Analysis: Building Israeli confidence... or not

The public now wants something from the Arabs states up front.

mubarak clinton 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
mubarak clinton 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The Arab world doesn't seem to get it. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak flew off to Washington on Sunday for his first meeting there in five years, but gave an interview to Al-Ahram before leaving in which he said there would be no goodwill gestures to Israel until Jerusalem declared a total settlement freeze. "I affirmed to President Obama in Cairo that the Arab initiative offers recognition of Israel and normalization with it after, and not before, achieving a just and comprehensive peace," Mubarak told the paper. If Israel were lucky, the Egyptian president said, some Arab states might throw a few crumbs in its direction in the meantime. "I told him that some Arab states which had mutual trade representation offices with Israel could consider reopening those offices if Israel commits to stopping settlement [expansion] and resumes final-status negotiations with the Palestinian Authority where they left off with Olmert's government," Mubarak added. In other words, Israel announces something it has only done one time before - a freeze on settlement construction - and in return will get Qatar or Oman to open up a trade office they closed after the Palestinians launched their terror war in September 2000. Mubarak would excuse Israelis, one would hope, for not getting overly excited by the offer. The New York Times, in a story datelined from Cairo, quoted Egyptian sources as saying that Mubarak would tell Obama and other US officials that Arab countries would not make confidence-building gestures toward Israel before Israel took certain steps, such as freezing settlement construction. Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said that Egypt believed the best way to build confidence was for Israel to halt building in settlements, take steps to improve the West Bank economy, ease the blockade on the Gaza Strip and agree to negotiate on all issues - including Palestinian refugees and east Jerusalem. "If they do this and engage immediately in negotiations with [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas, this is a recipe for openness and the Arabs will make the gestures needed," Zaki said. "But they don't want to make this first step. They are demanding the Arabs make the first step. The Arabs should not make the first step. They [Israel] are the occupying power. The occupation must end." Zaki said the Egyptian position was unshakable. "We think this huge gap of confidence requires movement from the Israelis first. Then the Arabs are willing to make gestures. This is the way Arabs see it," he said. One might argue, in response to Zaki, that by letting Yasser Arafat set up a Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza following the Oslo Accords, by negotiating with that PA twice for an almost complete pullback from the West Bank, by uprooting two dozen settlements and withdrawing totally from the Gaza Strip four years ago, by most recently removing dozens of roadblocks in the West Bank, Israel has made some "movements." Mubarak and Zaki's comments dovetail nicely with what Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said on July 31, standing next to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the State Department. "Incrementalism and a step-by-step approach has not and - we believe - will not achieve peace," he said. "Temporary security, confidence-building measures will also not bring peace." The prince essentially said that Obama was dreaming if he thought the kingdom would take any gestures toward Israel until all the conditions the Saudis set for a peace agreement in their Arab peace initiative - a complete withdrawal from the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, as well as a just solution to the Palestinian refugee issue - would be met. Couple all of that with the strident, angry, combative rhetoric that was heard at the Fatah conference in Bethlehem last week, and one can only conclude that the Arab world simply doesn't understand something very basic - that coming off the second intifada that followed the Camp David talks in 2000, and bouncing back from the creation of Hamastan that followed Israel's pullback from the Gaza Strip, Israel now needs its confidence built. So right now, as Obama faces his meeting with Mubarak, and Netanyahu is gearing up with his parley next week in London with George Mitchell, the peace process that Obama wanted to set in flight remains grounded on the runway. And Obama's tactical errors, to no small extent, are to blame. Once Obama publicly and unequivocally called for a total settlement freeze, he made it all but impossible for the Arabs to accept anything short of that. He set the bar too high, and now the Arabs can just sit in the bleachers and wait to see whether Israel jumps over it. They don't have to do anything. This issue came up in an interview two months ago with Florida congressman and close Obama ally Robert Wexler, who said that Israel should simply declare a settlement moratorium, and by so doing put the ball into the Saudis' court, call their bluff, see if they would deliver. When asked why the Saudis don't first make their gestures, something that would then make it easier for Netanyahu to sell a freeze to his coalition and the public, Wexler got a bit annoyed. "This is childish," he said. "It's like, 'I'll give you my ball if you give me yours first.'" Childish or not, after years of feeling that it was giving and giving to the Palestinians, and not getting anything but terrorism in return, the Israeli public now wants something up front. The Obama administration understands this, and - for that reason - has been urging the Arabs, so far to no avail, to give something - anything. Seasoned negotiator Mitchell should be able to put together some sequence where Israel would declare its settlement freeze at the same time that the Arabs would announce their gestures. That shouldn't be that difficult. Unless, as the Saudi prince said, after the Arab peace initiative there is no need for any more gestures or confidence building measures. In which case the Saudi prince is badly misreading the Israeli public.