Analysis: Arab states 'just say no' to normalization

With the US focus on Israel and no consequences for refusing, Mideast leaders prefer to play to the Arab street by taking a hard-line stance.

clinton faisal 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
clinton faisal 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
The idea of gestures of 'normalization' from Arab states to Israel is a central component in the US administration's plan for reviving the Mideast peace process. The notion represents a variant of the Oslo-style approach whereby a series of confidence-building measures will create a climate conducive to the successful conclusion of final-status negotiations. President Barack Obama's approach seeks to expand the circle of confidence-building, so that the Arab states, and not only the Palestinians and Israelis, will be drawn into it. According to reports, the US is now in the final stages before the announcement of its new, comprehensive peace plan. In the past week, meanwhile, three Arab states appear to have rejected the possibility of gestures of normalization. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal last Friday openly dismissed the idea of "incrementalism" and "confidence-building measures." Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh took a more ambiguous but still critical stance regarding such measures early this week in a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Kuwaiti Emir Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, meanwhile, reiterated his country's support for the Arab peace initiative after a meeting with Obama. By failing to give any hint of a forthcoming gesture to Israel, or to express any support for the idea of normalization in principle, the emir appeared to be adding Kuwait to the list of Arab countries who prefer to politely decline the administration's request for assistance. So far, the score-card for gestures of normalization from the Arab states to Israel stands at close to zero. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait are all close allies of the US. Yet none have yet been willing to make a positive gesture in Washington's direction on this issue. What lies behind their refusal? One explanation for this holds that the administration's pressure on Israel is leading to a hardening of Arab positions. Since Obama demanded a complete freeze on all construction in settlements, it would now be futile to expect Arab gestures of normalization unless Israel first accepts this demand. However, the Arab rejection of incremental measures has not been solely predicated on Israel's refusal of a comprehensive freeze on all construction in West Bank settlements. Rather, the very principle of normalization in the period prior to a final-status accord between Israelis and Palestinians appears to be rejected. The rejection of this idea derives from two elements. Firstly, the near-universal, though rarely expressed, belief that the current attempt to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is doomed to failure. Secondly, the distinct lack of urgency felt in Arab capitals regarding this issue. Regarding the first issue, the factors that caused the failure of the peace process in the 1990s have not disappeared. They are waiting to trip up any negotiation should final-status talks begin. The demand that Palestinian refugees and their descendants be permitted to make their homes in Israel, the demand for exclusive Muslim sovereignty over the holy places in Jerusalem, the refusal to countenance recognition of Israel as a Jewish state - all these remain part of the non-negotiable core position of the Palestinian national movement. Indeed, in so far as the situation on the ground has changed since 2000, it is for the worse. The split in the Palestinian national movement between nationalist Fatah and Islamist Hamas increasingly has the look of permanency about it. And since militancy against Israel remains the currency of legitimacy in Palestinian politics, the effect of this is to induce the ageing Fatah movement to dress itself up in radical array once again. This may currently be seen at the Fatah congress in Bethlehem. There is simply no prospect in the foreseeable future of a united Palestinian leadership willing to make the compromises with reality which alone would render a repartition of the country feasible. For Arab countries aligned with the US, this situation is not so terrible. They suffer no tangible consequence as a result of it. But the Palestinian issue remains the great mobilizing cause for the populations of the Arab states. Since this is the case, Arab regimes do not consider it in their interests to appear to be making concessions to Israel. On the contrary - given that from the Kuwaiti, or Saudi, or even Jordanian point of view there is no urgent practical need to resolve the conflict, the leaders of these countries have an obvious interest in playing to the gallery of their own publics by striking occasional militant poses. These poses must not go beyond a certain point, of course. The American protector must not be unduly provoked. But the Obama administration has made abundantly clear that there will be no price to be paid by the Arab states for their refusal to get on the Obama peace wagon. As a result, these states may happily continue their comfortable stance of verbal support for the Palestinian cause and refusal to undertake any potentially detrimental gesture of rapprochement toward Israel, while continuing to enjoy the benefits of American patronage. The fact is that, as everyone in the region knows, there is no chance of a final-status accord between Israelis and Palestinians any time soon. And the absence of such an accord is very far from being the most urgent problem facing the region. All sides now await the moment that this knowledge finds its way to the US administration. The writer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.