Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi Arabian foreign minister, recently reminded Israelis that the tantalizing prospect of Arab normalization with Israel has been on the table for nearly two decades now.
As he suggested on April 2, Arab states offered Israel full normalization of relations at an Arab League summit in Beirut in March 2002.
That was 19 years before the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco normalized bilateral ties with Israel in return for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s suspension of plans to annex the Jordan Valley.
First floated by then Saudi crown prince Abdullah, the Arab League peace proposal was adopted during the second Palestinian uprising. It essentially called for a quid pro quo to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict. In exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem, Arab League nations would normalize relations with Israel.
The plan was essentially based on United Nations resolutions 242 and 338, which called on Israel to cede the occupied territories in exchange for peaceful ties with its Arab neighbors. These resolutions also endorsed “the right of every state in the area to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries.”
The proposal was backed by 10 Arab League states whose representatives attended the summit. Twelve member states, including Syria, boycotted it. The rejectionist Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad condemned the plan.
Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority and the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, could not attend because the Israeli government would not guarantee his return to Ramallah, the de facto capital of the PA.
Israel effectively rejected and continues to reject the proposal, which was a supported by the United States, Russia, China and the European Union.
Unfortunately, the proposal was unveiled on the day a Palestinian suicide bomber detonated a bomb at the Park Hotel in Netanya, killing 30 Israelis and wounding about 160 during a Passover meal.
In response, Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield, its biggest incursion into the West Bank since the Six Day War. More than 29 Israeli troops and some 500 Palestinians were killed during the course of battles in West Bank towns ranging from Jenin to Nablus.
Operation Defensive Shield did not put an end to suicide attacks. Many more would follow in the next few years — pushing Israeli public opinion further to the right and eroding Israel’s willingness to make meaningful territorial compromises for the sake of peace with the Palestinians.
Nevertheless, the Arab League resubmitted a modified version of its proposal at a summit in Riyadh in 2007. This time around, a resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue would be dependent on the mutual agreement of Israel and the Arabs.
Twenty one Arab heads of state attended the summit and all of them backed the plan. Among its supporters was Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas.
Lauding it as “one of the pillars of the peace process,” the then secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, said it was a significant development, inasmuch as “it sends a signal that the Arabs are serious about achieving peace.”
Israel objected to one central aspect of the plan, namely the call for a full withdrawal from the occupied areas. The then Israeli president, Shimon Peres, said he could not rule out talks with Arab countries on the basis of the overall proposal.
Since then, it has lain dormant, but as Prince Farhan said earlier this month, it is still there should Israel reconsider its position.
“I think normalizing Israel’s status within the region would bring tremendous benefits to the region as a whole,” he said in an interview with CNN. “It would be extremely helpful both economically but also socially and from a security perspective.”
But such a process, he added, “can only be successful if we address the issue of the Palestinians, and if we are able to deliver a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders that gives the Palestinians dignity … and their rights.”
This is a pragmatic plan that Israel should seriously consider.
With a civil war tearing Syria apart, no one expects Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights at this point. Nor should Israel accept more than a symbolic number of Palestinian refugees, who should be resettled in a future Palestinian state, in neighboring Arab countries and elsewhere.
But if peace is to prevail, Israel should be prepared to relinquish much of the West Bank within the framework of a mutually acceptable peace agreement that provides for its security and ensures its future as a democratic Jewish state.
Only then, as Prince Farhan noted, would Saudi Arabia be prepared to normalize relations with Israel. This is an offer that Israel should no longer reject.