by Ahmad Majdalani
During the Arab League summit held in Riyadh in March 2007, the Arab states revived the strategic Arab option for making peace with Israel on the basis of international legitimacy and international and humanitarian law. This was a clear indication of their resolve to opt for a strategic solution, and not a provisional or tactical one meant to buy time or to weather the crisis in relations between the Arab countries and the international community, especially the United States.
In addition to re-adopting the 2002 Beirut Summit resolution, the Arab League formed an expanded follow-up committee comprising 12 states, some of them directly concerned with the peace process and others representing regional groupings in the Gulf and the Maghreb. Accordingly, the committee’s basic function is to push the Arab Peace Initiative and to secure its acceptance by the international community and Israel, and from there to convert it into the basis for the re-launching of the political process that had long been halted by a host of obstacles.
One main obstacle is the lack of seriousness and readiness on the part of the Israeli leadership to conclude a historic peace agreement with the Arab states. This could be attributed to its incapacity at the time to withstand the strain of peace with all the Arab countries; in other words, the Israeli leadership is unwilling to pay the requisite price for peace or to attempt to sell it to its own constituency at a time when Israeli society is becoming more intransigent and shifting increasingly towards right-wing policies. One major cause is the presence of over a million immigrants from the former Soviet states, who have formed a social base for the religious and national right-wing forces. Furthermore, the role of the U.S. as an honest broker and mediator has lost all credibility since the onset of the peace process in Washington in the 1990s, as the broker turned into a partner of one side. The process has since lost its appeal and the dynamics that were meant to make it a sustainable process involving various parties and tracks.
Why Revive the Initiative Now?
Given this diagnosis of the crisis in the political process, the question is: What are the variables that have led the Arabs to renew their commitment to an initiative which they had crafted several years before, but had not made any attempt to market, much less to adopt and to convert into a political plan of action to be placed on the international agenda?
The region is going through serious political turmoil. At the forefront we have the failure of U.S. policy for the region and the political process that it has sponsored. Then there is the Iraq occupation and quagmire that have turned Iraq into a breeding ground for terrorism in the region. A similar scenario exists in Afghanistan. In addition, we now have an intensification of the conflict with Iran, an important and influential regional player, and whose geopolitical interests run counter to those of the U.S. Against this backdrop, the timing seemed very appropriate for reinstating the Arab vision for peacemaking in the region by re-launching the Initiative.
The escalating crisis arising from Iran’s nuclear program and the fear that it might succeed in producing unconventional weapons, or worse, nuclear weapons, as did North Korea, and thus consolidate its superiority in the region is seen as a strategic threat to U.S. influence in the area that shouldn’t be taken lightly. The U.S. does not want to see its hegemony over the sources of energy, not only in the Arabian Gulf, but also in Central Asia and the Caspian Sea imperiled in the near or distant future.
The U.S. needs to garner the support of its allies in the region and to strengthen this front in order to isolate Iran as a prelude to either imposing political conditions on it without prejudicing American strategic interests, mainly securing the unimpeded flow of energy supplies; or to prepare the field — should the need arise — to deal a stinging military blow to Iran’s military and strategic installations that will set it back decades and will block it from becoming a dominant regional player or a rival to American strategic interests.
Another factor for the re-launching of the Initiative is the area’s political vacuum over the past seven years, specifically after the failure of Camp David II. As the peace process headed into a phase of deep lethargy as a result of the above-mentioned Israeli-American policies, this vacuum needed to be filled. During the last few years, the EU has been showing signs of a more robust approach to the conflict in an attempt to fill this vacuum. After its adoption of the Euro and expansion, it has emerged as an economic force rivaling the U.S. in the Middle East as well as worldwide. Moreover, several European countries still have the ambition to retrieve their former role and influence in the region, given their historic ties there, especially with the waning of the U.S. political role as a result of its one-sided support of Israel and its indiscriminate “war on terror.”
An Attractive Initiative
Conceivably, some Arab policymakers may have considered the moment opportune to re-launch the Initiative based on their perception of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government, which is devoid of any political vision relating to the Palestinian/Arab-Israeli conflict. This is especially true after the freezing of the redeployment plan in the West Bank that was slated to form an extension of Ariel Sharon’s unilateral solution. Olmert’s government was left without an agenda except that of scrambling to create facts on the ground by expanding settlements and building the separation wall. It only led to heightened tension, not only in Palestine but also in the Arab moderate camp, and placed Israel in the uncomfortable position of clashing with American strategy, given the latter’s political debacle in the region.
The Initiative carries with it a number of enticements, most importantly, normalization in return for withdrawal. It should be noted that normalization will not be limited to the Arab countries, but will extend to Muslim ones through the participation of 54 Muslim countries. Additionally, it is the first time the question of refugees is formulated thus: “a just solution to the refugee problem to be agreed upon,” which posits the possibility of discussing the issue of refugees beyond the parameters of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194. Basing themselves on the reality in Israel, Arab policymakers believed that reviving the Initiative would by necessity meet with success.
The Arab follow-up committee has made several attempts to promote the Initiative on the various international and regional levels. This includes the efforts made to draw in Israel on the official level as well as on the popular level with the peace activists, under the personal sponsorship of Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman and Aqaba. But all these Arab moves faced obstacles, and although there was no total breakdown, the Initiative had lost its initial momentum.
The Obstacles Facing the Initiative
First: Israel’s continued evasiveness regarding the Arab Peace Initiative and its failure to honor its commitments.
Israel’s perception is that in light of the power imbalance in the region, it is not obligated to pay a heavy price for normalization and relations with the Arabs. It is pursuing a policy of procrastination and trying to contain the situation through a show of flexibility vis-à-vis the Initiative, while attempting to void it of its substance, i.e., to start with normalization before taking any tangible steps to withdraw from the occupied Arab and Palestinian territories.
It is worth noting that this Israeli policy is not confined to the ruling coalition, which is representative of large segments of Israeli society, but also reflects the stance of the right-wing opposition that rejects, on principle, giving so-called concessions, especially on the issues of Jerusalem and refugees.
With the erosion of the influence of the Israeli peace camp and its diminishing clout as a force among Israeli public opinion, the radicals are seeing a surge in their influence and power. Added to this is the waning of political realism among the Labor Party headed by Ehud Barak — the party that once was the principal partner of the Palestinians in making peace. This situation is a clear indication of how difficult it is to have the Initiative accepted by Israel in the foreseeable future.
Second: Israel’s attempt to once again play one Arab track against another by showing a willingness to open channels of negotiations on one track and freezing them on the others
— or ignoring them outright, as is the case with Lebanon. For example, Israel is sending conflicting signals to Syria regarding its readiness to negotiate with it, while hinting to the Palestinians about reverting to the unilateral solution that has been effectively frozen.
Such maneuvering could very well entice some Arab parties into embarking on bilateral negotiations. This will only shackle the Initiative and empty it of its substance, especially in view of the reality on the ground and the difficulties the Initiative faces in progressing or achieving any tangle results.
Third: U.S. attempts to reclaim the reins of the political initiative and to impede the involvement of its European allies.
With the failure of its project in Iraq and with the looming Iran crisis, the U.S. needs to revive the political process, and this is what was signaled by President George W. Bush’s invitation for an international meeting in Annapolis.
There is no doubt that the American invitation, which the American secretary of state had pushed with great difficulty after eight trips to the region, had elicited very low expectations and presumably produced modest results. Consequently, Annapolis cannot be a substitute for the Initiative. Moreover, getting certain Arab parties in this meeting, at their head Saudi Arabia, or other Muslim parties like Indonesia or Malaysia, to normalize relations with Israel cannot be confirmed as a gain for Israel, because normalization cannot happen or be accepted before withdrawal.
Fourth: The internal Palestinian situation, which has become more vulnerable, especially after the Hamas takeover in Gaza and the political and demographic split from the West Bank, making the Palestinians more likely to buckle under external pressure.
The message that Hamas is sending with its control of the Gaza Strip is that the exclusive representation of the Palestinian people does not reside in President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen); it follows that he does not have the authority to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian people and that any agreement concluded with him can be blocked by Hamas, not only by their rejecting it, but also by refusing to renounce its control of Gaza. The implication is that Hamas not only refuses to go back on its takeover of the Strip, but the threat exists that the same experience would be repeated in the West Bank if Israel withdrew from it.
An Interconnected Crisis
Unfortunately, this weakens the Palestinian position and gives credence to Israel’s claim that there is no Palestinian partner, and that the only course for Israel to follow is to bide its time and not to make any moves on the Palestinian track. It would hold on to the security issue as postulated in the first stage of the Road Map and would stop at that. This would constitute a serious blow to the Initiative and, at its core, the Palestinian question.
When all these issues are taken into consideration, it becomes clear that the internal Palestinian situation is very much part of the overarching regional crisis, or the struggle between the U.S. and the so-called rejectionist front: Tehran, Damascus, Gaza and the southern suburbs of Beirut. Such interconnectedness means that the crisis has ceased to be only Arab or Palestinian, but has become regionalized, involving many more parties.
Achieving progress in the wake of the Annapolis meeting should contribute to easing the Palestinian internal conditions. The issue of Lebanese elections is an element that should also be factored in. If the present presidential vacuum is solved through consensual elections, a breakthrough could occur from the Gulf to Beirut to Damascus and Gaza, making it possible to revive the political process and to reactivate the Arab Peace Initiative. If the elections end up being confrontational, this would mean the protraction of the conflict, with the possibility of only partial and provisional solutions.