Ayman El-Amir: Abbas to the Rescue

By Ayman El-Amir

Arab foreign ministers met in Cairo recently to reconfirm the Riyadh land-for-peace initiative which their colleagues from Egypt and Jordan, the two Arab states that signed formal peace treaties with Israel, had presented to Israeli officials one week earlier. Israel did roll out the red carpet and organised meetings with all the powers that be in the Israeli political and legislative spectrum, though did little beyond that. The generalities in which Israeli officials spoke, and the semblance of positive spirit exhibited, reflected Israeli awareness of the severe limitations on the mandate of the two foreign ministers, and the fact that talking alone does not hurt anyone. The Arab peace initiative has been broached to Israel time and again; it is aware of its rhetorical bluntness, nuances and weaknesses and is waiting for more Arab concessions. That ushers in the Bush initiative for a Middle East peace conference.

Arab governments are under increasing pressure to revive the deceased peace process. The Palestinian national movement has been split into two camps and Arab governments are divided in their support. Incessant Israeli aggression and assassination of Palestinians, regional tensions arising from the deteriorating situation in Iraq and the confrontation with Iran, the looming spectre of civil war in Lebanon and the showdown between Turkey and the Kurds in northern Iraq are fuelling seething domestic dissent in several Arab countries. Moreover, the failure of half-hearted democratic reforms in key Arab countries is creating a volatile political environment that is being addressed by iron-fist police state repression. To make things worse, Al-Qaeda has made sporadic but lethal appearances in some Maghreb Arab countries. Arab regimes feel the need to make some progress on the Palestinian front to take the wind out of the sails of fundamentalists.

On the other hand, beleaguered President George W Bush needs a face-saving exit from Iraq, to contain Iranian fluence and to deliver a foreign policy coup that would paper over his eight-year dismal record in office. He has called for a peace conference on the Middle East problem for September 2007 — a conference that has to be so carefully choreographed that an overall settlement would be pulled out of the US-Israeli hat without Israeli interests being compromised. Bush sent out Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to Cairo to meet the foreign ministers of moderate Arab states, with a sweetened offer of multi-billion dollars in military sales and aid. It is Tel Aviv/Washington’s counter initiative to the Riyadh initiative of last March. The timing is propitious since President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian national movement had one of its own; de-legitimising the majority-elected national government of Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.

Such a peace conference would normally be organised under the auspices of the UN, but that would be the least desirable forum for Israel and the Bush administration to negotiate a Middle East settlement, especially one that involves Palestinian rights. The difference between a UN and a US peace conference is between one supported by the bulwarks of international law and one negotiated under the exigencies of power politics, negating international law. A UN conference would be founded on all relevant resolutions adopted by the General Assembly and the Security Council, including the Palestinian right of return and the dismantling of all Israeli settlements, both of which Israel loathes and the Bush administration considers outdated. A US-sponsored peace conference would provide ample room for bargaining, blackmail, divide-and-rule tactics, and compromises far from the uncompromising eye of the rule of law. The outcome, if any, would be a negotiated settlement based on the law of power, not on the power of the law.

This road has been travelled before. During the Camp David II summit, organised in 2000 in the waning days of the Clinton administration, all key issues were thrashed out: the fate of Israeli settlements, the question of Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem and the borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state. The most popular story of why this summit, and the subsequent Taba meeting in January 2001, failed can be traced back to the pro-Israel Clinton administration Special Envoy to the Middle East Dennis Ross. He circulated the story to the US media that Ehud Barak, then prime minister of Israel, made unprecedented concessions towards peace, while Yasser Arafat was the intractable party. In effect, it was an unprecedented case of dichotomy between the provisions of international law and the pressures of a negotiating process between representatives of a conquered people and their occupying power. It turns out that, in terms of international law, Arafat made more concessions than Barak. In the context of territorial swaps, Arafat agreed that big Israeli settlements remain in the West Bank in return for a sliver of Israeli territory that would be part of the envisioned Palestinian state. He accepted a symbolic return of approximately 80,000 Palestinian refugees to Gaza and the West Bank, considered part of historic Palestine, but not to the territories of the state of Israel from which Palestinian refugees, now numbering five million, had originally been expelled or terrorised into fleeing in 1948. All negotiations were stuck on the status of East Jerusalem that, under international law, is part of the territories occupied by Israel in 1967.

The direction of the envisaged Bush peace conference leaves little room for guessing. On the one hand, the Bush administration, like the government of Israel, has demonstrated that it has no stomach for international law. On the other, Arab governments are divided over the best approach to help resolve the Palestinian problem, particularly now that President Abbas has denigrated the Hamas-elected government and is discriminating against Palestinians who were affiliated to it. That does not make him the president of all Palestinians, in addition to the fact that he does not have the stature of Arafat. President Abbas’s predicament is far more profound than the intoxicating words he hears from Arab leaders about his legitimacy, or the head of state honours bestowed upon him wherever he travels. Before him, Arafat had made all sorts of concessions at the 1993 Oslo conference in order to have Israeli permission to return to the occupied territories where the nationalist Palestinian Intifada was getting ahead of him and threatening his leadership position. Abbas is now in Arafat’s shoes and has to choose between the internationally recognised legitimacy of the Palestinian cause and the compromises of realpolitik . The Palestinian national liberation movement, at its weakest moment, is crossing a watershed mark.

Arab regimes, too, are facing the same predicament. There are a number of pro-US moderates who are seeking an exit strategy. There are some who insist on the enforcement of international law, in letter and spirit, with no compromise, no land swaps, and no Israeli promises. And there are others, like Saudi Arabia, who strongly oppose division among the Palestinians and to whom Arab Jerusalem is the central issue that is beyond compromise.

Should the Bush administration’s peace initiative be more than a diplomatic gimmick to give Israel time to encircle and liquidate Hamas in Palestine and Hizbullah in Lebanon, with the help of their own kin, it will then have tough questions to crack. Some questions persist: What will be the modalities of the conference; what are the terms of reference; who will participate; what will be the relevance of UN resolutions; will Syria be invited to participate; who will represent the Palestinian people; and will the domestic Lebanese crisis be dragged into the international chess game? Whatever Arab leaders and Abbas have to do, they should not go to a conference to compromise on the Palestinian question or to be used as tools of pressure on the Palestinians to accept the pragmatism of a Pax Americana . Above all, they should not return with easy answers, half-baked solutions and solemn US promises on fundamental issues as merely "the best that could be obtained".

In September 1938, Neville Chamberlain, then prime minister of Britain, returned to London after signing the Munich Agreement with the German Fuhrer Adolf Hitler to declare triumphantly, "my good friends, this is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honour. I believe it is peace in our time." One year later, in September 1939, the troops of the Third Reich were storming Poland, igniting the six-year-long bloody World War II. "Appeasement" became the codeword of Chamberlain’s legacy as much as "untold suffering", in the words of the UN Charter, became the fate of the nations at war.

-The writer is a former correspondent for Al-Ahram in Washington, DC. He also served as director of UN Radio and Television in New York.   (Ahram weekly, 2 – 8 August 2007; Issue No. 856)

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