'Calling their bluff'

Let the US make its normalization calls on Arab nations publicly.

Obama abdullah heads 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Obama abdullah heads 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
One of President Barack Obama's earliest backers, US Representative Robert Wexler, was in Jerusalem this week trying to persuade Israelis that a settlement freeze would be a win-win proposition. "I want to call their bluff," Wexler told The Jerusalem Post, referring to the Arab countries. "I want to see, if Israel makes substantial movement toward a credible peace process, whether they are willing to do it. And if they are not, better that we should find out five or six months into the process, before Israel is actually asked to compromise any significant position." Wexler added: "And if the Arab world fails to deliver, you can rightly say that all bets are off." The Democrat from south Florida told the Post that the Obama administration was placing America's Arab allies under heavy pressure to take substantial steps toward normalizing relations with Israel, in return for a settlement freeze. He said they were being lobbied to establish trade offices, economic links, and cultural and educational exchanges; and to permit Israeli airliners to traverse Arab airspace. Wexler added that the US was "open to suggestions from the Israeli side" for "different indicators of normalization that would… create credibility among the Israeli public." IT IS notable that otherwise savvy Israeli and Western politicians have found themselves repeatedly out-maneuvered in attempting to "call the bluff" of their Arab interlocutors. The assumption is that if their ostensible demands are met, the Arabs will be painted into a corner and have no choice but to be accommodating. Ehud Barak thought he had called Yasser Arafat's bluff at Camp David in 2000, offering roughly 90 percent of the West Bank, all of the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. Arafat said it wasn't enough - and launched the second intifada. In 2005, Ariel Sharon unilaterally uprooted all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and pulled the Israeli army out totally. He told the Palestinians: "To an outstretched hand, we shall respond with an olive branch." They replied with an onslaught of Kassam rockets against the Negev. In 2008, Ehud Olmert thought he had called Mahmoud Abbas's bluff by offering him the equivalent of 100% of the West Bank, plus international control of Jerusalem's Holy Basin. Abbas retorted: Make me a better offer. When Binyamin Netanyahu took office, Abbas came up with a new bluff: The Palestinians would return to the negotiating table only in exchange for a settlement freeze. Of course, had Abbas said yes to Olmert, the settlement issue would have become moot. All Jewish communities situated within the agreed boundaries of "Palestine" would, in all likelihood, have been uprooted. At any rate, the Obama administration is, Wexler tells us, presently concentrating on calling the Arab states' "bluff," saying, in effect: "If we get you a settlement freeze - and you do keep insisting settlements are the stumbling blocks to peace - what sort of minimal moves toward normalization with Israel will you offer in return?" To date, the Arabs have told the White House: "Have a nice day." BUT SAY Netanyahu was prepared to call the Arabs' bluff (again) by agreeing to a freeze on construction outside the strategic settlement blocs. What reciprocal moves would mainstream Israelis want as a credible indication that the Arabs were on the way to normalization with Israel? Some suggestions:
  • Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States should establish interest sections at the Egyptian or Jordanian embassies in Tel Aviv and staff them with their own diplomats.
  • The Arab states should declare a complete and immediate freeze on all anti-Israel agitation at the UN and associated bodies.
  • Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan should pay official visits to Israel.
  • The Saudi king should meet with President Shimon Peres in a third country. Wexler said that the Israeli press seemed oblivious to the administration's pressure on the Arab states to show signs of normalization with Israel, and that the Arab media wasn't publicizing these efforts either. That can be remedied. Let Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Special Envoy George Mitchell make their normalization calls on the Arabs publicly, and with the same zeal that has characterized their calls for a settlement freeze.