Style or substance following Riyadh summit?

Not stopping for directions: US President George W. Bush rides in the cockpit of Air Force One on the final approach before landing in Baghdad 13 June 2006. (Eric Draper/White House photo)

The Arab League peace initiative is back in play after an Israeli and American-imposed five-year hiatus. The return to the previously shunted aside proposal comes only because the Bush administration has utterly fouled the region — from the bloody sectarian turmoil of Baghdad to the tsunami of human waste that recently swept through part of northern Gaza — and has evidently concluded there is now a better hope of “fixing” Israel and Palestine than Iraq.

In an ironic twist, the Bush administration claim that the road to Middle East peace runs through Baghdad has been inverted by the total collapse in Iraq. Now Jerusalem, borders and Palestinian refugees are on the agenda. Only the growing strength of Iran and desperation for some success in the region could lead the White House to its current position and the risk of failure similar to that of President Clinton in the final days of an eight-year run in office.

The administration, represented by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, reaches this juncture out of weakness and not strength. They have been cornered by the shortcomings of their own belligerence. Washington’s weak Middle East hand actually provides a better-than-usual opportunity for positive peacemaking headway — though the chances of success remain exceedingly slim. With Iran strengthened, the Bush family and its allies are reluctant to undercut Saudi Arabia. And the Saudis have started to handle changing circumstances with some adroitness. The Saudis’ success in pushing through the Hamas-Fateh unity government/authority has evidently led to their recalibrating what the Bush administration will tolerate and to a testing of the fracture lines running between the United States, Europe and Israel. “It has become necessary,” King Abdullah noted on the principal economic fault line, “to end the unjust blockade imposed on the Palestinian people as soon as possible so that the peace process can move in an atmosphere far from oppression and force.”

It remains to be seen, however, what the repercussions will be of King Abdullah’s comment at the opening of the Riyadh summit that the American presence in Iraq constitutes “an illegal foreign occupation.” To date the administration’s public response has been quite restrained. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack stated, “… We want to understand more clearly what it is exactly that he had in mind when he talked about an illegal occupation.” McCormack also stressed the excellent personal relationship between President Bush and King Abdullah. Others, however, in Congress and think tanks are certain to be vociferous in their condemnation of King Abdullah and Saudi Arabia. Already, The New York Times notes that Simon Henderson, director of gulf and energy policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), claimed that King Abdullah’s remarks legitimize attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq. Defenders of an expansionist Israel are likely to try injecting 9/11 reminders into any discussion of Saudi involvement in Middle East peacemaking.

The growing clamor for substantive talks surely has Olmert’s government reeling. He is now in the delicate position of having to engage and not appear intransigent. Cognizant of this, he played a weak hand well during Rice’s most recent visit. At the end of that visit, Olmert agreed to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas every two weeks to discuss security and economic issues, but not final status issues. In his view, he wins points for the style of talks while avoiding core-issue substance. Rice certainly did not publicly rebuke Olmert for resisting serious talks, but instead put the blame for slow movement on the unexpected Hamas-Fateh accord.

Now, however, the Riyadh summit has ratcheted up the pressure on Olmert. A comprehensive peace offer from the Arab League is on the table. Olmert presumably realizes that some sort of counter-offer is mandatory following the political evisceration of Yasser Arafat when he offered a merely implicit counterproposal at Camp David. The Israeli prime minister aims for talks with the Saudis on Arab recognition of Israel while again sidestepping the substance of Palestinian demands. The Saudis are sure to see right through this. They are, after all, familiar with similar scripts.

Current circumstances highlight once again the vital importance of being on the offensive in talking peace and establishing the framework for substantive talks. The Arab League has re-established its seriousness and has appropriately seconded Palestinian rights on Jerusalem, borders and refugees. Past Israeli peace forays have ignored or hedged on these issues, but have won in the court of American public opinion by being put forward loudly and with winning rhetorical catchphrases such as the ubiquitous “generous offer” terminology of the Barak era. That these proposals had little to do with fulfilling Palestinian rights and basic principles of justice was insignificant in much media coverage. The only thing that mattered was talks were underway and the Israelis were seen as initiators rather than responders. This time, however, the Arab League has the upper hand over the Israeli government as the former has offered a deal rooted in rights and international law — quickly derided by Thomas Friedman who backed an earlier version of the Saudi plan in 2002 — while the latter is widely viewed as attempting to fend off serious talks.

As ever, more powerful players appear at the moment to be determining the Palestinians’ fate. Yet any settlement, no matter how remote the chances, reportedly requires Palestinian approval through a referendum. Prior to a distant referendum, however, is the overwhelming necessity for Palestinians to put their own house in order as internecine bloodshed continues, albeit at a lower level since the Saudi intervention. With a new unity government/authority there is also a window for advancing any new thinking of the Palestinian leadership. This provides yet another opportunity for a “peace offensive” in which the Palestinians can put forward their legitimate rights and claims in a thoughtful manner to the international community.

Further delay in conveying these views will only play into the hands of Israeli officials by enabling them to define the terms of a peace accord as compatible with Israeli expansionism and ethnic cleansing (by denying the right of return). Camp David achieved this perverse success. Olmert is almost sure to rally and attempt to do no less. He has, of course, strong allies in Congress and the administration.

The verbal beating down of the Saudis and the Palestinians will soon begin in earnest — once again. This time, however, the deteriorating regional climate may lead to a bit more debate. Nevertheless, when Democrats stripped out language requiring congressional approval for an American attack on Iran, they signaled — at least temporarily — not just implicit Democratic backing for any such strike, but the grim reality that after four years of failure in the region the Democratic leadership is still unprepared for a frank discussion about the Middle East, Israel and Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. The Republican base, for its part, can be counted on to soon make known its opposition to the timid steps taken to date by Secretary Rice. AIPAC, never far from such matters, will likely call on the administration and Congress not to “sacrifice” Israel for the interests of Saudi Arabia and certainly will issue reminders that demands should not be made of Israel that jeopardize its security.

If the Bush administration does not immediately abandon or verbally savage the Arab League plan as a consequence of Republican and AIPAC pressure then something new will be afoot, something worthy of very close attention. Until then, Rice is simply following the Olmert model: style over substance.

Michael F. Brown is a fellow at the Palestine Center, which published a version of this same article, and on the board of Interfaith Peace-Builders. Previously, he was executive director of Partners for Peace and Washington correspondent for Middle East International. The views expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund. Published today on Tom Paine, this article may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the author.