Journal Essay

The Arab Peace Initiative: An Assessment

Gawdat Bahgat

Spring 2009, Volume XVI, Number 1

Dr. Bahgat is the director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies in the department of political science at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

In the second half of the 2000s, several unprecedented developments in the Arab-Israeli conflict have highlighted the potential of a dramatic alteration of the Middle East’s strategic landscape. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has sponsored a world conference on dialogue among various faiths and cultures, including Islam, Christianity and Judaism. It opened with a meeting in Madrid, Spain, in July 2008, and a follow-up session was held under the auspices of the United Nations in New York City the following November. The list of participants in this latest meeting included the kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan; the emirs of Kuwait and Bahrain; the presidents of Israel, the United States, Finland, Pakistan and Lebanon; and the prime ministers of Britain, Qatar, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Djibouti and Egypt.

Addressing the November gathering, King Abdullah stated, “It was high time the world learned the harsh lesson of history — that differences between followers of different religions and cultures engendered intolerance, causing devastating wars and considerable bloodshed without any sound logical or ideological justification.”1 The king also called for all peoples and nations to promote peace, harmony and tolerance.

Israeli President Shimon Peres responded, “Your majesty, the king of Saudi Arabia, I was listening to your message. I wish that your voice will become the prevailing voice of the whole region, of all people. It is right. It is needed. It is promising.”2 Peres also told reporters that the king’s initiative, henceforth known as the Arab Peace Initiative (API), has created a “U-turn” in the policies of the Middle East.

Following the New York conference, the Palestinian Authority (PA) placed a full-page advertisement in Israel’s Hebrew newspapers to promote the API. The advertisement was headed by the Palestinian and Israeli flags and framed by the flags of 50 Arab and Muslim countries. The text read: “Fifty-seven Arab and Muslim countries will establish diplomatic relations with Israel in exchange for a full peace accord and the end of occupation.”3 On the Israeli side, a group of former senior security officers launched a campaign to promote the API. They placed a full-page newspaper advertisement signed by more than 500 former Israeli generals, diplomats and military intelligence and security officials. They urged the Israeli people and government not to “ignore a historic opportunity which a moderate Arab world presents us with.”4

In addition to these efforts to promote the API, Israeli officials and their counterparts from the Gulf Arab states have held several meetings. In January 2007, then Vice-Premier Shimon Peres participated in a BBC-sponsored debate in Doha, Qatar, and met with Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.5 Qatar is the only Persian Gulf country that has an Israeli presence (a trade mission, not an official embassy). The emir advised Israel to talk to Hamas and invited Israelis to study in Qatar.6 A year later, in April 2008, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni visited Doha and met with both the emir and the prime minister. Livni also held talks with her Omani counterpart, Yousef bin Alawi bin Abdullah. The meeting was the first of its kind between Israel and Oman since the two states cut off relations in 2000, with the start of the second Palestinian uprising (Intifada).7

These important steps to reach a consensus on a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace are particularly important with the inauguration of the Obama administration. Economic and political stability in the Middle East has enormous impact on energy supplies and prices, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the war on terrorism. These are top priorities for the new administration. Little wonder, Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, two former national-security advisers, argued that several diffi cult foreign-policy issues compete for President Obama’s attention, each with strong advocates among his advisers. “We believe that the Arab-Israeli peace process is one issue that requires priority attention.”8

The API aims to achieve a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia, are offering to normalize relations with Israel in return for a full withdrawal to the pre-1967-war borders and a fair solution for the Palestinians. On a visit to the Middle East in July 2008, then-candidate Obama said it would be “crazy” for the Israelis “to refuse a deal that could give them peace with the Muslim world.”9

This study seeks to provide an assessment of the Arab Peace Initiative. In the following section I examine the evolution of the API, what the Arabs are willing to offer and the Israeli response. I analyze the forces that contributed to the formulation of the API. These include the failure of Bush administration to adequately address the Arab-Israeli conflict, the ascendance of Iran, and the economic boom in the Gulf (2000-08). I argue that the API provides a genuine opportunity to end the confl ict and pave the way for a comprehensive peace. However, the fragility of the Israeli and Palestinian governments raises doubts about the adoption and implementation of the initiative.


The API was not the first attempt by Riyadh to build consensus on a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. In 1981, then Crown Prince Fahd introduced a proposal to recognize Israel in return for a full withdrawal from the territories Israel occupied in the 1967 war. This plan was soon shelved, due partially to lack of enthusiasm and partially to other urgent regional developments, including the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Two decades later, Crown Prince Abdullah presented a similar plan, but instead of offering Israel “recognition,” the new plan proposed a full “normalization.” Abdullah’s plan was unanimously accepted by all the member states of the Arab League at their summit in Beirut (March 2002) and renamed the Arab Peace Initiative. It was unanimously re-approved twice, at the Arab League summits in Khartoum (May 2006) and Riyadh (March 2007).

In the API, the Arabs demand the following: (a) full Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied in 1967, including the Syrian Golan Heights, to the lines of June 4, 1967, as well as the remaining occupied Lebanese territories in south Lebanon; (b) achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194; and (c) acceptance of a sovereign independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jeruslaem as its capital. In return, Arab governments have agreed to: (a) consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended and enter into a peace agreement with Israel and provide security for all the states of the region; and (b) establish normal relations with Israel in the context of this comprehensive peace.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal summed up the initiative: “Arab countries would establish normal ties with Israel as soon as it had resolved its disputes with its immediate neighbors.”10 He also warned that without progress in negotiations, increasingly cynical Arab public opinion could “force governments to re-think the negotiating strategy.”11

Hamas leaders expressed opposition to parts of the API related to a peace agreement with Israel. Hamas Political Bureau Chief Khaled Meshal called on Arab leaders not to make concessions on refugees and to recognize the Palestinians’ right to defend themselves. Still, concerned that a strong, open opposition to the API would cause friction with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, Hamas leaders showed restraint in their criticism. The Quartet, composed of representatives from the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia, has repeatedly affirmed support for the API and other efforts to reach a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

Finally, Israel has reacted with a degree of ambivalence. Shimon Peres said the API must be considered a “serious opening for real progress in Middle East Peace.”12 After resigning to fight corruption charges, Ehud Olmert gave an interview to Yediot Aha ronot in which he called for radical new thinking. The Israeli leader expressed understanding of the necessity to meet the Arabs’ demand for a comprehensive peace. He said Israel must withdraw from nearly all of the West Bank as well as East Jerusalem, arguing that maintaining sovereignty over an undivided Jerusalem would involve bringing 270,000 Palestinians inside Israel’s security barrier and would increase the risk of attacks against Israeli civilians.

Tzipi Livni stated that Israel cannot accept the API in its present form because it mentions UN Resolution 194, which is the foundation of the Arab claim to a right of return for refugees from the 1948 war to their homes inside Israel. Israel also rejects the direct reference to the June 4, 1967, lines in the initiative. Livni claims that in negotiations with the Palestinians on borders, the principle of territorial exchanges has already been accepted, so why go back to the 1967 lines, ignoring the new realities on the ground and the tenuous nature of those lines for Israel.14 Ehud Barak said the API could “serve as the basis for negotiations.”15 Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that the fear that many Arab regimes have of Iran has created a strategic opportunity for Israel, but he rejected the API.16

In short, the Israeli government welcomed the offer of normalization but rejected the basic Arab demands (full withdrawal to the 1967 lines, East Jerusalem and the return of Palestinian refugees).


The API was originally presented in early 2002. Initially, both Israel and the United States showed little interest. However, since the closing months of the Bush administration, there has been a renewed interest in exploring the possibility of building consensus on a plan for comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. At least three interrelated developments have contributed to this renewed interest: the need to safeguard the economic boom created by the accumulation of massive oil revenues (2000-08); the failure of the Bush administration to reach a peaceful settlement of the conflict between Israel and its neighbors; and the ascendancy of Iran following the 2001 war in Afghanistan and the 2003 war in Iraq.

Safeguarding the Economic Boom

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are major oil producers and exporters. Together, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE hold 39.6 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves; their share of world production in 2007 was 20.8 percent.17 (The share of the other two GCC states, Bahrain and Oman, is much smaller). In 1999, the price of a barrel of oil was $17.97; by 2007, it had jumped to $72.39 and reached $147 in July 2008 (since then oil prices have collapsed). As a result, the GCC states accumulated an estimated $1.8 trillion in oil revenues by the end of 2007.18

Given these massive fi nancial resources, the GCC states have embarked on ambitious development programs. The Saudi government, for example, announced plans to spend $400 billion on development projects over the next fi ve years.19 The GCC states have emerged as the dominant economic hub of the Middle East. They are interested in establishing and maintaining a trouble-free business environment. Regional peace and stability would substantially facilitate the achievement of this goal.

Failure to Reach a Peaceful Settlement to the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Bringing the Arab-Israeli conflict to a peaceful settlement was a major priority to former U.S. President Bill Clinton. He spent the last few months of his administration trying to convince the Palestinians and Israelis to sign a peace agreement, but he did not succeed. Upon taking office, President George W. Bush seemed to have learned from his predecessor’s failure and decided not to get personally involved in the search for peace in the Middle East. Unlike President Clinton, who met frequently with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, President Bush perceived Arafat as a corrupt terrorist with no interest in pursuing peace and refused to meet or talk to him. The first Bush administration was also preoccupied with the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq. Not surprisingly, the United States played a limited role in facilitating Arab-Israeli negotiations during that period.

With the weakening and demise of Arafat and the surge in violence between Palestinians and Israelis, the Bush administration adopted a more active role. In April 2003, the Roadmap was launched at the Sharm al-Sheikh summit, attended by President Bush and the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers, Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas. The parties agreed to negotiate and undertake phased, time-bound actions to be implemented in parallel by both sides in order to progress to a stated and mutually agreed two-state solution by the projected date of 2005.

With the failure of the Roadmap, the Bush administration sought to re-activate the peace process in 2007, and in November sponsored a peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland. In addition to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, participants included Arab and Muslim states, Russia, China, the United Nations and the European Union. The parties committed themselves to make an effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008. Before leaving office, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated, “I am so confi dent that the Annapolis process is an extraordinary breakthrough in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”20 Secretary Rice made several trips to the Middle East in her last year in office to try to mediate a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians but did not succeed. With the Roadmap and Annapolis process showing no sign of delivering a peace agreement in the foreseeable future, the API has become more relevant.

Containing Iran

The toppling of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, two sworn enemies of Iran, has substantially enhanced the Islamic Republic’s national security. Taking advantage of this changing strategic landscape, Tehran has adopted a more assertive approach to its nuclear program and regional issues such as relations with Hezbollah and Hamas. In order to protect its national interests and its regional allies, the United States has sought to establish a strong bloc of Sunni Arab states in peace with Israel. Such an alliance would isolate and weaken Iran and its regional allies. Washington managed to bring together the members of the GCC as well as Egypt and Jordan (the only two Arab states with formal peace treaties with Israel) — the GCC plus two — at a meeting in Kuwait in January 2007. A similar informal group of the Egyptian, Jordanian, Saudi and UAE governments (sometimes termed the Arab Quartet) was established.

In July 2007, the Bush administration announced new arms sales worth around $20 billion to the GCC states, with the lion’s share going to Saudi Arabia. These proposed sales are part of a package worth $60 billion that includes weapons for Egypt and Israel. In announcing these sales, Secretary of State Rice said that they were intended to “help bolster forces of moderation and support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran.”21

Several issues divide the Arabs and Iranians, including the Sunni-Shiite rivalry, Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, and the dispute between Iran and the UAE over three disputed gulf islands (Abu Mussa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs). Increasingly, Arab leaders seem to have concluded that engagement, not confrontation, is the most appropriate way to manage their differences with Tehran. Saud al-Faisal has underscored this accommodative approach: “We are a neighbor to Iran in the Gulf, which is a small area, so we are keen for harmony and peace among countries in the region. We have relations with Iran and we talk with them and, if we felt any danger, we have relations that allow us to talk about it.”22 In line with this strategy, Iranian and Arab officials hold regular negotiations on all regional issues. King Abdullah met

with former Iranian President Rafsanjani and the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad was also invited to perform the Hajj (pilgrimage) and attended a GCC summit in Doha in 2007.


Gulf policy makers are interested in reaching a peace agreement to end the Arab-Israeli conflict because it would reduce Iran’s ability to exploit the issue in the Arab street. On the other side, such a peace would help Israel to establish and consolidate ties with Sunni-Arab countries. Israeli leaders have sought to convince their Arab counterparts and public opinion that Iran, not Israel, is their main enemy. Speaking at the Doha Forum for Democracy in April 2008, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said, “The Middle East’s biggest challenge is the fight between moderates and extremists. And we, the moderates, are all part of the same camp, threatened by extremist forces in the region.”23 Shimon Peres echoed this sentiment: “One reason for Israel to make peace with the Palestinians is to show the Sunnis of the Middle East that they need not be dominated by Iran and submit to a fanatical Shiite minority.”24


The Arab-Israeli conflict is central not only to Israel and its neighbors, but also to the perception of the United States in the entire Middle East and Muslim worlds. Reaching a peaceful settlement would go a long way in improving the U.S. image. Saudi Arabia holds a unique status because of the king’s role as the guardian of Islam’s holiest sites and because of the country’s oil wealth. The kingdom is, therefore, more than any other state, in a position to offer religious and economic backing to peace between Israel and its neighbors. The notion of normalization of relations with Israel has been a taboo in Arab political culture since 1948. For the Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, to call for normalized relations is a significant turning point.

The adoption and implementation of the API faces at least two major challenges. First, the two major players, Israel and the Palestinians, lack strong leadership. Will the current Israeli and Palestinian leaders be able to make hard decisions and sell them to their constituencies? Second, the API represents the maximum the Arabs can offer; still it is seen as less than what the Israelis are willing to accept. An editorial in The Jerusalem Post underscored these two confl icting perceptions, “The API is being offered on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis when it should be presented as a starting point for negotiations.”25 Full withdrawal from the territories occupied in the 1967 war, East Jerusalem and a fair solution to the Palestinian refugees are core Arab demands. Any concession is highly unlikely. Jamal Khashoggi, a former Saudi embassy adviser in Washington, summed up the Arabs’ feeling: “The Israelis want to win the lottery without paying for a ticket. The lottery is normalized relations with Saudi Arabia, but first they must pay for the ticket by reaching an agreement with the Palestinians.”26

The deteriorating social and economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip point to the necessity of a drastic change. Similarly, Israeli settlement policy has increasingly made the two-state solution less possible. The large and fast-growing Palestinian population in pre- and post-1967 Israel poses a serious threat to the main foundations of the Jewish State. Ehud Olmert described falling Jewish birth rates as an existential threat on par with the nuclear threat from Iran and terrorism.27

The inauguration of Barack Obama inclusive. Conciliation between Fatah as president of the United Sates and the and Hamas would diminish incentives to renewed efforts to improve the U.S. im-undermine peace negotiations. Finally, an age give momentum to the peace process Arab-Israeli peace should not be driven by in the Middle East. For a comprehensive or serve to deepen hostility to Iran. Rather, peace agreement to succeed, it has to be an Arab-Israeli peace should be pursued because it is good for all the peoples in the Middle East.

1 “King Abdullah Addresses the Inter-faith Dialogue Conference,” Asharq al-Awsat, November 12, 2008.


2 “The King and Peres,” Jerusalem Post, November 15, 2008.

3 “Arab Plan Explained in Hebrew Ads,” British Broadcasting System (BBC), November 20, 2008.

4 Tobais Buck and Roula Khalaf, “Senior Israelis Back Arab Push for Peace,” Financial Times, November 27, 2008.

5 This was Peres’first visit to Qatar since 1996.

6 Avi Issacharoff, “Emir of Qatar Tells Peres That Israel Must Talk to Hamas,” Haaretz, January 30, 2007.

7 Barak Ravid, “Livni in Doha: Gaza Becoming Obstacle to Palestinian Statehood,” Haaretz, April 14, 2008.

8 Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Middle East Priorities for January 21,” The Washington Post, November 21, 2008.

9 Uzi Mahnaimi and Sarah Baxter, “Barack Obama Links Israel Peace Plan to 1967 Borders Deal,” Times of London, November 16, 2008.

10 Faiza Saleh Ambah, “Arabs Call on Israel to Take Offer,” The Washington Post, March 30, 2007.

11 Tobais Buck and Roula Khalaf, “Senior Israelis Back Arab Push for Peace,” Financial Times, November 27, 2008.

12 Shlomo Shamir, “Peres: Arab Peace Plan — A Serious Opening for Real Progress,” Haaretz, November 12, 2008.

13 Ethan Bronner, “Olmert Says Israel Should Pull Out of West Bank,” The New York Times, September 30, 2008.

14 Gershon Baskin, “Accept the Saudi Initiative,” Jerusalem Post, March 6, 2007.

15 BBC, “Arab Plan Explained in Hebrew Ads,” November 20, 2008.

16 Martin Wolf, “Netanyahu Calls for Broadening of Peace Talks,” Financial Times, May 24, 2007.

17 British Petroleum, BP Statistical Review of World Energy (London, 2008).

18 Institute of International Finance, Economic Report: Gulf Cooperation Council Countries, available on line at <> accessed January 8, 2008.

19 Institute of International Finance, Update: Gulf Cooperation Council Countries, available on line at <> accessed December 4, 2008.

20 Glenn Kessler, “No Mideast Deal under Bush, White House Says,” The Washington Post, November 7, 2008.

21 C. I. Bosley, “U.S. Plans Major Middle East Arms Sales,” Arms Control Today, Vol.37, No.8, September 2007, pp.24-26.

22 Robin Wright, “Top Iranian General Hit with Sanctions,” The Washington Post, January 10, 2008.

23 Barak Ravid, “Livni in Doha: Gaza Becoming Obstacle to Palestinian Statehood,” Haaretz, April 14, 2008.

24 Bradley Burston and Raphael Ahren, “Peres to Obama: To Help Israel, Be a Great President for the U.S.,” Haaretz, November 17, 2008.

25 “Yes to Salam,” Jerusalem Post, November 21, 2008.

26 Faiza Saleh Ambah, “Arabs Call on Israel to Take Offer,” The Washington Post, March 30, 2007.

27 Allison Hoffman, “U.S. Must Take the Lead against a Nuclear Iran,” Jerusalem Post, November 16, 2008.