Arab States Mulling Endorsement of Geneva Initiative

By Marc Perelman, With Reporting by Ori Nir in Washington.

Published December 12, 2003, issue of December 12, 2003.
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several middle east countries are discussing ways to endorse the recent unofficial peace agreement known as the geneva understandings, according to an american scholar who played a key role in promoting a previous arab-backed peace initiative.

Henry Siegman, a former head of the American Jewish Congress and longtime supporter of a two-state solution, told the Forward that Arab countries were considering issuing public statements in the coming weeks reaffirming their commitment to a Saudi-inspired Arab League resolution adopted last year calling for normalization with Israel in exchange for significant territorial concessions. Siegman, who helped advance the Saudi initiative and has recently met with leaders in the region, predicted that Arab foreign ministers or the Arab League would soon issue statements supporting elements of the Geneva deal, negotiated by former Israeli justice minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian information minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.

“I expect that within days or weeks that there will be a coordinated approach by Arab states and maybe the Arab League,” said Siegman, now the director of the U.S./Middle East Project at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a telephone interview from Paris. “They ought not to be bystanders.”

A dramatic Arab endorsement of the plan could cause serious complications for the government of Prime Minister Sharon, which has criticized the plan. Depending on how it is framed, such an endorsement by Arab states would represent an unprecedented willingness to drop the demand for a universal Palestinian right of return to Israel.

While few observers have echoed Siegman’s predictions, few scholars enjoy his level of access to Arab leaders.

Siegman was deeply involved in discussions with the Saudi leadership that helped last year to produce the so-called Saudi initiative. The kingdom offered Israel an unprecedented comprehensive peace agreement with the Arab world in exchange for withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders.

The offer from Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, the nation’s de facto ruler, was first publicized in a New York Times column by Thomas Friedman in February 2002. Siegman then wrote an opinion article in the Times detailing the offer, saying it stemmed from his discussions with Abdullah. The Arab League eventually endorsed the initiative during a meeting in Beirut a month later.

Siegman would not comment on whether he had used his top-level contacts in Saudi Arabia to discuss an endorsement of the Geneva Understandings.

The unofficial nature of the deal, Siegman said, made it unlikely that the Arab countries would simply promote it. But, he added, his recent discussions lead him to believe that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan will soon renew their commitment to the Arab League resolution and refer to the Geneva Understanding as a way to reach a peaceful settlement.

An Arab League summit is scheduled for January, though Siegman said there are many other occasions when such a statement could be issued.

Attempts to solicit comments from the Egyptian, Jordanian and Saudi embassies in Washington were unsuccessful. Those three countries, all staunch American allies in the region, have to walk a fine line when dealing with the initiative because of diplomatic sensitivities involving Israel and strong Arab opposition to some of the plan’s components.

Siegman refused to comment on whether the Bush administration was pushing Arab governments to be forthcoming on Geneva. The State Department did not reply to requests for comment.

Egypt’s foreign minister met with Beilin and Rabbo, and President Hosni Mubarak’s top foreign policy adviser, Ossama el Baz, attended the December 1 launch ceremony for the initiative in Geneva. Egypt, however, is currently attempting to broker a cease-fire agreement among Palestinian factions, an effort that requires keeping open channels with the Israeli government, which opposes the Geneva deal.

Another potential barrier to support from Arab leaders is the negative reaction among their publics to aspects of the plan. The deal’s proposed solution to the Palestinian refugee issue — a formula that would send most of the refugees to third countries and only a symbolic number to Israel — has ignited bitter criticism in the Arab world.

Rabbo got into a testy exchange last week with Arab diplomats and reporters following a presentation at the Brookings Institution in Washington, wondering aloud why the people who live far from the West Bank and Gaza were the most radical. Last year, the Saudis were criticized for not dealing with the refugee issue in their initiative. At the Beirut summit, where the Arab League endorsed a version of the Saudi plan, Lebanon and Syria campaigned for the inclusion of a reference to United Nations resolution 194, which emphasizes the Palestinian right of return to Israel. A compromise was eventually struck, stating that the league would support an agreement between Israel and Palestinians on the issue.

This is why Siegman said he believes Arab states can support the solution for the refugee issue envisioned in the Geneva Understandings.

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