Washington — With momentum building for the Arab League’s Middle East plan, the Bush administration appears to be siding with Israel over how to proceed.
The initiative — which was first presented by the Saudis, later adopted by the Arab League in 2002 in Beirut and then reaffirmed in Riyadh two months ago — calls for a full normalization of relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors in return for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the territories, and for the resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem.
The Bush administration has indicated its support for the Israeli view, which is that the proposal should be subject to immediate negotiations between Jerusalem and representatives of the Arab League. Arab officials, on the other hand, insist that for now, no changes can be made to their proposal, and that any wider Israeli-Arab talks can come only after the Israelis and Palestinians reach an agreement.
Arab leaders made their case this week to Vice President Dick Cheney during his visit to the Middle East. They stressed the importance of stepped-up American involvement in Israeli-Palestinian talks and of the adoption of the Arab League initiative. The strongest push appeared to come from King Abdullah II of Jordan.
“Time is not on anyone’s side,” the Jordanian leader warned, called for “a time frame to establish tangible results on the ground.”
In The New York Times, a recent op-ed by Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who has frequently been praised by the White House, contained a similar message. Siniora wrote that the conclusion of last summer’s war in Lebanon should be that all sides in the region must seek a peaceful solution based on the Arab League initiative. According to Siniora, America has to play the role of meditating the process and pushing it forward.
“Leading these peace efforts is not only an American responsibility, it is in the United States’ interests: Peace in the Middle East would offer a gateway to reconciliation with the Muslim world during these times of increased divisiveness and radicalism,” Siniora wrote.
According to an Arab diplomatic source in Washington, the Arab League would like to see the Bush administration take an aggressive hands-on approach toward Middle East peacemaking. Administration officials “think that the Arab League initiative is a substitute for a peace process, but it is not,” the source said. “It can only come after the U.S. engages with the Israelis and the Palestinians in a process that will show significant progress.”
The Arab League insists that its plan is not open to negotiations at this stage, though diplomatic sources did not rule out the possibility of making slight adjustments to the proposal after progress is seen on the ground. Jerusalem, meanwhile, is conditioning its acceptance of the initiative on the allowance for changes to the original draft. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Tuesday in the city of Petra in Jordan that Jerusalem would like to enter negotiations on the details of the plan. “We heard about the Arab peace initiative, and we say, ‘Come and present it to us,’” Olmert said. “You want to talk to us about it; we are ready to sit down and talk about it carefully.”
Israel has several reservations about the Arab peace initiative: The plan stipulates a solution to the refugee problem based on United Nations Resolution 194, which is seen by Israel as providing for Palestinian refugees a right to return to Israel; it calls for a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders without mentioning special arrangements for Jewish settlement blocs, and it calls for the process of normalization to begin only after all issues between Israelis and Palestinians are settled.
“We don’t want the plan to replace direct talks with the Palestinians,” an Israeli source said, “but we also cannot accept it on an as-is basis without allowing any negotiations.”
As both the Israelis and the Arabs are engaged in a tug of war trying to sway America’s administration to accept their view of the Arab peace plan, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has already made clear that America is closer to Israel’s interpretation of the plan.
In a carefully worded speech that she gave in Jerusalem during her March 27 visit, Rice stressed the demand that the Arab countries provide Israel with a taste of the fruits of peace during the process, not after a final agreement is reached. “The Arab states should begin reaching out to Israel,” Rice said. “Such bold outreach can turn the Arab League’s words into the basis of active diplomacy, and it can hasten the day when a state called Palestine will take its rightful place in the international community.”
In 2002, the initial American and Israeli reaction toward the Arab peace plan was cool, with Washington’s and Jerusalem’s focus on stopping Palestinian violence. In recent months, however, Israeli officials have spoken positively about the plan. And now, Washington is showing a genuine interest at the same time that it is looking for ways to please both the Israelis and the Palestinians.
“The key is finding a way to align American mediation in the region with the Arab initiative,” said Scott Lasensky, a Middle East scholar from the United States Institute of Peace. According to Lasensky, the need for regional backing became clear after the collapse of the Oslo process, though it is not clear what effect cooperation from Arab countries will have.
“We know that the Arab countries can deliver in terms of recognizing Israel, but we have not yet tested what they can do in terms of supporting the Palestinians,” he said.
The Arab League is still insisting that the timetable set by the initiative is not negotiable and that normalization of ties with Israel will come only after significant progress is made between Israelis and Palestinians. Egyptian and Jordanian negotiators are conveying this message to Israel, while the Saudis and other Arab leaders are presenting it to Washington.
On the Arab side, hope is slim for the Bush administration to take actual steps to push the process forward.
“It is clear that the administration has no idea of how to promote peace in the region,” an Arab diplomat said. “Our feeling is that there is no adult in charge with whom we can talk about the Middle East.”