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Remembering the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative

A Saudi-led peace initiative endorsed by the Arab League's 22 member states offered Israel a comprehensive formula for peace based on international norms

What: A Saudi-led peace initiative endorsed by the Arab League's 22 member states offered Israel a comprehensive formula for peace based on international norms. In exchange for Israel's complete withdrawal from all territories occupied during the June 1967 Six Day War, the Arab states offered full normalisation of diplomatic ties with the Zionist state, and recognised its right to exist in peace and security in the region.

Where: Arab League Summit held in Beirut, Lebanon

When: 28 March, 2002

What happened?

At the height of the Second Palestinian Intifada (Uprising), sparked two years earlier by a highly provocative visit by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Al Aqsa Mosque in occupied Jerusalem protected by 1,000 security personnel, the Arab states offered Israel a comprehensive plan to end the ongoing conflict with its neighbours. In an initiative led by Saudi Arabia's then monarch, King Abdullah, the Arab leaders collectively offered Israel recognition of its right to exist and a normalisation of diplomatic ties in exchange for its complete withdrawal from Arab lands occupied since 1967.

The plan reaffirmed the resolution taken in June 1996 at the Cairo Arab Summit that a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East is the strategic option of the Arab countries and that it would be achieved in accordance with international law. This included UN Resolutions 242 and 338, which collectively called for Israeli withdrawal in exchange for peaceful ties with its Arab neighbours, as well as a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem based around UN General Assembly Resolution 194.

In exchange for peace, Israel had to accept the establishment of a sovereign independent Palestinian state on the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip occupied by the Zionist state since 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital. The initiative also called for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Syrian Golan Heights and territory in southern Lebanon.

The Arab Peace Initiative enjoyed near global support from the UN, with US President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair endorsing it.

What happened next?

As Arab states offered to resolve the conflict with Israel, the occupied West Bank entered another brutal phase of the Second Intifada. On 29 March 2002, a day after the Arab Peace Initiative was announced, Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield, a massive military operation in the West Bank, allegedly in response to terrorist attacks. Israeli forces blasted their way into Ramallah, Jenin and Nablus. More than 500 Palestinians as well as 29 Israeli soldiers were killed in the four-week military operation.

The Arab Peace Initiative did not resurface until the Arab League summit in Riyadh in March 2007, when it was re-endorsed fully. The European Union, the US and the UN backed the plan as the only way forward. "The Arab Peace Initiative is one of the pillars of the peace process… it sends a signal that the Arabs are serious about achieving peace," said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon at the time.

Israel, meanwhile, turned further to the political right with the re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu in 2009 as Prime Minister. The Likud leader, who secured a second term in office, was (and still is) leading a party that recognises neither the right of the Palestinians to statehood nor the solution for peace endorsed by virtually everyone, framed within the Arab Peace Initiative.

Netanyahu cemented his position and with it the Israeli far right by going on to win three further elections. Latterly, the Arab Peace Initiative has suffered a huge blow. Netanyahu pledged that he would make Arab countries normalise ties with Israel under the status quo, under terms favourable to the Zionist state, without conceding territory or statehood for Palestinians. The arrival of Donald Trump on the international scene opened the door for turning what were once Israeli far right fantasies into reality.

During the administration of the former US president (2017-2021), Israel normalised ties with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. The four countries abandoned the principals for peace laid out in the Arab Peace Initiative. Saudi Arabia, having led the 2002 initiative, remains committed to it. But for how long?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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