The rationale for getting the Arab League on board has more to do with what happens at the end of the four-month period.
The Obama administration is still an international novice compared to other governments around the world, but it can already claim to have achieved results with its approach to the Arab-Israel problem. Every time US officials have made a request or embarked on a trip aiming at resuscitating a process of some sort, they have been met, sometimes preemptively, with a significant Israeli gesture.
Indeed, Israel believes in confidence-building measures and will spare no effort in finding new opportunities to demonstrate them, as long as they achieve the desired goal: boosting its own position and its own confidence. And nothing can build Israel's confidence like the public rejection of a request, let alone a requirement, made by an ally: the closer the friend, the bigger the humiliation, the greater the Israeli self-confidence and the more futile the subsequent interchange.
The Turkish ambassador's shameful treatment at the Foreign Ministry in Tel Aviv was so petty and bizarre that he didn't even realize it was happening; nor did the reporters present there, who had to be told that it was a calculated insult to keep him waiting and seat him in a lower chair.
In contrast, having experienced it so often, Americans (and the entire world watching) always know when they're being humiliated, usually after having delivered the obligatory ode to Israel's security and the closeness of the ties binding the two states. Vice President Joe Biden thought he was covered when he assured Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu--addressed fondly as "Bibi"--that "there is simply no space between the US and Israel", feeling safe enough to mention an imaginary "moratorium that has limited new settlement construction activity". Unfortunately, this was not enough to spare Biden the embarrassment that other officials, and more importantly his own boss, have already faced; the Israeli response came through yet another settlement expansion announcement.
Nevertheless, there is a new factor in this latest engagement: the US is not even pushing for actual Israeli-Palestinian talks, but has taken the unprecedented step of going publicly backward, rather than forward, in a process it sponsored 20 years ago under the equation of land for peace. Instead of demanding compliance with binding UN resolutions, Washington has decided to stop chaperoning and start playing messenger. Even for the sake of peacemaking appearances, this retreat wipes away what little US influence remains with its own allies, let alone in the region.
Obama's slide from the semi-hype of a special envoy to the absurd position of a go-between speaks volumes about the intransigence of Israel. Yet even in this new role, an undignified position for the sole superpower, the US is getting the exact same response: more construction on illegal settlements. The more others try to accommodate Israel, the more it defies them, and the more "facts on the ground" it can show.
This is all deja vu of course, and various Arab states have often tasted the bitter fruit of their own disposition, natural or contrived, to compromise. Repeated and unjustified Arab concessions have yielded Israeli greed instead of the expected reciprocation, with demands piling on the Arab side to "normalize" in return for nothing, and with a partial metamorphosis from a Palestinian resistance to a forced Palestinian assistance to the occupation.
One wonders exactly what these indirect talks will bring when the organizer is desperate to prove it still has clout. Clearly, the US will only play devil's advocate with one of its charges, and it will be using the full force of its power not on the one it should pressure, but on the one it can pressure. Enter the Arab League, recruited to rubber stamp one of the most absurd "initiatives" ever made in the history of the conflict, after the US was unable to push even Saudi Arabia to "do more" than it already offered in the Arab Peace Initiative.
It's understandable that acting-PA president Mahmoud Abbas would want nominal Arab backing on this. Having shocked the world and incensed most Arabs with his eleventh hour turnabout on the Goldstone report, requesting an adjournment to the vote at the Human Rights Council in Geneva which would have condemned Israel's war crimes in Gaza, Abbas could not show he was alone in caving in to Israeli and American pressure.
This is why the lukewarm endorsement of the Arab League was necessary, as much for Abbas as for the US. The League's reluctant nod to this farcical deal has been quantified and its support is initially valid for four months. Given that the Arab Peace Initiative has still not expired eight years on, even when Israel's immediate response had been yet another brutal assault on a part of occupied Palestine, there is no telling how long the indirect talks are going to be touted as an actual peace process, or as American engagement.
Having waited itself for this engagement to manifest itself in ways other than sanctions, Syria seems to have come to the realization that there's little the Obama administration is able or willing to do about its own Israeli-occupied land. For years, there has been no move to rekindle the Syrian-Israeli track, apart from the involvement and encouragement of Turkey, through which real indirect talks had been taking place before Israel's brutal assault on Gaza. From a near agreement in 2000 to public Israeli refusals to withdraw from the Golan, Syria has maintained a declared interest in making a deal with Israel, and in aiming at a comprehensive settlement. The noise about peace with Syria is being heard again in Israel, a usual diversion from the Palestinian track when it suits its needs for a "process," but there is little reaction from Washington on that front.
The US has actively sought Arab support on any pretense of engagement on the Palestinian issue, but it continues to completely ignore the much wider parameters of the conflict, which include not only the Golan in Syria's case but also all the problems born at the time of the creation of Israel, including the refugees' right of return and compensation, the nature of the eventual Palestinian state, and the duties of Israel, among others.
In fact, focusing on settlements, and on invented partial building freezes, is in itself a huge concession to Israel's agenda. Even if it were an objective and honest broker, Washington's engagement is flawed if it continuously bows to an increasingly insolent and intransigent Israel acting in full illegality. Negotiations, whether direct or indirect, with or without Arab cover, will yield neither peace nor security. Talk may be cheap, but Palestinians are still paying the heaviest price as envoys come and go.- Published 11/3/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Rime Allaf is an associate fellow at London's Chatham House.
High probability of failure
The PLO Executive Committee decided on March 7 to accept the US administration's proposal to commence proximity talks with American mediation. This followed the decision by a monitoring committee of the Arab League foreign ministers to support resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on a Permanent Status Agreement (PSA) in the form of proximity talks. Within the framework of these talks the American mediator, Senator George Mitchell, will deliver messages between Jerusalem and Ramallah.
Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks are a regression to a darker era when the two parties refused to recognize each other and banned contacts. They are also less effective than direct talks because this form of negotiating gives too much power to the mediator, especially a powerful mediator like the United States. As a result, the two parties will probably aim their messages at the American mediator instead of at each other. This brings about a situation in which the purpose of the talks for the two parties is not to reach an agreement but rather to position themselves so that at the conclusion of the talks they can, with US backing, blame the other party for their failure.
At one level, this regression reflects the depth of Palestinian mistrust of the present Israeli government. The Palestinian leadership does not believe that PM Binyamin Netanyahu's commitment to the two-state solution is genuine. Hence it assumes the talks will fail and it will bear the brunt of the resulting political damage. The reason for its acceptance of the idea of proximity talks is its wish, on the one hand, to avoid friction with the US administration--it doesn't want to be perceived as the trouble-making party that prevents negotiations--and on the other hand to minimize the potential political damage. This also explains why the Palestinian leadership needed the support of the Arab foreign ministers.
At another level, the idea of proximity talks was necessary because Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas needed a "ladder" to climb down from the tree he had ascended thanks to the mistakes of the Obama administration. The main American mistake was the demand for a comprehensive freeze on settlement construction as a pre-condition for restarting negotiations.
On the one hand, it was easy for Netanyahu to reject this condition, because under prevailing political and legal circumstances in Israel no prime minister can implement a full settlement freeze. It was certainly not possible for Netanyahu to do so with his right-wing coalition and when he can assume that the public supports this rejection.
On the other hand, Abbas could not agree to a resumption of direct talks without the fulfillment of this pre-condition when that was the US demand. That would have been perceived by the Palestinian public as surrendering to Netanyahu and would have caused Abbas heavy political damage. Indeed, even now that he is cushioned by the idea of indirect talks and the support of the Arab League, Abbas is under attack by Hamas and within his own Fateh party for his decision.
Abbas has apparently also received some American promises that enabled him to make this decision. The administration has undertaken a commitment that if one of the negotiating parties does not meet American expectations, the US will express its concern and act to overcome the obstacle. This means the US will point to the guilty party and offer its own bridging proposals. The administration also assured the Palestinians that the aim of the talks is to establish a sovereign, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation of 1967. This repeats an earlier formula offered by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton; it does not constitute a clear commitment to the 1967 lines. The US also added that it understands that the Palestinian party opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional borders.
The Palestinians have set a time limit of four months for the talks. This means that if within a relatively short period of time these negotiations do not produce sufficient results to enable a transition to direct talks that are not constrained by draconian time limits, these proximity talks will end in failure.
This high probability of failure emphasizes the urgency of the need to develop alternative concepts for making progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track. These should include agreements that are less than a PSA. The Palestinians currently oppose this approach, but they may reconsider their position when the alternative is prolongation of deadlock and possible return to a violent conflict. The international community, led by the US and Israel, should facilitate such a Palestinian reassessment by giving the Palestinians strong guarantees that partial agreements are not a substitute for a PSA but rather are interim measures aimed at facilitating the conclusion of a PSA.- Published 11/3/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom is a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv.
All that is needed at this time is public Arab support
For all the theatrics and histrionics within the Arab League's Cairo headquarters, Arab governments are unlikely to have any influence on Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
Like all regional organizations, the League of Arab States is inefficient as a collective body, and individual countries such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt wield more power than the 22-member league. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the Palestinian cause remains the most discussed topic in the League.
So inefficient is the Arab League that American and Israeli officials were taken aback months ago when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas insisted on getting the green light from his fellow Arab leaders before risking yet another round of talks, this time with a far right-wing Israeli government. Abbas knows, as does almost everyone, that such a green light means very little in practical terms.
For Abbas, the decision to go to Cairo and ask the League's Follow-up Committee to endorse the US broker's plan for indirect negotiations has at least one obvious goal. It contains any angry Palestinian and Arab popular opposition to the decision to restart talks with Israel without the latter enforcing a total settlement freeze.
In addition, and more importantly, the rationale for getting the Arab League on board has more to do with what happens at the end of the four-month period set aside for indirect talks than what will actually happen during the talks.
Palestinians and Arabs are not very optimistic that the government of PM Binyamin Netanyahu will provide a practical answer to the Palestinian border question that will be the focus of the proximity talks. If the talks fail, as Palestinians fully expect, and if the failure of the talks can be clearly pinned on the Israelis, the next step in the plan is to move toward a unilaterally declared state. Palestinians have already secured European support for such a move if talks fail. In fact, some European countries have agreed to recognize a declared Palestinian state no matter what happens in the talks.
With Europeans supporting a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood, the only obstacle remaining to Palestinian leaders are the Americans. When Palestinians asked George Mitchell, the US special envoy, for assurances that the US would support such a statehood declaration if talks failed, the American responded that such a commitment would make talks pointless. Perhaps. Nevertheless, once the four-month period is over and there is no breakthrough, it will be important to find a way to get America to join Europe in recognizing a unilaterally declared state.
Here is where the Arab states, especially the moderate states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, come in. Americans are unlikely to be responsive to pressures from these Arab states at the end of the four months if they have not first shown public support of the proximity talks.
The decades old traditions of the Arab League have always required that decisions be reached unanimously and not by majority vote. This tradition has often given single countries the power to scuttle important decisions, effectively exercising a veto over the desires of the majority.
For Palestinians, therefore, the fact that the Arab League member states agreed, albeit reluctantly, to give their blessings to indirect talks, makes opposition movements' ability to scuttle the talks very ineffective. With such opposition largely out of the way, Palestinians will pursue Salam Fayyad's plan for a de facto state within less than two years, followed by a unilaterally declared political state thereafter.
For such a plan, Palestinians need Arab political and public support.- Published 11/3/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.