Arab Peace Must Come First

Struggles among the Arab powers will have to be resolved to make big initiatives stick.

The dueling worldviews that mark the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were on display earlier this month in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Gaza. While Israelis celebrated the sixty-fifth anniversary of their country’s birth, Palestinians commemorated the same events as their “Catastrophe” (“Nakba”). There were no fatalities in the clashes between Palestinian protestors and Israeli forces in the West Bank, and the shell fired into Israel from Gaza landed in an open field. But the acrimony won emotionally spiked coverage throughout the Arab region in news media that for months had been focused on Syria.

In what has been a mainstay of public discussions of the conflict, what commentators said about the politics was in many cases framed in the language of good against evil, Muslims against Jews, the Arab world against the United States. It was a sad reminder that this century-old conflict can still hijack the region’s conscience.

Yet hopes for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement appeared to reemerge last month. U.S. secretary of state John Kerry welcomed a new “Arab peace initiative” (API), formally conveyed by a high-level Arab League delegation visiting Washington. In wording, at least, it moved slightly beyond a proposal by the same name which was presented in 2002: It opens the door to “minor” land swaps, to the parties’ mutual satisfaction, as a modification to the 1967 boundary lines upon which such proposals are generally based.

The significance of the initiative is that it comports with the formula put forth by President Obama during his first term. At the time, the president’s effort was torpedoed by a combination of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s criticism and divisions within the Palestinian camp. Now that Obama’s logic has been given the nod by some of the Arab region’s most powerful leaders, it carries greater weight and is perhaps more viable. As Israeli negotiator and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni said on April 30, the initiative gives a new “tail wind” to peace efforts.

But an important dimension of the new initiative has been largely absent from its discussion in the West, so hard to see amid the acrimonious discourse of “Nakba Day.” The intra-Arab tensions surrounding the API are profound—and navigating them may be just as important for a potential deal as the challenge of bringing the two principal parties back to the table, if not more so.

The real gap between the 2002 and 2013 proposals lies not so much in their content as in the Arab countries that spearheaded them. In 2002, Saudi Arabia’s then Crown Prince (and now King) Abdullah bin Abdulaziz advanced the original API at an Arab League summit hosted in Beirut, where Saudi Arabia has been a leading benefactor and stabilizing force. The recent effort, by contrast, was led by the tiny Gulf state of Qatar, and Saudi Arabia is absent from the picture. This is no accident: For over a decade, Riyadh and Doha have experienced tension. Though at first this stemmed from personal disagreements, they have evolved into an ideological conflict; today the two Gulf States support rival political forces in the Arab world. Qatar has emerged as the region’s largest benefactor of the Muslim Brotherhood—now in control of Egypt, dominant in the politics of Tunisia, and among the most prominent rebel groups in Syria. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia supports Salafi groups, but at the same time has emerged as a champion of politically more moderate, alternative rebel elements.

Two key Saudi allies, the UAE and Jordan, have joined Riyadh in supporting these groups. In a high-level visit to Washington that followed the visit of Qatar’s emir by a week, these three countries urged the United States to do the same.

As long as either Saudi Arabia or Qatar is not included in a regional peace initiative vis-à-vis the Israelis and the Palestinians, it is hard to imagine the effort leading to a comprehensive settlement between Israel and twenty-two Arab states, let alone the broader Muslim world.

On the other hand, if the two Arab powers were able to work together on Palestinian-Israeli peace for the greater interest of strengthening civil peace in the region, they would be a powerful team: Qatar has the power to lean heavily on Hamas, which receives enormous backing from the country, as well as Muslim Brotherhood-ruled Egypt. Saudi Arabia, for its part, wields greater influence on the many enduring autocratic establishments in the region—as well as Muslim countries outside the Arab orbit. On the other hand, if the United States attempts to proceed with a Qatar-backed proposal that does not include Saudi Arabia, it is hard to imagine that the requisite regional cooperation would be forthcoming.