Start normalizing

Arab states must decide if they want the two-state vision to become reality in the near future or not.

Amr Moussa 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Amr Moussa 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The result of the Arab League's pre-Annapolis meeting is being billed as a success for Washington. Twenty or so Arab nations are now expected to be represented at the foreign minister level. But the fine print raises concern that some Arab attitudes jeopardize not only Annapolis, but the renewed peace process that meeting seeks to launch. "The Arab League will participate for the first time in a peace conference with an Israeli presence," Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa claimed - somewhat misleadingly, since Arab states, including both Saudi Arabia and Syria, participated in the Madrid Conference with Israel in 1991. Then Amr Moussa added: "We will say that there can be no normalization except in the framework of the Arab peace initiative and in the framework of total peace." That sounds worryingly like a restating of the familiar position that normalization can only come at the very end of a process that meets Arab satisfaction, when plainly a gradual process of normalization is critical to the success of any effort at reconciliation. Even more strikingly, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said when asked whether he would shake the hand of Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, "We're not ready to be part of a theatrical performance... We're not going there to shake anyone's hand or to demonstrate feelings we don't have." Even Yasser Arafat shook the hand of Yitzhak Rabin. Yet the Saudis, while ostensibly proffering a peace plan, are pretending to be more Palestinian than the Palestinians. No one is asking the Saudis to start building an embassy in Jerusalem, though this would be an excellent way to promote peace. It is, however, necessary for the Arab states to lead the way to peace, rather than follow. As Livni said en route to Annapolis, "There isn't a single Palestinian who can reach an agreement with Israel without the support of the Arab world. This is one of the lessons we learned seven years ago." It has always been true, but never been more obvious, that the Palestinians are much too weak, divided and radicalized to make peace on their own, or to lead the way while the Arab states follow. Mahmoud Abbas begged the Arab states to come to Annapolis, and Hamas berated the Arab League for heeding Abbas's pleadings. This, however, is not a case where just showing up is enough. The Arab states must decide whether they want the two-state vision to become reality in the near future or not. If not, they can carry on as they are now, and are sure to get their wish. But if the Arab world, for its own reasons and interests -- whether because the conflict has stunted their development or because they are afraid of Iran hijacking the conflict for its own purposes -- wants to formally end its quest to destroy Israel, it can create a tailwind behind the process any time it wants. Amr Moussa indicates there will be no "free" normalization. But Israel has already paid, in the form of giving up its main advantage in the road map: the sequencing that demanded an end to terror before negotiations begin. Under the road map, final-status issues were to be negotiated only in Phase III, long after the Palestinians had engaged in "sustained, targeted, and effective operations aimed at confronting all those engaged in terror and dismantlement of terrorist capabilities and infrastructure" in Phase I. In Phase II, the Arab states were supposed to "restore pre-intifada links to Israel (trade offices, etc.)" and "[revive] multilateral engagement on issues including regional water resources, environment, economic development, refugees, and arms control issues." If Israel is making the enormous concession of going ahead with Phase III while battling a terror infrastructure that is, if anything, growing, why are the Arab states being let off the hook on their Phase II obligations? A peace process, however, is not ultimately about keeping score, but whether it is going anywhere. No "political horizon" that Israel can provide can substitute for what the Arab states can and must do to create a climate conducive to peace. Some of these states complained noisily they did not want just a photo-op. Yet if they maintain their open refusal to so much as shake hands, let alone begin normalization with Israel, Annapolis and any follow-on negotiations will be just that.