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(photo credit: AP)
This week's joint visit of Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdelelah al-Khatib and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit to Jerusalem was an important step toward the Arab states shouldering their responsibility to advance peace. It was a baby step, however, compared to the revolution that must take place to truly advance Arab-Israeli relations.
In his speech on the Middle East on July 16, US President George Bush said: "Arab nations should also take an active part in promoting peace negotiations. Relaunching the Arab League initiative was a welcome first step. Now Arab nations should build on this initiative, by ending the fiction that Israel does not exist, stopping the incitement of hatred in their official media, and sending cabinet-level visitors to Israel. With all these steps, today's Arab leaders can show themselves to be the equals of peacemakers like Anwar Sadat and King Hussein of Jordan."
This was a welcome gentle nudge, where a real push is needed. The references to Sadat and King Hussein are telling. With all due respect to the recent ministerial visit, it is hardly a pushing of the envelope.
Aside from attending Yitzhak Rabin's funeral, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has never visited Israel. Moreover, Egypt and Jordan already have peace treaties with Israel. Where are the ministers, or leaders, from Saudi Arabia, Morocco and other Arab countries?
Much has been made over whether the visiting ministers were representing the Arab League or not. They were careful not to mention the League, but did say they were "assigned by the Arab summit to follow up on the Arab peace initiative." But the issue is not a matter of semantics; it's substance. Will the Arab states start leading toward peace, or continue to hide behind the Palestinians?
With the important exceptions of the Egyptian and Jordanian peace treaties, and Mauritania's recognition of the Jewish state, the Arab states have been unwilling to lead the Palestinians toward peace with Israel. That example is obviously no longer enough. The Palestinians are weaker and more radicalized than ever. Waiting for them means not only dooming the region to another generation of war, but perhaps destroying any prospects for a two-state solution for the foreseeable future.
It is pointless for the Arab states to continue to wait for the Palestinians to lead. It is the Arab states that led the Palestinians into war, before Israel's establishment and since, and it is the Arab states that must lead them to peace.
If Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas can meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, why shouldn't Arab leaders such as Saudi King Abdullah? If Egypt and Jordan have full peace treaties with Israel, why are Israelis banned from even setting foot in Saudi Arabia, and why is the Saudi economic boycott continuing in violation of its commitments to the US and WTO?
We should remember that, just as Israelis had to go through a wrenching process to reach their current support for Palestinian statehood, the parallel Palestinian rubicon is abandonment of the "right of return" to Israel. Israelis changed their views after years of pounding from the international community. Yet the US, Europe and the Arab states will not openly and repeatedly tell the Palestinians that their "right of return" can only be to the West Bank and Gaza, not to Israel.
Without such preparation it is pointless for Abbas to call for final status talks, as he did again this week. What for? So they can blow up again like in 2000 because Yasser Arafat could not give in on the "right of return?"
Peace is not made by agreements, but by puncturing the premises of war. The fundamental premise of the war against Israel is that if Israel cannot be destroyed by the front door, as the Arab states tried with waves of tanks, than it will be destroyed by the back door, through a demographic invasion and an erosion of legitimacy.
The Arab desire for peace can only be taken seriously when Arab leaders openly abandon this back door approach toward Israel's destruction. It is not enough to hint at it with cryptic phrases such as a commitment to solve the refugee problem "through negotiations."
Just as a Palestinian state is a nonnegotiable premise of talks, so must be the inadmissibility of the completely asymmetrical demand of Palestinians to move to Israel. Israelis not only cannot move to a future Palestinian state, it is assumed that they must be evicted from it.
The West should be pushing all the Arab states, not just Egypt and Jordan, to begin normalizing relations with Israel and to abandon positions inconsistent with Israel's right to exist. It should go without saying that the West itself should be unabashedly rejecting such positions as well.