Dina Ezzat: Taking the Initiative

By Dina Ezzat

This week in the Saudi capital for the annual Arab summit — and indeed in the lead-up to the Riyadh meetings — the Arab peace initiative was the uncontested focus of attention. This despite crucial political and security challenges facing the Arab world in Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia and Darfur, fears of a US strike against Iran, alienation of most Arab Maghreb countries from the rest of the Arab world, and many miscellaneous inter-Arab differences.

Unlike previous summits, the Riyadh congregation of Arab leaders adopted an independent resolution entitled "The activation of the Arab peace initiative" where Arab leaders recommitted themselves to their peace deal offer with Israel based on the land for peace concept. They pledged to take it to every regional and international forum possible in order to garner support for its adoption as the basis for future Arab-Israeli negotiations.

The real reason behind this "initiative furore" is, however, obscure. Some attribute it to a hopeless attempt by Arab capitals to save face before Arab public opinion incensed by recurrent and increasingly arrogant Israeli atrocities. Others pointed to the keenness of summit’s host country to promote its diplomatic brainchild.

For many informed Arab diplomats, however, there is another reason behind the resurrection of the initiative five years after its regular adoption — largely ignored internationally — by Arab leaders in Beirut in 2002. The US, they say, is showing a new willingness to deal with the initiative, although US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice requested it be repackaged to make it more palatable to Israel.

In the words of one Arab foreign minister who requested anonymity, if the US, which is the most obvious broker of any Arab-Israeli negotiations, is showing interest in the Arab initiative then it is in the interest of the Arab side to reciprocate. "Why turn down an obvious case of a common interest?" he said.

This reciprocation, however — from the American and Israeli viewpoint –means probable amendments on the side of Arab states, especially in relation to Israeli requests for eliminating reference to UN General Assembly Resolution 194 that guarantees the right of return to 1948 Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel proper, or compensation.

Though the idea of amending the initiative was rejected prior to the convocation of the Arab summit, during a meeting with the foreign ministers and chief intelligence officers of four Arab states (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates) in Aswan over the weekend, a tentative understanding was outlined as to what could be done on the basis of the initiative to allow for Palestinian-Israeli dialogue that could eventually lead to final status talks.

"The work of peace is made more complex now by the nature of the newly- formed national unity government," Rice said Tuesday at a press conference concluding a regional tour. Rice, who blamed the Palestinian national unity government for dissuading the Israeli side from moving towards negotiations, demanded Arab countries to adopt "new thinking and new action" towards Israel.

"Saudi Crown Prince, now King Abdullah’s initiative of 2002, later endorsed by the Arab League, was a welcome example of such new thinking. Now, at this critical moment, we look for our friends and partners of long standing to build on this important initiative," she said. Rice added that: "Arab states should begin reaching out to Israel."

Rice’s statements caused dismay in several Arab capitals. During the opening of the Arab summit, however, Arab officials appeared still willing to encourage positive American engagement, though with an air of scepticism. In his speech before the inaugural session of the summit yesterday, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said that while Arabs were hopeful, Arabs would not wait forever for Israel to respond, proposing to reassess the situation in "a few weeks or few months". "They ask us to amend the initiative and we tell them they first have to accept it," Moussa said.

Resolutions adopted by the Arab summit on the Palestinian cause called on the UN Security Council to establish an effective mechanism that would allow for prompt resumption of direct negotiations within a specific time frame for them to reach their endgame while providing international guarantees regarding the implementation of agreements concluded.

Meanwhile, Egypt is planning to host later in April a meeting for the International Quartet along with the Arab Quartet to discuss next moves. Arab diplomatic sources expect Israel to respond positively, giving momentum and durability to diplomatic manoeuvres aimed to revive talks. According to statements made by Israeli officials, however, any future talks between Palestinian and Israeli officials, including those expected to take place on a bi-weekly basis between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, will not focus on final status issues, either directly or indirectly.

Upon arrival in Riyadh Tuesday, Abbas told reporters that current diplomatic efforts to revive peace talks on the basis of the Arab initiative might be the last chance that if missed could lead to an inevitable resumption of violence.

The Palestinian cause has frequently been the key issue in annual Arab summits. It was in the 1996 Cairo summit that Arab countries agreed to adopt peace with Israel as a strategic choice, reiterated in Riyadh this week and welcomed by regional and international figures who participated in the opening session, including the UN secretary-general, EU common foreign policy representatives, Pakistan’s president and Malaysia’s prime minister.

(Al Ahram Weekly, March 29-April 4, 2007)

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