Monday, 29 March 2010

No vision from the Arab League

Anyone looking to the meeting of the Arab League in Libya this past weekend for some stirring vision for achieving peace in the Middle East will have looked in vain. It was a disappointing event. The summit ended without any significant decisions being taken, and most Arab leaders left early on Sunday afternoon, opting to give their final statements in writing.

There was a final declaration on key Arab issues. Prime among them was the unacceptability of any actions by Israel that alter the features of East Jerusalem, and an appeal to the international community to help maintain the status quo. The declaration authorises the establishment of a legal committee with powers to raise these issues before national and international courts.

In his keynote address, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon urged the conference to accept the conclusion of last week’s meeting of the diplomatic Quartet – comprising the UN, the European Union, the US and Russia. He said there was no alternative to a two-State solution, and that all final issues should be resolved within 24 months despite possible provocations from extremists. He appealed for Arab leaders to support US-led efforts to initiate proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Most speakers reiterated their previous statements towards the Palestinian issue, namely that they support peace with Israel as a strategic solution. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, however, supported PA President Mahmoud Abbas in his decision to refrain from holding proximity talks with Israel until Israel renounces its building plans in East Jerusalem.

But this is an Aunt Sally of a reason to break off the move towards peace negotiations. There is already a 10-month freeze on construction in the West Bank, announced last November. In doing so, Netanyahu explicitly excluded Jerusalem from the freeze. So nothing at all has changed as regards the position a fortnight ago when Abbas, with Arab League backing, agreed to participate in the proximity talks. All that has happened is a diplomatic furore following the announcement of building plans in the Ramat Shlomo district of Jerusalem at the moment that US Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Israel.

Not even Yitzhak Rabin, as he stood on the White House lawn shaking Yasser Arafat's hand, contemplated freezing the expansion and development of Jerusalem, both west and east. For it must be remembered that successive mayors have indeed built for the whole city. So the suspicion must remain that Mahmoud Abbas has gratefully seized on this latest furore over construction in Jerusalem - handed to him by the Obama administration - as a reason to push off the prospect of restarting peace discussions, with all the political hazards from Hamas and other Islamist extremists that this would attract.

As is not uncommon in meetings of the Arab League, divisions between member states, and between Arab leaders and their populations, became evident. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said that his country, because it opposed indirect talks between the Palestinians and Israelis, would not be party to any statement issued by the summit.

This is an extraordinary position to adopt, seeing that the whole idea of proximity talks is based on two years of precisely such negotiations between Syria and Israel, hosted by Turkey. They were broken off when Israel attacked the Hamas regime in Gaza in December 2008.

Perhaps the most positive outcome from this 22nd summit meeting of the Arab League was the decision to hold an extraordinary summit before October to discuss overhauling the League itself. This was announced at the closing session by its Secretary-General, Amr Moussa. A five-party committee was set up, comprising Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, to prepare a document for the extraordinary summit to consider.

President Obama has staked much on achieving a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. He has strained relations with Israel, America's essential ally in the Middle East, to an unprecedented degree. In doing so, he has given comfort to the very Islamist extremists that he is dedicated to overcoming - yet if he can persuade Mahmoud Abbas to the proximity talks, he could still out-manoeuvre them.

As far as Israel is concerned he has laid down a series of demands, among them opening a Palestinian commercial interests office in East Jerusalem, ending the demolition of structures in Palestinian neighbourhoods, stopping construction in Jewish districts in East Jerusalem, and abandoning the building project in Ramat Shlomo that sparked off the present diplomatic row.

Will these demands be acceptable to, or accepted by, Israel? It does not seem very likely. And the fear now in Israeli government circles is that the Obama administration is laying the ground for an imposed settlement, with the establishment and recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state as its objective.

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