Sunday, 28 February 2010

February Reviewed

On Friday a mischievous, if not malicious, piece of disinformation found its way on to the internet – namely that George Mitchell, President Obama's special Middle East envoy, was on the point of tendering his resignation because he was disillusioned by the pro-Israel attitudes of the State Department, and disillusioned by the consequent lack of progress in the peace process.

The story is almost certainly no more than the fantasy wish of someone ill-disposed towards the peace process. Mitchell has been tireless over the past two months in working, with patience and skill, to bring the views of the Palestinian Authority and Israel sufficiently close to ensure a return to the negotiating table. There has been clear progress during February, despite all manner of distracting events, most of them beyond his control, but any one of which could have overturned the whole applecart. They didn't.

By the last day of January, Mitchell had mooted the idea of an interim phase before the resumption of direct face-to-face peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians – the concept of "proximity talks". This is an idea that worked for two years in facilitating exchanges of views between Israel and Syria, hosted by Turkey. It requires a mutually acceptable third party shuttling between the two protagonists, and acting not only as a postman but also as a mediator.

By this last day of February, the concept has taken on real substance. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, has accepted the idea. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, has during the month held detailed "clarification" discussions with US officials, and has now let it be known that he is seeking the approval of Arab governments before finally committing himself to the proximity talks idea. The most convenient venue in which to seek that approval may be the next scheduled meeting of the Arab League on 27 March in Libya.

It was quite early in February that Israel's parliament, the Knesset, passed a bill that makes it mandatory to call a referendum before the Golan Heights could be handed over to a foreign power. The Golan Heights, originally part of Syria, were lost to Israel during the Six Day War in 1967, recaptured by Syria in the early days of the Yom Kippur war in 1973, then lost again and left in Israel's hands as part of the disengagement treaty after the war. The area was subsequently formally annexed by Israel in 1981. The referendum bill means that the whole of Israel would need to be convinced that a hand-back of the Golan to Syria would be in exchange for a full and genuine peace.

It was during February that Turkey indicated she was anxious to resume the Israel-Syria proximity talks that were broken off following Israel's attack on Hamas in Gaza. Despite an ill-tempered spat between Syrian and Israeli spokesmen in the middle of February, the resumption of talks seems a distinct possibility

Talking of Hamas, a poll of Palestinian opinion held during February revealed a remarkable reversal of pro-Hamas sentiment among Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank. Whereas in the January 2006 elections Hamas gained 76 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian parliament as against Fatah's 43, the latest poll indicated that if an election were held now only 11% would vote for Hamas. The Fatah-led government of president Mahmoud Abbas and his prime minister Salam Fayyad was regarded as the sole legitimate Palestinian government by the majority of those polled.

During the month new Palestinian elections were called for 17 July. The fact that Hamas refused to join the other parties in discussions called by the Palestinian Central Elections Commission prior to the announcement, does not bode well for future harmony between the warring Palestinian parties.

As for the central issue, the dying days of February brought reports of the USA and Russia agreeing to reconvene a meeting of the Quartet (the USA, Russia, the UN and the EU) to review progress in the peace process. and perhaps push it forward. The 19th of March has been quoted as a possible date – well past the 15th, the notorious "Ides" on which Julius Caesar was assassinated. We'll see.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Moscow and Tripoli – the scene shifts

The follow-up to the events described in my last piece ("A Holy Row") was a good slap on Israel's wrist from Washington. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said yesterday that the US administration viewed the move as provocative and unhelpful to the goal of getting the two sides back to the table.

And of course he may be right, though the two sides have not exactly been rushing back to the table in any case.

Strong rumours were circulating in the world's media last week that PA President Mahmoud Abbas had virtually accepted the concept of "proximity talks", and might be sitting down with the Israeli delegation any time now – but these may well have been wishful thinking on someone's part, perhaps someone in the State Department. Certainly Abbas himself, as well as the PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, were quick to deny that any such decision had been taken. In fact, Abbas had always indicated that he would seek cover from Arab ministers before taking any positive steps towards renewed peace talks. Now there seems to be a notion that he will postpone any action till the projected Arab League summit scheduled to take place in Libya on 27 March.

Meanwhile, one can but ask whether Sunday's announcement by Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, of the addition of the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel's Tomb to Israel's projected "heritage trail" was not also a subtle way of putting a brake on the impetus towards revived negotiations. If it did that, even if it was not his prime objective, the move would undoubtedly have placated some of the more right-wing opinion in his fragile coalition – opinion that was certainly pressing for the addition of the two holy sites in any case.

The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, almost seems to have acknowledged that an undesirable delay in the process is inevitable. She certainly told a congressional committee yesterday that groundwork is being laid to restart the talks with the help of US special envoy George Mitchell, and that she hopes peace talks between Israelis and the Palestinians will resume shortly – but she did not say when.

Meanwhile it is reported that the US and Russia are trying to convene a meeting of the "Quartet" – the USA, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations – in Moscow. It's said that a tentative date of 19 March has been discussed but is not yet confirmed. The meeting would bring together Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton – and, of course, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is now the Quartet's special representative in the Middle East.

So if the Quartet meets on 19 March and the Arab League on the 27th, and decisions on action are dependent on the outcome of both meetings, any hope of resuming Israel-Palestinian negotiations seems to have receded to April at the very least.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

A Holy Row

And now suddenly, disrupting the tentative steps of the past few weeks leading towards a resumption of peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel – even if at one stage removed – a new row blows up. A holy row because, like so much in the Holy Land, it's all bound up with events that took place three, four thousand years ago. And it has the potential to undermine the very best intentions of all the parties involved in trying to get negotiations back on track.

What's it all about?

The story starts formally at Israel's 4-day Herzliya Conference, which began this year on 31 January. The Herzliya Conference has been held annually for the past ten years, and has become something of an institution – the annual "summit meeting" of the most influential Israeli and international leaders. The conference is, of course, always addressed by Israel's prime minister.

This year, Benjamin Netanyahu devoted his speech to announcing a major new project that is estimated to take some five years to complete and to absorb some two hundred million dollars. It builds on the idea of the existing Israel National Trail – a hiking path that crosses the entire country from the Lebanese border, in the far north of the country, to Eilat at the southernmost tip on the Red Sea, a length of approximately 940 km (580 miles). The Trail was officially launched in 1991 with the aim of giving Israelis a way to experience the entire breadth of the land firsthand.

The government's latest idea is to construct two new "heritage trails" running the length and breath of Israel. Netanyahu told the conference that he intends to present the cabinet, on this coming Thursday, with a working programme which would include the inauguration of two trails to be added the existing Israel Trail: an historical trail that would connect a whole variety of archeological sites, and an "Israeli Experience" trail linking dozens of Israel's landmarks, museums and memorials.

Nearly 40 archeological sites might form part of the "historical trail" programme, including the Caesarea National Park, Mount Massada, Qumran, Tiberias, and the City of David in Jerusalem. The programme would create a documentation centre in Israel to oversee the sites' archives, and to coordinate the work. A course is also proposed to train staff in document preservation, as well as help gather information on the different heritage sites.

The heritage sites themselves, forming the "Israeli Experience" trail, are spread throughout Israel, and include places such as Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, the historic Jezreel Valley railway, and the Dead Sea town of Ein Gedi.

All this sounded very fine and relatively uncontroversial, even though one declared objective was to strengthen the emotional connection and knowledge of Israel bestowed upon children by their parents and the educational system.

Then came Netanyahu's announcement last Sunday. There would be two additions to the list of national heritage sites that the government plans to promote – The Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem – both sites located in the West Bank.

The result could have been foreseen, and perhaps was. Yesterday Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, addressing the Belgian parliament, said that Israel's decision to add two West Bank sites to the national heritage list was a dangerous provocation that could bring about a religious war. It was an attempt to steal the Palestinian heritage, he alleged, and part of a larger scheme to take over religious Muslim sites.

This reaction was too milk-and-water for Hamas's prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh. During a session of the Gaza Legislative Council yesterday he declared that the Palestinian Authority should respond to the Israeli government's move not by renewing negotiations, but by inciting a new intifada.

"The decision requires a real response in the West Bank," Haniyeh told reporters, "and for the people to rise up in the face of the Israeli occupation and to break every shackle in confronting it."

What is the significance of the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel's tomb?

The Cave of the Patriarchs - which Muslims call the al-Ibrahimi mosque - is where the Bible says Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were buried, along with the "foremothers" of Judaism: Sarah, Rebecca and Leah. It has been a flashpoint for decades, with 500 Jewish settlers living in enclaves near the disputed site, surrounded by 170,000 Palestinians.

The Tomb of Rachel - a shrine to the Biblical matriarch holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims - has also been a source of controversy. Israel's West Bank fence/barrier juts into Bethlehem, so that the tomb is located on the Israeli side. Palestinians say it represents an illegal land grab.

Responding to the Palestinian outcry, an Israel government spokesman said yesterday that Israel was committed to the freedom of worship of all religions in all holy sites, and was currently undertaking maintainentance work on the entrance plaza and the way leading to the Muslim's prayer hall in the Cave of the Patriarchs. He clearly envisaged that, whatever the outcome of peace negotiations, the religious significance attached to these holy sites for all the Abrahamic religions would mean that visitors would continue to be attracted to them in large numbers. So the effect, in practice, of their being added to Israel's "heritage trail" is uncertain.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, dozens of Palestinians held a demonstration near the Jewish enclave in Hebron in protest at Netanyahu’s announcement. The protesters burned tyres and hurled rocks at IDF troops, who retorted by using stun grenades.

Is this a storm in a teacup? Could an emollient word of explanation take the sting out of the situation in an instant? Difficult to assess. But in any case, this is not the most favourable atmosphere in which to open discussions aimed at a permanent settlement of the Israel-Palestine situation.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

France takes a lead

France is clearly anxious to assume a central role in the Middle East peace process. As I mentioned on 26 January (see "A Middle-East Peace Conference?"), President Sarkozy and his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, reiterated at the start of 2010 an idea they first mooted back in 2009 – that France should host a gathering in Paris whose sole agenda would be to ensure that peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel were resumed as quickly as possible. They invited the leaders of relevant countries to attend.

Events since then, far from decisive though they have been, seem to have overtaken that particular initiative. George Mitchell, the US special envoy, after a flurry of shuttle diplomacy, failed to bring the two parties face-to-face across a negotiating table, but he has succeeded in giving political substance to the concept of "proximity talks", as a first step leading to direct discussions. So the idea of kick-starting the process by way of a Paris peace conference seems to have been by-passed.

Undeterred, however, the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, in an interview published today in the "Journal du Dimanche" calls for recognition of a Palestinian state even before its borders are agreed. It may be a little known fact, but France has been engaged in the "building of a reality", as Kouchner puts it – initiatives such as training Palestinian police and creating business in the West Bank.

"It follows," he says, "that one can envision the proclamation soon of a Palestinian state, and its immediate recognition by the international community, even before negotiating its borders."

This approach, of course, is entirely in line with that of the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, who announced last summer that he was planning for the establishment, by the end of 2011, of "de facto Palestinian statehood" – which is not quite the same as a sovereign Palestinian state, but would undoubtedly be a step in that direction.

The French media were not slow to put two and two together. Shortly after Kouchner's remarks, they approached Fayyad for a interview. He spoke to them yesterday, and of course he entirely endorsed the French foreign minister's line:

"If," said Fayyad, "by mid-2011 the political process has not ended the occupation, I would bet that the developed state of Palestinian infrastructure and institutions will be such that the pressure will force Israel to give up its occupation."

Meanwhile, of course, although the idea of "proximity talks" is alive and buzzing, the parties are still coyly tip-toeing round the issue – a step forward here, a step backward there; here an assertion, there a denial.

On Thursday, Mahmoud Abbas met in Ramallah with US officials. Reports indicate that they gave him the assurances he was seeking regarding the renewal of talks with Israel, including a timetable for the move from indirect to direct talks and "clarifications" regarding the issue of the 1967 borders.

Accordingly the Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz, reported that negotiations were to be resumed, and that they would use the "proximity" talks format, similar to the model of the Israel-Syria talks that were mediated by Turkey. During the indirect phase of the talks, the Israeli and the Palestinian teams will sit in separate locations, and Mitchell and his staff will convey messages between them. The paper was unclear whether the talks will take place in Israel or in Washington, but it quoted a categoric statement by a "senior government official in Jerusalem" that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are to be renewed next week.

This source said that Israeli government officials had been told by Austrian foreign minister Michael Spindelegger that the Palestinians were ready to resume indirect talks. Spindelegger, who visited Israel and the Palestinian territories last week, said PA president Mahmoud Abbas had told him he would consent to the United States' request to renew talks with Israel.

No sooner was all this on the wires, than it was positively rejected by the PA chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat. No decision to resume talks had been taken. "We have asked for an official meeting of Arab ministers of the follow-up committee," said Erekat, "and have told them that our consultations, coordinations and inquiries are still ongoing with the Americans, Europeans, Russians and the United Nations."

As for Ha'aretz's report that Mahoud Abbas had told Austrian foreign minister Michael Spindelegger that peace talks would resume shortly: "The one who announces the Palestinian position is the Palestinian side, not Haaretz or the Austrian foreign minister."

Meanwhile, to emphasise the increased prominence that France has been assuming in the peace process, it is reliably reported that Abbas is due to meet with the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, in Paris this very day, and with French President Nicolas Sarkozy tomorrow.

Friday, 19 February 2010

The Turn of the Tide

The results of a poll published yesterday contain a surprising indication of a major shift of sentiment within Palestinian opinion. If borne out in reality – that is, if the views expressed were to hold until the next formal elections – Hamas would be wiped out as a political force.

In brief, only 11 % of those polled said that they would vote for Hamas (as against 48% supporting Fatah).

Political polls, such an established feature of normal democratic life, are something of a rarity for the ordinary Palestinian man or woman in the street. In the past ten years, for example, the major Palestinian research body, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (the PSR), has conducted only some 40 polls aimed at establishing Palestinian opinion on various topics – that is no more than 4 polls a year on average.

This latest poll was conducted earlier this week in the West Bank and Gaza by a smaller and newer research organisation, Near East Consulting. Asked which party they would support if presidential elections were to be held next week, 48% of those polled said they would vote for Fatah. Only 11% said they would vote for Hamas. Of the remainder of those polled, 31% were undecided, and the rest chose other parties or said they would not vote.

The survey found 45% of Palestinians to have confidence in Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, while only 13% said they had confidence in the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh.

Of the sample of 880 Palestinians polled, 54% felt the Fatah-led government in Ramallah was the sole legitimate Palestinian government. 19% saw the Hamas-led government in Gaza to be the sole legitimate Palestinian government. Interestingly, 27% believed both governments to be illegitimate. As was perhaps to be expected, the support for Fatah was a few points higher in the West Bank and a few points lower in the Gaza Strip, while the opposite held true for Hamas.

These results represent an amazing turn-around in sentiment since the Palestinian elections in January 2006. Then Hamas won a large majority in the new Palestinian parliament, trouncing the governing Fatah party. Hamas gained 76 of the 132 parliamentary seats while Fatah, which had dominated the legislature since the previous elections a decade before, won only 43 seats.

The results of this latest poll take on a particular significance since elections in all local councils in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are due to take place later this year, on 17 July.

One week ago the Palestinian Central Elections Commission (the CEC)met with representatives of political parties and factions to announce the forthcoming elections, and to stress the commission's commitment to a successful electoral process and its adherence to the principles of integrity and free participation for everyone. Not unsurprisingly, perhaps, the CEC reported on its website that no representatives of Hamas attended the meeting, despite being invited to do so.

Last Saturday, the CEC issued a Press release: "In compliance with Palestinian law," it stated, "and the Cabinet's decision issued on 8 February calling for elections in the local councils on 17 July, the CEC confirms its readiness to administer elections." The CEC called on all electoral stakeholders to cooperate with the Commission to ensure free and fair elections. The first stage in the electorial process, the Voter Registry update, is to begin within the next three weeks.

What the outcome of these July elections will be, whether Hamas will permit them to take place inside Gaza at all, and if they do, whether they will abide by the result if it goes against them – all that is in the lap of the gods.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Why are we waiting?

And still we wait.

It was on 29 January that I first reported on the emergence of the idea of "proximity talks" as a possible second-best approach to renewing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (see "The Kissinger Touch"). Broken off in December 2008, and delayed for one reason or another throughout the following year, George Mitchell's reappearance on the Middle East scene brought with it the prospect of a resumption of the stalled face-to-face negotiations.

But Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president, has been reluctant to risk the outright hostility of Palestinian public opinion and resume the discussions without the substantial concession by Israel of a complete freeze on all construction work in Israeli settlements on the West Bank, and also in East Jerusalem. This was a requirement laid down by President Obama shortly after he assumed office, and it was repeated by his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, soon afterwards.

Since then Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has come out openly in favour of the two state solution, and last November ordered a 10-month freeze on all settlement building in the West Bank. Although these concessions were welcomed by the US administration as steps in the right direction, they were not sufficient to induce Abbas back to the negotiating table.

And on Monday, to strengthen Abbas's hand, Hillary Clinton positively refuted the idea that the US had reneged on its demand for Israel to halt activity in West Bank settlements.

"Our position," she told the TV station Al Jazeera, "is that settlement activity is illegitimate, and that the final resolution of borders has to be worked out that will give both sides, the Israelis and the Palestinians, the secure borders that they deserve to have. It will be based, as I have said many times, on the 1967 lines, with the agreed swaps, and taking into account subsequent developments. Those are the very clear parameters that the United States believes that the parties should negotiate over."

The statement was intended to strengthen Abbas's hand in re-opening discussions, but there is more than sufficient wriggle-room in that statement to fill many months of hard negotiating between the two sides. She says that the final resolution will be "based on the 1967 lines". In other words, the position when the ceasefire agreement was signed after the Six Day War will be the starting, not the finishing, point for settling final borders. But the Arab League peace plan of 2002, for example, requires Israel to withdraw from all territories captured in the 1967 war.

"…and taking into account subsequent developments" could mean anything, but certainly implies some hard bargaining along the line.

By referring to "the agreed swaps", Clinton implies that these are agreed and understood by all parties. Exchanges of territory between the two sides as part of a final agreement have certainly been postulated – notably in the non-governmental and controversial Geneva Accord – but they have never been endorsed by either party.

There have been five major – and a clutch of minor – peace plans over the years.

The Oslo Accords, signed in 1993 in the presence of Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and President Clinton, were not much more than a framework for future negotiations. They would have established a Palestinian National Authority and required the Israel Defense Forces to leave Gaza and parts of the West Bank, but they left the big questions like future borders to be settled later.

The exact terms of the 2000 Camp David Summit proposals have never been formally published, but the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, is purported to have offered Yasser Arafat approximately 95% of the West Bank and the entire Gaza Strip, as well as Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem, provided 69 Jewish settlements were ceded to Israel. The offer, however, according to some versions, included indefinite "temporary Israeli control" over another 10% of the West Bank which includes many of the remaining Jewish settlements. Arafat rejected this offer and made no counter-proposals.

The "Road Map" of July 2002, endorsed by the "quartet" of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia, outlined a step-by-step approach to a settlement of the dispute, but made no specific proposals about borders or the exchange of territory.

The Arab League peace plan requires a return to the pre-1967 war borders. There is no reference to a swap of territory.

The "Geneva Accord", formally launched on 1 December 2003, is not an official, but a private initiative headed on the Palestinian side by former Palestinian minister of information, Yasser Abed Rabbo, and on the Israeli by Yossi Beilin, former justice minister. The on-going talks are funded in part by the Swiss government. The Accord
does indicate a proposed border incorporating modifications to the 1967 line. In particular, the Temple Mount on which stand the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, would come under Palestinian sovereignty; an international religious authority would control the major religious sites in the Old City of Jerusalem, while the Jewish Quarter, Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem and two settlements (Gush Etzion and Ma'ale Edumin) would fall under Israeli sovereignty.

Meanwhile Abbas is still sitting on his hands, calling for "clarification" from Washington about the suggested proximity talks. He may be hoping for political cover from other Arab states before re-engaging with the peace process. But even if he agrees to participate in the suggested proximity talks without that cover, explicit Arab political support will be essential when, and if, it comes to making the concessions necessary to reaching a deal.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Challenging Hamas

Hamas, the group that won a place for itself in the elections to the Palestinian Authority, and then seized control of Gaza in a bloody coup against its partners, Fatah, is generally considered pretty extremist. But not extremist enough for some in the Muslim world. "The Jordan Times" yesterday reported on a little-known movement, preaching an ultra-conservative Islam, that is now becoming ever more active in the Muslim world. Its adherents are known as "Salafis".

The Salafi movement generally is non-political, but it contains within itself a minority jihadist element that echoes the Al Qaeda call for a holy war – not only against the West, but also against moderate Arab regimes. Within Gaza, Jihadi Salafis have organised themselves into small armed groups that engage in armed clashes with Hamas forces. They have also been firing rockets into Israel, in defiance of Hamas's informal truce.

The Jihadi Salafis engaged in a violent armed struggle against Hamas last summer, when 26 fighters were killed during a shoot-out in a mosque – 16 of them Salafis, including their leader. After that incident, Hamas claimed that it had disbanded the groups, and indeed 25 are still in prison. But the jihadis have now re-formed. Just recently they blew up the car of a senior Hamas official outside his home in southern Gaza – as a warning, the group announced, since the leader was not in it at the time.

Following the incident the defiant pronouncement of the group, which calls itself "The Soldiers of the Monotheism Brigades", declared: "We will not stop targeting the figures of this perverted, crooked government, breaking their bones and cleansing the pure land of the Gaza Strip of these abominations. What will come next will be harder and more horrible."

What has followed is a series of bombings of internet cafés and music stores in Gaza – since both the internet and music are regarded as essentially non-Islamic.

At the heart of the Salafi protest is that Hamas has failed to impose Islamic law in Gaza since they seized power in 2007. The Salafis are also violently opposed to the tactical truce that Hamas has observed with Israel since Operation Cast Lead last year. They are none too enamoured, either, of the way Hamas seems to be edging towards a two-state solution. For accepting the principle of a Palestinian sovereign state carries with it, as a sine qua non, the acceptance of Israel – a concept abhorrent to the Salafi Islamic view of the world.

The irony is that Hamas has itself been pushing Gaza towards a more Islamic regime, including a campaign urging women to "cover up". This seems to have provided the Salafis in general, and the Jihadi Salafis in particular, with a toehold – and, indeed, their extremist philosophy seems to have gained some acceptance among Gazans.

Salafi adherents seek to embrace what they consider real Islam in their lives. As part of this, they believe that jihad is a religious duty. A major problem arises for the peace process as a whole if this goes too far. The Jihadi Salafis are inspired by, if not exactly a part of, Al Qaeda. Any closer affiliation brings with it the spectre of an active terrorist base, far more wide-ranging in its objectives than Hamas, at the heart of the Middle East.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

The Golan Heights and Peace – a fair exchange?

On Wednesday Israel's parliament, the Knesset, voted overwhelmingly in favour of a bill that would require a referendum to cede the Golan Heights to a foreign entity.

The Golan Heights, rising sharply to the north of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), straddle the border between Israel and Syria. From 1948 to 1967, the area was used by Syria as a strategically important military stronghold, for it commanded a great sweep of Israel, and indeed a series of random attacks were launched from the area over the years.

In June 1967, during the Six Day war, Israel captured the heights. Six years later, in a surprise attack during what became known as the Yom Kippur war, Syria overran the Golan before being repulsed by Israeli counterattacks. After the war, Syria signed a disengagement agreement that left the Golan in Israel's hands. On 14 December 1981, the Knesset voted to annex the Golan Heights.

Syria and Israel have talking to each, albeit in a somewhat roundabout fashion, for at least two years now. Through the good offices of Turkey, the Muslim state closest to Israel (though relations have become somewhat strained of late), so-called "proximity talks" have been on-going. One can only hope that these three-handed discussions are laying the ground for an eventual move to full face-to-face negotiations leading to peace between the two states, when once the moment seems auspicious to both sides.

The talks are covert. How easy or difficult the two parties have been, only the Turkish officials involved, acting as go-betweens, could say. However, the public postures of Israel and Syria towards each other seem to have been hardening recently, following the outbreak of a war of words.

It all seems to have started about ten days ago, when Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, said innocuously enough that it was essential to renew talks with Syria in order to avoid renewed conflict. Shortly afterwards, Syrian President Assad told Spanish foreign minister, Miguel Mouratinos, that Israel was leading the region towards war. That riposte was not sufficient for Syrian foreign minister Walid Mouallem, who then upped the rhetoric, telling reporters that should a new war break out, it would be a 'total' war and would reach Israeli cities. Such a comment was like a red rag to a bull, as far as Israel's right-wing foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, was concerned. He then announced that should Syria launch war against Israel, the result would be the departure of the Assad regime from power.

It was at this point that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu stepped in, with a a message that reiterated Israel's readiness for negotiations and peace.

The Israeli-Syrian relationship would seem to be comparable to a tinderbox, primed and ready for the spark that will set it ablaze. The delicately-poised status quo rests at the moment on Syria's alignment with Iran and the extremist organisations of HIzbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Yet there are those within the Israeli defence establishment who believe that Damascus would be willing to decouple itself from this Iranian-led regional alliance in return for Israel conceding the Golan Heights.

Is that likely?

Wednesday's referendum bill does not mean that Israel would never hand back the Golan to Syria. What it does mean is that, if or when the time comes to do so, it would have to be, clearly and demonstrably to the whole of Israel, in exchange for a genuine peace.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

A Riposte

Today's "Independent" (London) carries a long article by their Middle East correspondent, the eminent and much-awarded Robert Fisk, seven times "International Journalist of the Year". In a piece titled: "State of Denial" he surveys the Israeli-Palestinian situation in depth and from all sides, searching for any signs of movement towards peace. He can find little of comfort.

His article is fascinating – journalism of the very highest quality. Yet I find myself unable to concur with his totally pessimistic view of either the present situation or the likely future. I don't like his utterly negative view of people and their motives – Palestinians, Egyptians and Israelis. And so I decided to send a letter to the "Independent".

As I write this piece, I have no idea whether my letter will be accepted for publication. The odds are always against, since any newspaper is always heavily over-subscribed with readers' letters. But this is what I wrote:

The iron seems to have entered Robert Fisk's soul ("State of Denial", February 11). On every side – Palestinian, Egyptian, Israeli – he can find little but cynicism, hypocrisy, corruption, nepotism and venality.

Discovering for himself the towering intellect of Israel's first leader, David Ben Gurion, Fisk can acknowledge the high moral principles that underlay the foundation of the state, but cannot perceive in any Israeli politician today a belief in those principles, or a desire to live up to them. All, he would have us believe, are now so steeped in blood and barbarity and self-delusion that Israel has virtually forfeited its right to exist; its claim to be acting in defence of its people against those who would destroy them is false. The Israel he portrays is an aggressive immoral state, intent on subjugating and humiliating the peoples of the West Bank and Gaza and planning new military adventures in Lebanon and possibly Iran. From personal experience I know this to be nothing like a true picture of modern Israel. Because Robert Fisk clearly has little empathy for Israel or Israelis, he paints the situation as hopeless. But the "facts on the ground" – the settlements, the wall, the borders – are all, of course, susceptible of negotiation and agreement.

Robert Fisk's Egypt is a cowardly government, turning its back on its Arab brothers and sisters in Gaza in order to win the approval of its American paymasters. This is the only explanation Fisk gives for Egypt's opposition to Hamas, and its determined action to shut down the network of tunnels running under the border through which a vast range of goods, including weaponry, is smuggled into Gaza. He does not mention Egypt's constant battle against Islamism, of which Hamas and Hizbollah are prime exemplars, or their fear of its gaining a foothold in their country – the very phenomenon that he notes is creeping into Gaza itself.

It is only when he turns to Hamas, that Fisk's stern eye softens. Yes, he recounts how Hamas officials are creaming off millions of dollars from the goods smuggled in from Egypt, but still to him Hamas are the doughty and elected defenders of their people. He fails to mention how they seized control of Gaza in a bloody and illegal coup against the very Palestinian Authority to which they were elected.

Robert Fisk concludes that, in the final analysis, the Israeli-Arab conflict is all about who has power. This is surely a jaundiced view. Is it not about finding a way for the peoples of the Middle East to live together in peace?

Neville Teller

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Music Leads the Way

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra was founded in 1999 on a conviction that the destinies of the Israelis and the Palestinians are inextricably linked, and that the Middle East conflict will never be solved through military means. Through its existence and through what it does, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra demonstrates that bridges can indeed be built.

A "diwan" is a collection of lyrical poems. Between 1814 and 1819, Inspired by the Persian poet Hafez, the towering German poet Goethe wrote a great cycle of poems which he called "The West-Eastern Divan". The twelve books which make up the cycle are a mix of eastern and western motifs and themes, and the work as a whole can be seen as an effort to bring understanding and harmony between the two cultures. In one sense it seeks to create a new world culture out of a mixture of the two.

In 1999 Daniel Barenboim, together with the late Palestinian academic Edward Said, decided to try to bring together young musicians from Israel, Palestine and various Arab countries. Their aim was to foster greater understanding between individuals from vastly different backgrounds through their common love of music. Barenboim is quick to point out that without Said’s involvement as co-founder, no Arab musicians would have come forward to audition for an orchestra led by a Jewish conductor, and where every Arab musician would be sharing a music stand with an Israeli.

“I expected maybe six applications from Arab countries," said Barenboim, "but we had around 200. What really amazed me was that the level of the best players was just as high as the best from Israel. When I told Edward, he said: "Wonderful, we must create an orchestra.” The idea was simple: bring together around 80 players, 40% from Arab countries, 40% from Israel, 20% from Europe." Barenboim and Said decided to call the new orchestra after Goethe's seminal work. So was born "the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra".

The orchestra’s first sessions took place in Weimar and Chicago. In 2002 it found a permanent home in Seville, Spain, where it is supported by the regional government of Andalusia. Since its foundation 11 years ago, the orchestra has performed throughout Europe to enormous popular approval and support. Its first concert in an Arab country was in 2003, when it performed in Rabat, Morocco. Two years later Barenboim succeeded in getting the whole orchestra into the occupied West Bank town of Ramallah (by dint of securing Spanish passports and visas for the Israeli members).

Just a few weeks ago, at the second attempt, the orchestra performed in the Gulf state of Qatar (the first try, in 2009, was frustrated by the Gaza conflict). The invited audience attended the concert in Qatar's National Theatre in the presence of the Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. Since the general public were not allowed to be present, the hall was only half-full. Still, the ice was broken – on both sides. Young Israeli musicians had played for the Emir.

The West-Eastern Divan Workshop takes place during several weeks each summer in Andalusia. Once the working period is over, the concert tour of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra starts. This August the orchestra plan to embark on a tour of South America.

"The Divan," said Barenboim recently, "was conceived as a project against ignorance… it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I'm not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and I not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But... I'm trying to create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives."

Every time the orchestra plays, wherever that may be, the audience sees gathered before it, on one platform, young people from countries that have no understanding of each other – that in many cases do not even have diplomatic relations with each other. Yet there those young musicians are in front of them, sharing their love of music with each other and with the audience, and performing to the very highest standards – a living exemplar of what can eventually be achieved on the wider world stage.

Monday, 8 February 2010

West of the West Bank

…that's Jordan. And in the view of Jordan's King Abdullah in an interview with CNN yesterday, time is running out for the two-state solution. He urged all parties, starting with the US administration, to stop the tactical manoeuvreing and start the real negotiating.

He seemed to see the forthcoming Arab League summit, scheduled for late March in Libya, as a sort of watershed. If meaningful negotiations, or at least substantive progress towards them, has not been achieved by then, he warned, the League might abandon the unified position it adopted back in 2002 – and has reiterated several times since – of peace with Israel in return for all territories captured in the 1967 war. That, warned Abdullah, would mean "crossing an invisible line in the sand", and would doom the region to decades of instability.

One Aunt Sally the king set up during his interview, in order to knock down instantly, was that "certain elements in the Israeli government" were pushing for Jordan to take a role in the West Bank. The old "Jordan is Palestine" cry was a stand-by argument of Likud and other opinions further to the right, back in the 1970s and 1980s, when the concept of a sovereign Palestinian state living alongside Israel was but a gleam in anyone's eye, Arab or Israeli.

The concept has been long abandoned by mainstream Israeli opinion. Nevertheless, the king went out of his way to insist that Jordan will not involve itself in any way in the West Bank - even, one presumes, after the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state.

It is often forgotten that back in 1950 Jordan unilaterally annexed the West Bank. So Jordan was the only Palestine that the majority of Palestinians had, until the moment in 1988 when King Hussein renounced the annexation, and finally washed Jordan's hands of direct involvement in the Palestinian issue,

Jordan's relationship with the Palestinian movement had always been uneasy. The various militant Palestinian bodies based in Jordan-ruled territory (Jordan proper and the West Bank) acted solely in their own interests, and Hussein could see the monarchy's rule over the country being wrested from his grasp. In September 1970 King Hussein took action. Thousands – mostly Palestinians – died during the resultant armed conflict, which lasted until July 1971. It ended with the expulsion to Lebanon of the PLO and thousands of Palestinian fighters.

The last thing King Abdullah now wants is for Jordan to become directly involved again in the Palestinian struggle. However, when once a sovereign and independent Palestine is up and running, there is certainly room for fruitful and beneficial agreements between Jordan and the new state, to say nothing of Israel. Given a fair wind, the region might indeed witness a new and previously undreamed-of prosperity.

Which explains why King Abdullah is so strong an advocate of the two state solution. In his CNN interview the king said: "The one-state solution terrifies more Israelis than the two-state solution. And so I think that the only credible, viable way of solving this problem is the two-state solution, giving the Israelis and the Palestinians the ability to live together. More importantly, allowing Arabs and Muslims to then have a peace treaty with Israel."

The forthcoming Arab League summit, however, seems less intent on considering the PA-Israel dispute than in resolving a bitter internal argument of its own. It centres on the fact that the summit is scheduled to take place in Libya.

Back in 1978 the eminent Shi'ite scholar, Imam Musa Sadr, founder of the Amal movement, suddenly disappeared, along with several companions. A week ago in Lebanon, the deputy head of the Higher Islamic Shi'ite Council, Sheikh Abdul Amir Qabalan, called on Colonel Gaddafi to declare the truth behind Sadr's disappearance. If he failed to do so before the summit, said Sheikh Qabalan, not only should Lebanon boycott the summit, but the other delegates to the conference should pressurise Libya's leader to come clean – the general view in Beirut is that Sadr was killed following an argument with Colonel Gaddafi.

When the boycott call was taken up a few days ago by Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament, Arab League secretary-general, Amr Moussa, intervened. Now Moussa is engaged in efforts to pacify the two main Lebanese advocates of the boycott, and by doing so, Shi'ite opinion generally. For a boycott of the summit could have serious and unforeseen consequences in the Arab world.

Will it be resolved in time?

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Edging Forward

Well, Thursday the 4th of February came and went. Thursday (as readers of my last piece will know) was the day Mahmoud Abbas named as when he would respond to the idea of "proximity talks" put forward by US envoy George Mitchell. Anyone agog for news of his response went to bed that night disappointed.

We now learn that it was not till Friday that he held three crucial meetings in Cairo to discuss the proposal. One was with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. The second was a trilateral Arab gathering involving Egyptian and Jordanian, as well as Palestinian, members. The third was a meeting he held with an American delegation.

It was during that last conversation that the PA president asked the United States to clarify its offer of "proximity talks" (that is, to mediate indirect peace talks with Israel). Washington's response, said Abbas, would be discussed within a joint Arab framework. Only then would he be prepared to announce any decision to resume the negotiations.

Originally Abbas made his agreement to restart the stalled negotiations conditional on a complete cessation of Israeli settlement construction on the West Bank and Jerusalem. He discounted as inadequate the ten-month freeze on the West Bank construction announced by Israeli prime minister Netanyahu. Since then he appears to have formulated an alternative proposal of his own on settlement construction – a three-month freeze in both the West Bank and Jerusalem. It was, perhaps, this idea that he tested out on the American delegation last night, in the hope that the US would put pressure on Israel to accept it.

Halting, even for three months, building projects under way in East Jerusalem may be a step that Netanyahu would find it impossible to take, and still keep his fragile coalition together. But other confidence-building measures have already been suggested by George MItchell, and accepted by Netanyahu, to help get face-to-face meetings up and running. Included among them are an easing of restrictions on access of Palestinians to Israel, and the release of a considerable number of Fatah prisoners held in Israeli jails.

So instead of shuttling back and forth, advancing meaningful talks between Israel and the PA, it looks as though, for a time at least, George Mitchell's time will be taken up by tossing to and fro various pre-conditions for reopening discussions in the first instance.

Meanwhile, yesterday brought reports of a new building development in Jerusalem that may hold within it the seeds not of discord, but of harmony.

Professor Hasson lectures on geography at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. In the early part of 2009, he led a group of Jerusalem officials, including the deputy mayor and the city engineer, on a tour of a site called Tantur, situated between Bethlehem and the south Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. He then astonished the group by suggesting that the site would be ideal on which to construct Jerusalem's first fully-integrated Jewish-Arab neighbourhood.

Undeterred by the "aahs" and "umms" of many exposed to the plan, the intrepid professor proceeded to bring together a group of prominent Palestinians and Israelis, and the group hired architect Eli Reches to plan the neighborhood. The plans, which feature 800 low-cost housing units and a hotel district, have now been presented to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.

According to reports emanating from Jerusalem city council, Barkat hasn't ruled the project out, though he seems to think it might be better pursued at a different location. The Quartet's special envoy to the Middle East, former British prime minister Tony Blair, has expressed support for the plan.

Some of the land for the project is owned by the Al-Tantur monastery, which has given its preliminary approval. The rest is owned by Christian residents of Bethlehem. The area, initially planned as an Arab neighbourhood, has subsequently been designated for green space. According to Hasson: "The neighborhood can be a nice link between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. You need to think about the future."

The future foreseen by the visionary professor is one in which Jewish and Arab residents of Jerusalem and Bethlehem will be good neighbours. It is a future resting on the shoulders of people like George Mitchell, Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Olive Branch or Poisoned Chalice?

Today’s the day! The day, that is, when Palestinian Authority chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, was due to give an official response to the US idea of “proximity talks” – the second-best substitute that has emerged for the far preferable face-to-face negotiations between Israel and the PA. So far, no news.

One stumbling block to the reopening of the stalled discussions – broken off in December 2008 – has been the reluctance of Abbas to compromise on an explicit commitment, given by President Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shortly after Obama took office. They both said, in as many words, that the policy of the new administration would be to require a complete cessation of construction in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Abbas, who met the President shortly afterwards and had the policy confirmed in person, understandably felt himself on strong ground in making it a prerequisite for reopening direct talks. Little could he have foreseen that, after a year in office, political realities would lead the President to retreat from that early optimism. In a newspaper interview marking the first anniversary of assuming the presidency, Barack Obama admitted that his expectations had been too high. Benjamin Netanyahu had gone as far as he dared, short of fracturing his fragile coalition and bringing down his administration, by declaring a freeze on West Bank settlement construction for a period of ten months. He had already imposed severe strains on his government by announcing in June 2009 that he was now in favour of the two-state solution – subject to the satisfactory outcome of negotiations.

Abbas, meanwhile, himself subject to denunciation from Hamas for contemplating face-to-face talks with Israel in the first place, felt he could not succumb to the new, and more realistic, US approach on settlement activity. Hamas-ruled Gaza would reject any return to negotiations on those terms (indeed on any), and seek to depict it as a sell-out by the PA. It was for this reason that US special envoy George Mitchell came up with the idea of using the “proximity talks” device – a technique pioneered by Turkey, acting as mediator, to maintain an on-going, oblique dialogue between Israel and Syria.

But perpetual stalemate does not suit Abbas, who has made his policy the pursuit of national PA goals through negotiation with Israel and the international community. Which no doubt explains the reports earlier in the week that at last he is tempering his absolute refusal to return to peace talks with Israel before a complete freeze on settler construction is in place. Last Sunday he told the Guardian newspaper (London) that he would accept a temporary freeze – perhaps three months – provided East Jerusalem was included in the ban. The next day he repeated the idea in Berlin, following a meeting with German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Compromise is the name of the game, but the question is whether Benjamin Netanyahu is in a position to pluck this olive branch from Mahmoud Abbas’s fingers, or whether – to mix metaphors – he views the new proposal as a poisoned chalice. Follow one course, and direct face-to-face talks between Israel and the PA might be resumed; follow the other, and all parties might have to fall back on the “proximity talks” substitute, for a time at least.

The next few days should show which way the wind is blowing.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010


It's stormy weather ahead for Israel tomorrow and Thursday. Literally. Wind and rain, not bombs and bullets. That's the forecast - and it's good news.

Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon all share the waters of the Jordan river and its source tributaries. The resources are limited. Over the past decade the normal pressures on water availability have been exacerbated by drought years of biblical proportions.

Perhaps the best measure of what has been happening is provided by Lake Kinneret (aka the Sea of Galilee), one of Israel's three major water reservoirs, whose records are maintained meticulously. Indeed Israelis tend to keep as close a watch on the rise and fall of Kinneret's water level as on the fate of their favourite football team.

Lake Kinneret, the lowest freshwater lake on earth, is situated deep in the Jordan Great Rift Valley. Although fed partly by underground springs, its main source is the Jordan river, which flows through it from north to south. The Golan heights rise up beyond its northern shore.

Until 1998, the normal weather pattern ensured that winter rains over the five months October-February, and the melting snows on Mount Hermon in the spring, fed Lake Kinneret year by year. In all the geography books, Kinneret's level is quoted as 209 metres below sea level. The drought that affected Israel between 1998 and 2001 was the most serious in the previous 125 years. The water flow of the Jordan river dropped sharply, and the level of Lake Kinneret fell to 214.9 metres below sea-level, the lowest lake level in historical periods.

The following years saw only a moderate return to normal weather patterns. 2004 was another bad year, and an even severer drought hit again in 2008 when Kinneret's water levels saw the sharpest drop since measurements were first recorded. By October the level stood at 214.06 meters below sea level, more than a metre beneath what is known as the government's "red line" – the level below which it is not recommended to draw water from the Kinneret. The red line stands at 213 metres below sea level.

And now? Well over these winter months the rain has been falling, and Lake Kinneret has been rising. In December the level rose 30 centimetres; in January 57 centimetres – the highest for that month for the past five years. At the start of February the water level stood at 213.4 metres below sea level – still 0.4 metres below the red line and about 700 million cubic metres short of the maximum volume. But February usually brings the greatest increase for the lake, and the rain forecast for this week could get the month off to a good start.

Does this matter in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict in general, and Israel-Palestine in particular?

Water is generally perceived as one of the high priority issues in the Arab-Israeli dispute. Water resources in the Jordan river basin are trans-boundary. Sharing them has been an inevitable feature of life in the region in the past, is so now, and will remain so following any peace accord. Issues remain outstanding – one particular problem is in respect of the West Bank which largely contains the three principal underground aquifers of the region. One of these aquifers provides Tel-Aviv with most of its water. The eventual peace agreement, therefore, and a regional water settlement are closely interdependent, and the fact of life that water resources have to be shared should serve as a considerable inducement on all parties to reach agreement on the bigger issues.

Indeed perhaps the most imaginative water scheme in the region - the so-called Red/Dead project – was approved and agreed upon in 2005 by the three concerned parties: Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel. The project is intended to bring water by a canal from the Gulf of Aquaba for desalination, with the brine runoff being diverted into the Dead Sea, which is retreating at an alarming rate of more than 30 centimetres a year.

Gaza's water problems are unique. The Gaza Strip is underlain by a shallow aquifer, contiguous with the Israeli coastal aquifer to the north. As Gaza is the “downstream user”, water abstraction in Gaza does not affect Israeli water supplies, but Gaza's aquifer is essentially the only source of fresh water. Over the years, massive increases in population and a lack of investment have led to over-pumping. The result: falling water levels and degrading water quality from seawater infiltration.

The options for improving the water situation in Gaza are well known and will need to be included in any comprehensive peace agreement. Additional supplies of water must be made available through desalination, wastewater treatment and reuse, import from Israel, or import from the West Bank.

Water is an issue that cannot be brushed under the carpet. It demands cooperation. An integrated regional water plan can only be made possible by regional peace.

Monday, 1 February 2010

America's other Middle East ally

Last Thursday representatives of some 80 nations gathered in London to attend the conference on Afghanistan.

While in London, ostensibly concerned with aligning military and civilian resources behind an Afghan-led political strategy to divide the insurgency and build regional cooperation, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Saudi and United Arab Emirate officials to discuss the Middle East peace process.

The fact is that Saudi Arabia, a long-standing ally of the United States, could play a critical role in helping Washington achieve its aims in the region. Saudi's key role in US strategic thinking was underlined in June 2009. President Obama, touring the Middle East ahead of the historic Cairo speech in which he held out the promise of a new era in American-Muslim relations, suddenly added Riyadh – Saudi's capital – to his itinerary. He was greeted by King Abdullah, and they discussed, inter alia, how to advance the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

Last Thursday Hillary Clinton carried the discussions a stage further in talks with Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal, and Abdullah bin Zayid, foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates.

The states of the Gulf Cooperative Council, the GCC (Bahrain, Kuwait,
Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) could be said – a trifle optimistically, perhaps – to represent an island of stability in a sea of instability. For while Saudi has more or less gained control over domestic terrorism, the GCC countries all face external security challenges ranging from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan-Pakistan, to Yemen, Somalia and Sudan. As a consequence the Gulf states are becoming increasingly willing to play a more central role in conflict management. Saudi Arabia has led the way with its increased willingness to mediate, not only between Iraqi sectarian groups and in Sudan, but in the Palestinian issue.

Saudi's direct involvement in Israel-Palestine goes back to the Arab League summit conference held in Beirut in March 2002. King Abdullah, who took over the throne on the death of King Fahd in 2004, was then Saudi's Crown Prince, and had been effectively running the kingdom since 1996. On the 20th of March, a few days ahead of the summit, he electrified the assembled Arab foreign ministers by floating a peace plan for Palestine-Israel.

Basically, he called for peace with Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from all territories captured in the 1967 war. There was a significant condition: a "just settlement" of the Palestinian refugee crisis based on UN Resolution 194 (a sort of "right of return" or, for those who do not want to go back, agreed compensation). However, Abdullah did not specify whether refugees, now perhaps including third or fourth generation descendants of those who left the region in 1948, were to be "returned" to Israel or to the Palestinian state that would be created.

The plan was discussed for a week, amendments were incorporated (notably a clause which prevented the 350,000 or more Palestinians living in Lebanon claiming Lebanese citizenship), and it was adopted on the 28th of March 2002. The Arab League has since readopted the Initiative on several occasions, including during the 2007 summit.

Israel has made no official response to the proposals, but reactions have divided as might be expected between right- and left-wing political opinion. Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected the plan outright; previous prime minister Ehud Olmert expressed reservations, but welcomed the initiative as a "new way of thinking. The willingness to recognize Israel as an established fact, and to debate the conditions of the future solution, is a step that I can't help but appreciate."

Perhaps the median view was set out by Israel's president, Shimon Peres, last May. Peres applauded the "U-turn" in the Arab attitude towards peace with Israel as reflected in the Saudi initiative, though "Israel wasn't a partner to the wording … it doesn't have to agree to every word."

But already, in March 2009, shortly after President Obama took office and optimism was the order of the day, George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, had announced that the new administration intended to "incorporate" the Saudi initiative into its Middle East policy.

One solid reason for America's "special relationship" with Saudi Arabia.