The real problem with the Arab initiative

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert receives US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for a meeting at his residence in Jerusalem, 26 March 2007. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)

Hopes were building up in the run up to the last Arab summit that positive moves would revive the stalled Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, finally.

Those who saw it that way counted a number of signals: the powerful speech of His Majesty King Abdullah to the US Congress, where he represented a common Arab view, stressing the significance of resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict as prerequisite to dealing with other major world problems; the Mecca agreement and reconciliation between the Palestinian factions which consequently facilitated the formation of a national unity government, supposedly united on a one political programme; Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s remarks praising some aspects of the Beirut Arab summit peace initiative of 2003; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s repeated visits to the region, accompanied by her expressed interest that moves ahead should occur, and that was coupled with the spreading belief that US policy setbacks mainly in Iraq needed achievement elsewhere to enable President George W. Bush to leave a compatible legacy behind; and finally the activity of the Arab moderates to create a favourable political environment for encouraging Israel to seize the new opportunity.

This last point was clearly emphasised at the late March Arab summit, which relaunched the peace initiative, as planned, on behalf of all Arabs, not only the moderates.

It may still be early to pass judgement, but since evidence to the contrary is fast emerging, it may equally be naive to wait for any change; the situation seems to be as deadlocked as ever. One can count indications in this direction too.

When Rice was last in the region, Haaretz referred to Olmert’s indifference, due to the fact that he had Bush’s green light not to pay much attention to her diplomatic efforts. Olmert had, at the time, informed his guest that he would not deal with any substantial final status issues in his subsequent meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and that was exactly the case. And this had its instant negative impact.

After his last meeting with Olmert, on April 15, Abbas was strongly criticised by one of his closest supporters, Deputy Prime Minister Azzam Al Ahmad, as well as by Information Minister Mustafa Barghouthi for coming out of the meeting empty handed. They both thought that it was completely pointless to repeat such meetings.

I also learned from an involved American visitor to Amman recently that Bush gave Rice the authority to act in any manner she deemed appropriate with respect to her Middle East efforts, but he made it clear to her that he would not be in any position to put Israel under any pressure. Nothing can be more reassuring to Israel to continue with its old ways than such a promise.

Is it not obvious that Washington’s deep entanglement in Iraq along with the current situation on the Hill have deprived it of any means to deal with a thorny issue such as the Arab-Israeli conflict? In the absence of a meaningful American involvement, any other components of the “promising” formula lose much of their effectiveness. But that assumes they were effective. In fact they were not.

On the Palestinian side, the national unity government has so far been unable to function. The security situation remains so grave that the interior minister offered his resignation. The international boycott continues. The daily Israeli incursions, killings and arrests of Palestinians have led to the inevitable collapse of the fragile unofficial “state of pacification”. Neither Olmert nor Abbas is in a position to take drastic decisions, with the former fighting for his political life in the face of the conclusions of the Winograd report and the poor evaluation the report has given to Olmert’s Lebanon war management (in addition of course to his domestic problems), and the latter rushing between Arab and European capitals, seeking to replenish his depleted authority and bankrupt diplomacy after almost two years of sterile movement.

Last to dwindle is the relaunched Arab Peace Initiative, which was, once more, rejected by Israel even before the Arab summit had concluded.

Much of the emphasis was on explaining its meaning to the world and to the Israelis. This is entirely wrong. The problem was never related to understanding or missing explanation. The Israelis knew and they now know exactly what the initiative means, probably more than many Arabs believe it involves. They rejected it precisely because they understand its full meaning and implications, not the opposite.

We, and the often misled world opinion, are the ones who need to understand that it is not the haggling over the exaggerated issue of the refugees that is the obstacle. The greater obstacle, rather, are the borders, for Israel is not willing under the current circumstances to negotiate on the basis of evacuating the land occupied in the 1967 war on all Arab fronts, as the Arab initiative requires. Overstating the refugee issue has been a deliberate distraction from the territorial problems which, once implemented in full, would require the removal of all Israeli settlements built on occupied Arab land after June 1967.

Could it be possible that the omission meant that this was less of an issue than the right of return? We have all been misled into believing that once the “right of return” is out of the equation, everything else will fall in place. The truth is that Israel would only bring up the border issue after finishing with the refugees — the other step-by-step approach.

The real problem with the Arab initiative is the absence of Arab political weight behind it. The initiative has been offered from a position of weakness and inability to do better. The Arabs were trying to improve their image in the West, posing as a peace-loving nation that made “peace its strategic choice”, rather than taking an effective step towards a decent settlement.

When Israel can consolidate all its war gains without risking anything, why should it be tempted by a lesser offer, from an “enemy” which has long been fully taken by granted, an enemy which does not pose any threat.

It is the vast imbalance of power that is the strategic impediment, according to a recent, and indeed an excellent, diagnosis of the situation offered by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley (The New York Review of Books, May 10).

“Israel’s power,” the authors wrote, “provides it with self-confidence, but also lures it away from the necessary compromise.

“Without the threat,” they add, “there is little pressure, and without the pressure, there is scant incentive to [take] political or military risks for the sake of an uncertain and an ill-defined peace.”

The basic problem with the Arab Peace Initiative is in its “begging approach” which surrenders completely to the charitable whims of the aggressor. The victim continues to make gestures and offers without any hint as to what would happen if such offers are dismissed.

The power of the law, international law in particular, is not in the voluntary observance, it is in the code of punishment of those who break it and commit crimes. Without enforcing international law, it will be foolish to expect change. Pleading has never been an instrument of policy. It encourages opposite results.

Once more hopes are being dashed. Unfortunately, in the absence of any improvement, the only other alternative is for the situation to worsen.

How far can that go?

EI contributor Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. This article first appeared in The Jordan Times.

Related Links

  • The Perils of Pragmatism, Remi Kanazi (19 April 2007)
  • Style or substance following Riyadh summit?, Michael F. Brown (2 April 2007)
  • The Mecca Charity Show, Roni Ben Efrat (8 March 2007)