Arab Leaders Pessimistic About Summit

By Marc Perelman

Published November 21, 2007, issue of November 23, 2007.
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The absence of Arab governments from the Camp David summit in 2000 was by most accounts a major factor in the breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the subsequent outbreak of the second inifada. With the warring parties set to make another go of negotiations next week in Annapolis, Md., Washington appears to have learned from the mistake, sending out invitations to key Arab countries this time around.

But while the Bush administration is being lauded for opening up the talks to other actors in the region, there is precious little optimism driving the peace summit forward. Indeed, concerns are now being aired that the conference, if it does not produce tangible results, may very well backfire on those pushing to resolve the conflict.

“Arabs will be very disappointed, angry, but not surprised at what virtually all observers anticipate will be an event with minimal substance,” said David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs. “Key Arab governments were prepared to invest lots of prestige and concrete resources in a conference and follow-up process if it had been what Mahmoud Abbas appears to have hoped for at an earlier time. This will be a huge blow to his prestige and will weaken the position of his key backers from Washington to Cairo to Riyadh. Naysayers like Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria will emerge with enhanced credibility and, in all too many cases, influence.”

Seemingly acknowledging the summit’s limited prospects for success, the Bush administration, extended invitations at the foreign minister level except in the cases of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Furthermore, the length and scope of the meeting, not to mention the final list of invitees, were still being discussed as of press time.

America’s allies in the region “would have sent senior representatives had they known that Israel agreed to a joint declaration on all four major core issues in line with Abu Mazen’s demands,” said Amatzia Baram, a University of Haifa professor of Middle Eastern history, in reference to Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, borders and Palestinian refugees.

Ironically, one exception could be Syria, which the United States decided to invite after weeks of speculation, and which indicated an interest in participating in the summit. A Syrian diplomat said that Damascus’s explicit demand for participation was that the Golan Heights, which Syria wants fully returned in exchange for peace with Israel, be on the conference’s agenda.

But perhaps the most enigmatic participant at the conference is Saudi Arabia, which has emerged as the leading Arab voice on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, a role traditionally played by Egypt. Riyadh stepped out from its normal reticent diplomatic position to help broker a Palestinian unity government in March, but in June the alliance between Fatah and Hamas fell apart after Hamas violently took control of Gaza. With the Palestinian territories effectively partitioned into a Fatah-controlled West Bank and a Hamas-run Gaza, the degree to which Saudi Arabia is willing to invest itself in peace talks remains unclear.

“The Saudis know there will be no real deal without reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas,” said Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Arab studies at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute. “They don’t want Annapolis to be just a piece of paper everybody signs and then nothing happens.”

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