US Affairs: In a League of his own

Abdullah was in Washington to build on Bush's vision for the ME, but broad Arab backing may be lacking.

Jordan abdullah 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Jordan abdullah 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
King Abdullah II of Jordan zipped through the capital this week for meetings with US President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to build on renewed US engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the American call for an international meeting on the issue. His appearance followed Bush's landmark speech last week that pressed for greater Arab participation in the peace process but left open questions about which countries would join the initiative and participate in the conference with Israelis and Palestinians. Abdullah met with Rice Tuesday morning and dined with Bush in the evening. He "urged the US to intensify its efforts in the coming weeks and months, particularly after Bush's recent call for an international meeting to advance the peace process," according to the Jordanian Embassy here. But so far no Arab country - most notably power broker Saudi Arabia - has joined the Jordanians in indicating their participation in the conference, aside from Egypt, the only other Arab country which has diplomatic relations with Israel. Though it's a tall task getting such countries on board, Arab officials and experts said the administration didn't help the cause of Arab participation by failing to lay the appropriate groundwork or by limiting the meeting's mandate and creating criteria for being invited. "They conveyed to us their thinking that yes, there would be some sort of conference or gathering on the Palestinian problem, but nothing about the details of it," said one Arab diplomat of consultations ahead of Bush's speech. "As of now, the outlines put forward by the president in his speech fall short of the mark," referring to the lack of a mandate to negotiate final status issues. "In my experience, to make substantive strides takes a considerable amount of prior contacts and conversations so that the parties have narrowed the gaps before they go into a one- or two-day conference," said Edward Walker, a former ambassador to Israel and Egypt who served as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in Bush's first term. "While there have been numerous contacts in the past, the majority took place before the breakup between Fatah and Hamas" when the latter took over Gaza. At the time of the speech, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch said that "we have done quite a bit of work, been in touch with them [Arab countries] before about what the ideas they might have are for how to make an advance; we talked to them about our own ideas. And you can be sure that there are robust consultations behind this." But since then, the State Department has not confirmed the presence of any Arab countries beyond Egypt and Jordan. When it comes to the Gulf kingdom, Walker said he was "quite sure the Saudis will not participate." Saudi Arabia is seen as the key player, a regional and religious power whose seal of approval would encourage other Arab countries to join in. "The Saudis will be critical in providing Arab League cover," said Shibley Telhami, who holds the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, pointing to their ascending influence after 9/11. With such backing, he added, countries with low-level ties to Israel - such as Morocco and Qatar - might be persuaded to attend. Though much about the conference will be determined by how things play out on the ground between Palestinians and Israelis, Saudi Arabia has so far shown few signs that it will show up. If it is to be induced to come, experts say, the substance of the conference will be key; the more discussions center on final status issues, the better. In rare public comments on the conference, an official spokesman was last week reported as saying that "regarding the international peace conference due to be held next fall, Saudi Arabia hopes this will come within the framework of a serious international endeavour that tackles the core issues of the conflict." Though the agenda or even parameters of the conference have still not been determined, following Bush's speech the administration damped down expectations and indicated the meeting would focus on Palestinian institution-building rather than deeply divisive topics such as Jerusalem and refugees. "I think a lot of people are inclined to try to treat this as a big peace conference. It's not," clarified White House spokesman Tony Snow. "This is a meeting to sit down and try to find ways of building fundamental and critical institutions for the Palestinians that are going to enable them to have self-government and democracy." Marc Gopin, the James Laue professor at George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, said the more that substantive issues are discussed, the more that the Arab world will "buy in" to the process; conversely, focusing merely on Palestinian reform "is not going to get a whole lot of support. By toning it down they're not giving it a political horizon - they're risking the whole thing." Walker, now with Washington's Middle East Institute, said that there were also fundamental differences of perspective which would make it unlikely the Saudis would attend. "The Saudis have a very conservative religious constituency that is closer to Hamas in its outlook than to Abu Mazen," Walker said, using a second name for Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah. "Their policy has been to try to bring Hamas and Fatah together - this conference will be seen as trying to make the split wider." Instead, he said, it will be Jordan and Egypt who represent the Arab world. Those are two countries, according to Gopin, most eager to diffuse the threat of Hamas and see this conference as helping to do that. Tamara Wittes of the Brookings Institution said as much as the speech was an appeal for Arab engagement, Bush was also "challenging the Arab states, which have had an ambivalent relationship with Hamas, to choose sides. That was a real gauntlet thrown down in the speech." She pointed to the president's comments that "Arab states have a pivotal role to play... They should show strong support for President Abbas's government and reject the violent extremism of Hamas." He also made remarks - widely understood as aimed at Saudi Arabia - that states in the region should build on the Arab League plan for a two-state solution "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." Bush also appeared to set conditions on who could be invited to the conference, announcing that he would be convening a meeting "of representatives from nations that support a two-state solution, reject violence, recognize Israel's right to exist and commit to all previous agreements between the parties." There's wiggle-room in those qualifications, as the Arab League initiative can be interpreted as accepting Israel since it envisions a two-state solution. But on the face if it, only Jordan and Egypt currently fit the definition of recognizing Israel. "It is of course not helpful if you ask other countries in the region to participate in being part of the solution and they're somehow excluded from the conference under some very restrictive definition of who can attend," the Arab diplomat said. Others have wondered whether Bush's guidelines turn attendance at the conference into de facto recognition of Israel and pose another obstacle to greater Arab participation. Ambassador to the US Sallai Meridor told The Jerusalem Post that that danger is outweighed by the importance of the message, which he noted adheres to the demands of the Quartet - the EU, US, UN and Russia - on Hamas. "There was an important call to the Arab world with the expectation that if it wants to play a role, it should be based on recognizing Israel's right to exist, which, I think, is very important," he said. "Living in illusions may be all the more dangerous." Edward Gnehm, a former US ambassador to Jordan and Kuwait, said definitions and limitations will "make it a little more difficult" for Arab states beyond Jordan and Egypt to attend the meeting. "But it wasn't easy to start with."