the ability to make political decisions independent of its patrons. So, in spite of their dissatisfaction with the UAE’s open support for Dahlan’s leading role, reports are that the Fatah/PLO leadership is pretty much resigned to the fact that it’s no longer a question of if, but when, the disgraced former Fatah security chief will return.
Without the prospect of presidential or parliamentary elections taking place any time soon, the easiest way to install Dahlan at the helm of Fatah and the PLO would be through a public show of reconciliation with Abbas. Even that has its risks, though, for he may be seen as an agent of foreign interests. The last thing that Palestinians want at this critical period is to replace the dominance and excesses of one foreign power with those of another. They have seen how the UAE, acting under the guise of combatting Islamic “terrorism” and “extremism”, has derailed the transition to democracy in Egypt and shattered its social fabric. Under no circumstances must the people of Palestine now accept any initiative that seeks to exclude the resistance groups, especially Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Given that the Arab Peace Initiative is by no means perfect or sacred, it would certainly be one betrayal too many to compromise or amend its already flawed terms. This, quite simply, should not be done, not for all the money that the Gulf can offer, nor the solemn promises made by Israel and its Egyptian allies. Palestine must be a truly independent country, not simply another vassal state of the United Arab Emirates.