Can Arab Leaders Bring Peace?

Has the Arab League finally broken its taboo on ties with Israel by sending a delegation to Jerusalem? Depends who you ask. The Israeli government has declared Wednesday’s visit by the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan a historic landmark on the road toward acceptance of Israel by the Arab world. “In the past, the Arab League has opposed dialogue, normalization and any contact with Israel, and this is the first time the Arab League has authorized a delegation to visit Israel,” said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. Not so fast, say the visitors. The Egyptian government released a statement on Saturday saying that the foreign ministers are not, in fact, representing the Arab League in Jerusalem, but only their own countries — Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab League countries that have full diplomatic relations with Israel, and the League’s position is that normalization of ties can only occur when Israel agrees to withdraw to its 1967 borders.

So what are Egypt’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit and his Jordanian counterpart, Abdulelah al-Khatib doing in Jerusalem? Well, the Arab League did, in fact, ask Jordan and Egypt to formally present its peace proposals to Israel. And his government’s last-minute case of stage fright didn’t stop Abul Gheit from going through the motions of the day’s protocol and pleasantries. But the Egyptian identity crisis may be a sign that Arab enthusiasm for a renewal of peace talks with Israel is fading even in those countries that once supported it.

The Arab peace initiative began in 2002 as a Saudi proposal that called for all Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel in return for a full Israeli withdrawal from territories it has occupied since 1967, the creation of a Palestinian state, and a fair solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. But Israel reacted coolly to the idea at the time, and with Washington showing no greater enthusiasm for pressing the issue, little more was heard of it. But following the collapse of the Hamas-Fatah Palestinian unity government, and with a greater sense of urgency over the need to rally Arab moderates against Iran and its allies, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has begun expressing interest in the Arab peace initiative, and in restarting dialogue with the Palestinians.

But Arab countries are concerned that Olmert is more interested in the symbolic value of a peace process rather than in the substance of concluding it. Burdened by rock-bottom popularity thanks to his mishandling of last summer’s war in Lebanon, Olmert is hoping that the Israeli public will be wary of tossing out a leader engaged in peace negotiations. And even if he were serious about concluding a deal, his domestic political weakness would make it difficult for him to lead the country through the wrenching changes that peace would require. Thus Olmert’s announcement Wednesday that he intends to reach an agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas over the principles for resolving the easy issues — the characteristics of the Palestinian state, its economy, and the customs arrangement it will have with Israel — and postpone addressing the difficult issues such where to draw the border between Israel and Palestine, the status of Jerusalem, and the fate of the refugees. Olmert’s plan, in fact, is the reverse of the Arab initiative, which attempts to jump straight to the heart of the matter.

The problem with Olmert’s approach is that the Arab world has run out of patience. It is well aware that the Oslo process floundered, at the end, not over customs arrangements and the Palestinian economy, but over borders, Jerusalem and refugees, and those issues are the ones that must be resolved if the process is to be about anything more than marking time. And the Arab League regimes don’t have much time to lose: Between the radicalizing impact on their own populations of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and also the war in Iraq; the rising power of Iran; and growing tension between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, the Middle East is ready to explode. Countries that were once ready to bury the hatchet with Israel are now looking over their shoulders at their angry citizens, increasing numbers of whom see more to be gained by standing up to America and Israel than by trying to revive the peace process. Saudi Arabia, for example, which drafted the Arab initiative, is now warning that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is impossible unless Israel also negotiates with Hamas.

The Saudi warning is a sign that those in Fatah such as President Mahmoud Abbas who are closest to the U.S. and Israel have lost support not only among Palestinians, but among Arab countries as well. Not coincidentally, Saudi Arabia is also the country with perhaps the biggest jihadi problem in the region — a significant proportion of suicide bombers in Iraq are reported to be Saudi citizens.

Likewise, time may have run out for peace between Israel and Syria. Since the end of last year, Syria has been repeatedly calling for a resumption of the peace talks of the late 1990s premised on Israel returning the Syrian Golan Heights, captured in 1967. But while Olmert has largely evaded the overtures — questioning their sincerity, quibbling about who if anyone should mediate — Syria may have given up. Last week, the Israeli press was filled with rumors that Iran gave Syria $1 billion to purchase weapons in return for abandoning peace overtures towards Israel.

The Arab League country most eager to get the peace process back on track is Jordan. Even as its foreign minister talked peace in Jerusalem on Wednesday, its head of state, King Abdullah II, was visiting Washington to seek U.S. support for the Arab initiative. Jordan certainly has more to lose than any of its Arab League partners if peace fails. The pro-U.S. Hashemite Kingdom may have a peace treaty with Israel, but the majority of its population is Palestinian, and it is quickly filling with Iraqi refugees growing angrier by the day. Jordan’s enthusiasm for peace, then, may be less a sign of hope, as much as a sign of desperation.

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