Saturday, July 28, 2007

Peace games

The limited chances for Arabs to get Israel to negotiate peace

by Dina Ezzat - July 28, 2007

When Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers meet Arab League secretary-general and the other 20 foreign ministers of the Arab organisation next Monday, it is highly unlikely that they will have any breakthroughs to report from the diplomatic mission that took them to Israel yesterday. Judging by the limited expectations and the slow pace of news coming out of Israel yesterday of the outcome of the talks of the two Arab foreign ministers, the 30 July Arab foreign ministers' meeting in the Cairo headquarters of the Arab League will no doubt confirm what we long have known: Israel is not ready to meet Arab countries half-way on their Arab Peace Initiative.

During a three-way press conference that the visiting Arab foreign ministers held with their Israeli counterpart, there was no sign of Israel's willingness to reciprocate the firm Arab commitment to reach a fair and lasting settlement for the Arab- Israeli struggle. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni who affirmed that her government is not interested in a continuous state of stagnation of the peace process was clear in saying that, "it is not right to look at your watch" and expect objectives should be achieved by such and such a date. Her two guests politely disagreed.

According to one informed Egyptian diplomat, "at this stage and maybe for some years to come Israel is only willing to talk about ways to administer its occupation of the Palestinian territories and not about potential political solutions to terminate this occupation." Speaking on conditions of anonymity, he added that the two Arab foreign ministers were basically going to Israel with a message for Israeli public opinion and the US administration rather than on a mission almost-impossible to commit the Israeli government to start final status talks on the Palestinian track.

"The Israeli government has been very clear in explaining that it is not ready yet to discuss a final status solution. Not even one that would be agreed on now and implemented on a short and medium term basis in accordance with a set, or even flexible, time frame," he said.

In Israel, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit and his Jordanian counterpart Abdel-Ilah Al-Khatib were scheduled to meet not just senior Israeli officials but also MPs and potential successors to the current Israeli prime minister, including Likud's Benyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak of the Labour Party. "We are going to Israel to show the Arab determination to extend their hand in peace with Israel in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative", said Abul-Gheit.

The 2002 Beirut Arab Summit Peace Initiative, re-launched during the Arab summit in Riyadh last March, basically offers Israel full normal relations with all Arab countries in return for an end of the Israeli occupation of Arab territories annexed by force during the 1967 War with a possible limited swap of lands between the Israelis and Palestinians, a fair settlement to the plight of Palestinian refugees and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

So far, Israel has shown interest only in pursuing the normalisation part without wanting to commit itself to final status talks. Furthermore, Israel distorts the visit of Abul-Gheit and Al-Khatib, calling it "a delegation of the Arab League", which it is not. Israel even asked the US to pressure other Arab capitals that conduct trade relations with Tel Aviv including Doha, Rabat and Manama, to include their foreign ministers in the delegation. True, Rabat's Foreign Minister Mohamed Bin Issa held a surprise meeting with his Israeli counterpart Livni a few weeks ago, but Israel's ruse was thwarted by overwhelming Arab rejection especially from Riyadh that did not want to be perceived as giving away the shop for nothing in return.

Arab diplomats told Al-Ahram Weekly that issues restricting official Arab-Israeli talks to Egypt and Jordan will be key topics at the Arab foreign ministers' meeting.

Judging by statements made this week by Israeli officials, new Quartet Envoy Tony Blair and visiting British Secretary of State Kim Howells, the current Israeli government is not planning to move on final status talks with the Palestinians, not to mention talks with Syria, any time soon.

Arab diplomats considered yet another inconclusive diplomatic move: the proposal of the US president to hold a conference on the peace process later this year in an unidentified place with an unspecified list of participants to discuss an undecided agenda. Arab officials agree that despite the limited or zero expectations of the American proposal it cannot however be simply pushed aside.

"We know very well what [US President George] Bush is trying to do. He is trying to divert attention from his miserable failure in Iraq by projecting a semblance of movement on the peace process front," commented a senior Arab diplomat. Arabs understand that this is a lame-duck US administration. "But we have to try. We have no other alternative. If we only manage to secure a firmer international support to start the final status talks then that is something."

During a meeting with President Bush, King Abdullah was expected to call for more active US engagement. A similar message will be conveyed during talks in Sharm El-Sheikh between visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan and the six Gulf Arab states.

"Now the Americans want to support Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and to completely isolate Hamas. For this they might be willing to pressure Israel to demonstrate some political commitment if only to create a sustainable political momentum," said one Arab official. He added that the durability of such momentum depends a great deal on the "highly unpredictable" developments characteristic of both the Palestinian and Israeli fronts.

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