- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Guess which is the only Arab government that does not accept the Arab League peace initiative on Palestine? For more than a year now, it has been the government in Palestine. Needless to say, Israel has yet to accept it either.

Successive Fatah-led governments among the Palestinians have historically been in sync with the international and Arab consensus on the basis for peace with Israel, but following the election of a Hamas-majority parliament in January 2006, this was no longer the case. The decision in Mecca by the two main Palestinian factions to form a national unity government has yet to produce a clear formal agreement on the Arab League Initiative, which holds that all Arab states would normalize relations with Israel in exchange for complete withdrawal from the occupied territories.

This is significant because recent months have witnessed changes in the political landscape of the Middle East that suggest important opportunities for diplomatic progress on Palestinian goals. The regional balance of power has shifted, resulting in new alliances that once again throw the anomaly of the occupation in Palestine into sharp relief. Almost everyone needs this problem solved.

In particular, Saudi Arabia has taken up the issue with new vigor, and shown a new public style of leadership. The Saudi king, original author of the Arab League Initiative, played a decisive role in helping to broker the Mecca national unity agreement among Palestinians. The Saudis have asserted their own — and a more broadly Arab — leadership on the Palestinian issue, reclaiming it from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s aggressive Iranian diplomacy. Saudi Arabia is emerging as the regional leader of the Arabs.

The Israeli government has been confronted with the limitations of its strategies, both in terms of the unilateral Gaza redeployment and the war in Lebanon last summer, neither of which produced the results that had been expected. Israelis are going through a dysfunctional political moment that has rendered their leadership unable or unwilling to present a serious diplomatic strategy for ending the conflict.

The absence of such a strategy will only facilitate the ascendance of extremist states and nonstate actors. Meetings between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are steps in the right direction, but are no substitute for real negotiations.

Moderate Arab leaders have witnessed the rising influence of Iran and its proxies in the region with alarm. They have gauged the temperature of their public and determined to push with vigor to resolve the Palestine-Israel conflict. Jordan’s King Abdullah dedicated his entire speech to the joint session of Congress last week to the issue of Palestine. It was as much a call for help as an articulation of the only strategy that he thinks can work to stem the tide of extremism and violence in the region, a strategy that his home audience supports passionately.

And finally, the United States, bogged down in Iraq and facing an empowered pro-Iranian camp in the Middle East, finds itself more in need of an end to the occupation in Palestine than ever. While this is no panacea, nothing could do more to help manage a wide range of issues, from confronting terrorism to stabilizing Lebanon, and to boost U.S. influence and effectiveness across the region.

These and other factors have presented significant grounds for diplomatic progress on Palestine, and the opportunity must not be squandered. There is, crucially, a time horizon to these important potential openings.

The Palestinian government must recognize that it simply does not have the power and influence to defy the international community, including the Arab League, and hope to make progress. Even the United States has discovered the limitations of its own considerable power in Iraq and has started looking at what can be better achieved through international dialogue rather than unilateralism.

The Mecca agreement brokered by Saudi Arabia has helped contain, if not eliminate, the fighting among Palestinian factions, which is commendable. However, for it to be considered a success, it has to lead to lifting of the political and economic siege against the Palestinians by the Quartet.

The new Palestinian unity government should unconditionally accept the Arab League Initiative as the first serious step toward a meaningful political process. A political tango of statements and actions, ranging from the articulation of Israel’s genuine interest in this initiative, even with reservations, to releasing captured Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit, as well the release of Palestinian prisoners could initiate a cascade toward a new political horizon.

The Arab League initiative is a good starting point for negotiations between all parties interested in ending the conflict and the occupation. To bring these negotiations to fruition, Israel must accept the need to end the occupation, and the Palestinians must have a government that articulates a clear position for a two-state solution, one that says, “we seek to negotiate an independent state along the 1967 borders to live alongside Israel in peace — no more and no less.”

Ziad Asali is president of the American Task Force on Palestine.

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