Canberra Times – 10 April 2007
Arab League summits have become rather marginal affairs in recent years, but hopes were high for the March 28-29 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for two reasons.
One is that most Sunni Arab states are very concerned by the nuclear and political ambitions of Iran and its allies. They therefore may be more willing than usual to try novel policies in the interests of confronting the Iranian-led threat.
Meanwhile, Israel had expressed interest in exploring a revised version of the Arab League’s 2002 peace proposal to progress the Israeli-Palestinian front.
Increasingly politically beset Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, elected on a platform of trying to disengage from most of the West Bank by 2010, recognised that there is little hope of any progress in direct talks with the Palestinians at the moment.
While the Palestinians have a new national unity government, it is still dominated by the rejectionist Hamas terrorist organisation and has a platform which provides no basis for peace.
The new government, established mainly to attempt to escape an international embargo on direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, has not only refused to recognise Israel, renounce violence and agree to honour previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements as demanded by the international community. It has also declared that “resistance” (Palestinian rhetoric for terrorism) “is the legitimate right of the Palestinian people” and will continue until a Palestinian right of return to Israel is implemented, which would be demographic suicide for Israel.
Looking for an alternate way forward, Olmert, both before and after the Summit, welcomed the positive elements of the 2002 Arab League plan which Riyadh re-proposed. He also repeatedly offered to meet Arab leaders at a summit or other negotiating forum.
But Olmert’s ongoing attempts to find an opening for negotiations do not change the fact that the outcome of this Arab League summit were a big disappointment.
Two elements of the plan as re-iterated make it an absolute non-starter. The US Administration, eager to push forward on Israeli-Palestinian efforts at the moment, had encouraged the Saudis and the Arab League to go at least some way toward making the proposal palatable to Israel as a signal of seriousness and willingness to compromise. But neither Israel not the US were given the slightest hint of flexibility, but rather threats.
When in 2002, Saudi’s Crown Prince (now King) Abdullah floated his initial plan in the New York Times, it called simply for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders in exchange for full normalisation of relations with the Arab states.
Then, the Arab League, meeting in Beirut, at the behest of its most radical members, ensured the plan would be rejected in Jerusalem by including two extra conditions. First they added language that effectively demanded the so-called ‘right of return’ to Israel for Palestinian refugees and their descendants be implemented in full.
Second it was made clear that the plan was not an opening for Israeli-Arab diplomacy or negotiations, but a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum. Israel was to accept and then unilaterally implement the plan’s demands. When, and if, the Arab states were satisfied that Israel had fully complied, they would carry out their side of the deal and initiate relations.
The right of return is the idea that Palestinian refugees from 1948 and their descendents, more than four million people in all, should be allowed to move to Israel. But just as Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority define themselves as Arab states, Israel defines itself as a Jewish state. Such an influx would quickly turn Israel into a binational state alongside the purely Arab Palestinian state which is to be established, and contradicts the basic idea behind the peace process of two states for two peoples.
Second, the absence of negotiations doomed the plan to failure. Even if Israel somehow agreed to carry out all the plan’s provisions unilaterally as demanded there were no assurances that the most radical Arab states, such as Libya and Syria, would fulfil the deal. They would be just as likely to re-interpret ambiguous elements of the plan and insist Israel had not fully complied to their satisfaction.
Moreover, in the Arab League, moderates have almost never been able to face down the radicals, who can always threaten other Arab governments by accusing them of betraying the Arab cause.
Only negotiations could have bridged such gaps, doubts and ambiguities.
But there has been no hint that this is available. The Saudi foreign minister even re-emphasised the plan’s character as an ultimatum by announcing that if Israel did not accept the plan as written, in full, the “lords of war” would decide Israel’s future.
An opportunity to make a possible breakthrough toward peace at a time when it could not be more needed was thrown away. However, all might not yet be lost. Olmert continues to offer negotiations, which can be based on the plan, and it is understood that quiet contacts are taking place. If these overtures can become more public and serious, they are probably the best hope for progress for the time being.
Unfortunately, this continues to look unlikely. The Arab states have almost never been able to make much of a positive contribution to Israeli-Palestinian peace because they are effectively hostage to radical forces which reject Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.
The result is this sort of empty posturing, which occurred at Riyadh, with peace plans whose provisions are ultimately designed to satisfy those who reject any peace with Israel. Until this changes, peace prospects will regrettably remain remote.
Dr. Colin Rubenstein is Executive Director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council. Previously, he taught Middle East Politics at Monash University for many years.