- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2007

“The Palestinians,” the late Abba Eban famously said, “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” This seems to go for the Arab world as a whole, judging by the recent Arab leaders’ summit in Riyadh. Those taking part are sometimes referred to as the “axis of moderates” — though it would require creative amnesia to classify Saudi Arabia, one of the principal ideological and financial founts of Islamist fundamentalism, as a “moderate.”

Tom Friedman of the New York Times termed the conference resolutions “emotionally stale,” but this may not be the worst of it. In Riyadh, the Arab leaders, looking at the new realities in the Middle East, had a chance to actually make a serious move toward ending the more than 100-year-old Arab-Jewish conflict. Instead they submitted to Israel what amounts to an ultimatum: Accept our demands, or face ongoing violence.

Their convoluted logic probably goes something like this: Israel, after its less-than-brilliant performance in Lebanon and considering its weak leadership, won’t have the sinews to resist pressure, and no less importantly, taking into account the state of political affairs in the United States, let alone the imbroglio in Iraq, couldn’t the administration, being eager to show some achievements for its policies in the region, be induced to support the Arab stance? Writing in London’s Financial Times, Mamoun Fandy, a director of the Middle East program at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, bears this out. He writes: “Land [i.e., the “territories” held by Israel on the West Bank] for Iraq, instead of Land for Peace, should be the core of any American and European diplomatic initiative in the Middle East.” In other words, make Israel pay for finding solutions to problems that have actually nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, a man who has rarely been right on anything pertaining to the Middle East since he and then-President Carter mishandled a crisis in Iran in 1999, takes a similar line in his recent book “Second Chance.”

The question of Iran in all this is more complicated. Saudi Arabia and the other pro-Western, mostly Sunni, Arab states together with Israel do indeed have similar concerns with regards to the strategic and geopolitical designs of Iran — “similar” but not identical, as Tehran does not threaten to eradicate the Arab states as it threatens Israel. But the focus of the Arab leaders is not on peace with Israel — or even the plight of the Palestinians — but on trying to use the Israeli-Palestinian card to gain support against Iran from within their own less-than-happy people.

Had the Riyadh conference been really serious about peace it could have said: “There is an opportunity for finally achieving a breakthrough, not only for peace between Arabs and Jews, but for giving our Palestinian brothers a chance to make progress toward self-governance. We make our positions perfectly clear on several of the outstanding issues — refugees, borders, Jerusalem, among other things — and we shall put our demands on the table once negotiations start.”

Instead, they said: First we command Israel to accept our conditions, i.e. solve the Arab refugee problem in accordance with the non-binding U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 (which, in effect, is the “right of return” by another name), withdraw to the June 4, 1967, lines and hand over the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee to Syria and East Jerusalem to the future Palestinian state as its capital, and only then shall we negotiate with you.

The Arab plan is not about negotiations at all, but about forcing Israel to pay in advance for the privilege of conducting sham negotiations. The gentlemen at Riyadh must have known that this would be unacceptable even to the present Israeli government, so why did they act as they did? They could have said: “We have made a strategic decision to put an end to the conflict; let’s sit down and talk without pre-conditions from either side, as President Sadat and King Hussein did at the time?”

There’s already a formula for such negotiations, the U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 (and 338) which includes both the aspects of territorial withdrawals and Israel’s security needs. So does the letter written by President Bush to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004. In this spirit, peace could indeed be achieved. Unfortunately, the Arab world chose to continue its traditional and unrealistic intransigence.

Peace between the wider Arab world and the Jewish state is not impossible. A general Arab-Israeli detente, including steps that would benefit everyone in the region, would create the climate for eventually moving the Palestinian problem toward an equitable solution based on mutual compromise. Israel under all its leaders has been ready to compromise. If only the Arabs, including the Palestinians, would abandon all-or-nothing delusions.

Zalman Shoval is in charge of foreign policy for the Israeli Likud Party. A former member of the Knesset, he twice served as ambassador to the United States (1990-93 and 1998-2000).

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