Arab peace offer faces formidable obstacles

Daily News Egypt
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BEIRUT: A renewed Arab offer of peace with Israel if it returns occupied land has won mild interest from Israelis and their US allies, but no commitment to revive negotiations aimed at ending the Middle Eastern conflict. The political weakness of the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, coupled with Washington s focus on the war in Iraq and the Iranian nuclear dispute, could brake any momentum generated by the Arab proposal, regional experts say.

If the Americans take a more proactive role in promoting the initiative, something might come out of it, Israeli analyst Yossi Mekelberg said. But they don t show much commitment.

US President George W. Bush has taken a hands-off approach to Middle East diplomacy, backing most Israeli policies since he took office in 2001 soon after a Palestinian revolt erupted.

In recent months, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has repeatedly visited the region, apparently recognizing the need to reactivate peace efforts if Washington is to win cooperation from its Arab allies as it grapples with Iraq and Iran.

Rice is convinced of this, but not everyone in the US administration is, said Hussein Agha, a former Palestinian negotiator now at St Anthony s College, Oxford.

The United States initially paid little heed to the peace offer endorsed by an Arab summit in 2002. Israeli leaders ignored or rejected the initiative, which surfaced during a particularly bloody phase of the Palestinian uprising.

But Olmert said the offer had positive elements after an Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia reiterated it in March.

Arab foreign ministers on Wednesday asked Egypt and Jordan, which both have peace treaties with Israel already, to meet the Israelis to explain the initiative.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livi told Robert Gates, the visiting US defense secretary, on Thursday that Israel would meet the contact group, but wanted other Arab states that have long boycotted the Jewish state to take part.

Those Arab countries with whom we don t have relations could be a party to such a process from the start, instead of setting conditions, Livni said.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said earlier that there would be no free normalisation . The contact group could only be expanded if Israel met demands such as ending sanctions on the Palestinian government and halting construction of Jewish settlements and barriers in the occupied West Bank.

Arab governments want Israel and the United States to focus on the core issues mentioned in the initiative – return of all land captured in the 1967 war, creation of a Palestinian state and a solution for refugees – and not to try to extract the reward of normal ties with the Arab world in advance.

Israel is eager for what Mekelberg called the cherry of contacts with Saudi Arabia, but has ruled out any return to 1967 borders and any return of Palestinians to what is now Israel.

It brings back the old question of whether people are more interested in a peace process or in peace, Mekelberg said.

The Arabs, including those who share US-Israeli worries about Iran s nuclear work, argue that the conflict with Israel and the plight of the Palestinians are fuelling instability in the Middle East and aggravating the rise of Muslim militancy.

Many Israelis disagree, seeing militancy as a cause not a symptom of the problem. Some question the urgency of resuming peace talks with Arabs when Iran seems to pose a graver threat. For the moment, uncertainty hangs over the capacity of either Israel or the Palestinians to negotiate credibly.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, deeply unpopular in opinion polls, is facing an imminent report by an inquiry into last year s war with Lebanon, which might prompt him to quit.

The Arabs are serious, said Jihad Al-Khazen, Lebanese former editor of the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat. But the Israeli government is weak and I don t see it being able or willing to work for a final peace settlement.

An Israeli political upheaval, perhaps involving a new government or fresh elections, could delay any movement.

Internal splits also weaken the Palestinian leadership.

President Mahmoud Abbas is authorized to lead talks with Israel, but the Islamist Hamas movement, which does not recognize the Jewish state, might challenge the result.

Abbas s Fatah faction joined its Hamas rivals in a fragile coalition last month after a Saudi-brokered deal that has staved off, but not eliminated, the threat of a Palestinian civil war.

The Arab peace offer is a broad vision of what Israel could gain if it gives up its 1967 conquests, but arguments over who qualifies as a negotiating partner could keep it a dead letter. Agha said Israel and the United States seemed determined to exclude Hamas and Syria from any new peace talks.

Effectively this means not having any progress either on the Syrian or Palestinian track, which defeats the whole purpose of the Arab peace initiative, he said.

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