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Now is the time for a regional Arab-Israeli settlement

A peace deal would mean an improved geostrategic and economic outlook, and a much brighter future for all countries in the region

It was on 19 November 1977 that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat landed at Ben-Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. That made him the first Arab leader to arrive in Israel on an official visit, even though the two countries were still officially at war. His speech to the Israeli parliament – the Knesset – was the climax of his visit, a momentous occasion that left not a dry eye in the entire country. For a moment it seemed as though past bloody regional wars were making way for a better future, one where Israel and the Arab world choose to live side by side in peace and security, recognising the unbearable price of war.

But the Middle East’s tempestuous reality, exacerbated by a discourse on both sides of victimhood and self-righteousness, buried the tender shoots of a regional peace under heaps of mutual animosity, suspicion and hatred. And for similar reasons the 2002 Saudi Peace Initiative never gained the traction it deserved. Although the Arab Peace Initiative reflects traditional Arab demands on Israel, its contents and importance were, and remain, no less than groundbreaking.

Despite its huge importance, successive Israeli leaderships made no constructive response to the initiative. As a result it became sidelined for many years in the torrent of Middle Eastern events. But now, 14 years after its inception, the Arab Peace Initiative, which had long been regarded as dead and buried, is making a comeback on the regional scene.

Common Arab-Israeli interests

The kneejerk reaction to such developments is often one of dismissal, which should surprise no-one in view of the series of diplomatic setbacks over the years. But it may just be that the present circumstances offer a rare, unique window of opportunity with a real chance for a breakthrough. The dramatic upheavals in the Middle East over the last five years have crumbled regional strategic, political and economic stability and have spurred Arab and Israeli leaders to re-evaluate some of the assumptions underpinning their respective foreign policies. Nowadays the base of common interests is broadening and becoming more solid than ever:

Israel and some of the Arab states share a concern for regional stability in view of the expanding reach of Iranian influence and the consolidation of control by Islamic terrorist organisations over swathes of territory in various regional theatres. These threats throw a dark shadow over the political future of some regional regimes and pose a challenge to their border securityIsrael regards cooperation in safeguarding regional security to be in its national interest. However, without a diplomatic shift it will be impossible to leverage the full potential of such a partnership.

The economic aspect

The wave of uprisings in the Arab world was primarily a product of festering conditions of economic hardship. With this in mind, any regime concerned for its self-preservation has first and foremost to attend to the economic welfare and prospects of its citizens.

In order to attract foreign investors and to make headway on large-scale, long-term job-creating projects, it is first necessary to de-escalate conflicts both on and within their borders. Here lies the real importance and driver for a pan-Arab alliance of forces with Israel and the international community to help tackle the economic challenges facing the entire region.

To this mix one must add the growing realisation by the US’s allies in the Middle East of the limits of that alliance. The Obama administration’s policy of “leading from behind”, and the nuclear deal with Iran, have driven home the realisation both in Israel and among the Arab states that they have to take more control of matters themselves. This applies in particular to the Saudis, who have increasingly felt in recent years that they have been abandoned by the Americans. The result has been a change in Saudi foreign policy and practice. Nowadays Saudi Arabia plays a much more proactive role with other partners in the Arab world, taking ownership and leading Middle Eastern foreign policy.

The Arab Peace Initiative falls far short of being the stuff of Israeli dreams, but its implementation would also not be easy for the Arabs and Palestinians. A settlement of this kind will exact a high price from all parties – Israelis and Arabs alike. The prospects for its long-term viability will be tested by the recurrent upheavals in the region.

The benefits a settlement along these lines has to offer can hardly be overstated. If Israel would reconsider its policy, and if the Arab states would show a bit more understanding for the constraints within which Israel is able to manoeuvre, then the chances of a regional process coming to a successful conclusion will be greater than ever. Such a settlement would mean an improved geostrategic and economic outlook, and a much brighter future, for all countries in the region.

Now more than ever, it is obvious that peace between Israel and the Arabs is a necessary condition for a stable, secure Middle East. Most leaders in the region understand this very well, even if at times their public statements speak to the contrary.

- Dr Michal Yaari is an expert on Saudi foreign policy at Tel Aviv University.

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

This article first appeared on www.plus61j.net.au and is reprinted with permission.

Photo: Israeli Premier Menahem Begin (r) and Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadate shake hands and joke 20 November 1977 in Jerusalem during Egypt's President historic visit to Israel. (AFP)