Analysis: Despite rifts, Arab peace plan still reflects consensus

Leaders at Doha summit still question whether a divided Arab world can embrace peace with Israel.

arab league 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
arab league 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Arab leaders convening in Doha for the 21st Arab League summit are reiterating their commitment to the Arab peace initiative, but some question whether a divided Arab world can even embrace a comprehensive, just peace with Israel. It appears unlikely that Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu will lend his support to the initiative as written or to the creation of a Palestinian state as envisioned by the Arab world. The initiative, first introduced in 2002, calls for a full Israeli withdrawal from all territories occupied since 1967, establishment of a Palestinian state on those territories with Jerusalem as its capital, and achievement of "a just solution" to the Palestinian refugee problem. In exchange, Arab states would enter into a peace agreement with Israel and establish "normal relations" with it. But with divisions still evident between the Western-backed camp led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the pro-Iranian camp that includes Syria, Qatar and Sudan, would Arab states be willing and capable of such a peace with Israel? While a split Arab world may complicate matters, many experts say the answer is yes. "The Arab initiative reflects a broad consensus among Arab governments and ruling elites for the need for a political solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, understanding [that] the solution needs to be one that recognizes the State of Israel and [that] conflict with Israel is brought to an end," said Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. The initiative is not considered a substitute for negotiations, but "lays out the basic principles of what that settlement has to include for it to be acceptable to the Arab world," he said. And while Israel does not consider the document ideal, "it can be used to help steer the process forward." Countries like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, Egypt and Morocco have all signed on to the agreement, as has Syria - although the latter takes a more "militant" position on it and has made it clear that it is not willing to wait for an unlimited time, Maddy-Weitzman said. However, the fact that Palestinians are divided between Fatah and Hamas - which is reluctant to recognize Israel and has not signed on to the Arab initiative - certainly makes it more difficult for Israel to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Others argue that Iran, which has helped foster divisions among Arabs as well as Palestinians, will continue to do all it can to prevent Arab states such as Syria, which benefits economically and militarily from its relationship with the Shi'ite state, from making peace with Israel. Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, argued that Syria was more interested in maintaining regime stability than in retrieving the Golan Heights in a peace deal. Still others, such as Moshe Dayan Center director Eyal Zisser, said that the divisions in the Arab world could place obstacles in implementing a comprehensive peace initiative, as there may be differences of opinion on the best way to negotiate or execute such a deal. And some wonder whether Lebanon, where the Iranian-backed Hizbullah plays an increasingly dominant role, would also be willing and able to make peace. Emad Gad, who heads the Israeli unit at al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, argued that Hizbullah would be greatly weakened once Syria and Israel make peace, as weapons would no longer be transferred into Lebanon from Syrian territory. The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs recently released a report entitled "The Arab Peace Initiative: A Primer and Future Prospects." The report, written by Joshua Teitelbaum, argues that while the Arab Peace Initiative represents significant and positive developments on the part of the Arab world, Israel should refrain from accepting the initiative as a basis for peace negotiations "because it contains seriously objectionable elements." One of these elements is the assured rejection of all forms of Palestinian refugee patriation in Arab host countries, which means the "refugees would have nowhere to go but Israel," the report said. In addition, Israel should also reject the "all or nothing" approach of the Saudis and the Arab League, as "peacemaking is the process of negotiation, not diktat." "Peace would be best served by Israel going on the diplomatic offensive and presenting an initiative of its own, emphasizing the positive aspects of the initiative, and including an invitation to Arab leaders to a meeting in Israel to discuss the initiative in its entirety," the report said.