What's missing from the Saudi initiative

No peace without negotiations. So far the Arab League has avoided this basic tenet of int'l diplomacy.

Amr Moussa 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Amr Moussa 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
One key element is missing from the Saudi initiative and from the March 2002 Beirut declaration of the Arab League - negotiations. In the flurry of current activity surrounding the Beirut declaration, this aspect has been almost totally overlooked. What did the Beirut declaration stipulate? It "called upon Israel to affirm" three points: full and unequivocal withdrawal from all the occupied territories; achieving a "just solution" to the Palestinian refugee problem in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194; and acceptance of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital. If Israel "affirms" these demands, "consequently, the Arab countries will affirm that they consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended and enter into a peace agreement with Israel" and establish "normal relations with Israel in the context of this comprehensive agreement." Despite some ambiguities in the language, one thing is clear. The Arab League does not offer negotiations with Israel, nor does it suggest that its demands (which are the conventional Arab ones) will become a basis for negotiations. What the declaration demands is that Israel "affirms" - accepts the Arab demands and then, only then ("consequently") the Arab countries will "affirm" the end of conflict. IT WOULD be unfair to characterize the Beirut declaration as an ultimatum to Israel: Accept our demands - or else. But the one most crucial ingredient in any serious diplomatic move - the willingness to negotiate with Israel - is missing here. In anticipation of the Arab summit meeting later this month, Israel has already made it clear that the call for accepting the "right of return" of the Palestinian refugees (which is the Arab interpretation of Resolution 194) is not acceptable. What the Israeli response has to date failed to do is very simple: call upon the Arab summit to transform its declaration into a proposal for negotiations. This is what the Arab summit should do; not just issue an amended set of demands to Israel, but express, clearly and unequivocally, the willingness of the Arab League to initiate negotiations with Israel. To these negotiations the Arab side would naturally come with its position, and so, undoubtedly, would Israel. Out of such negotiations an agreement may emerge. It would also be helpful if the Arab League clarified who would be Israel's interlocutor on the Arab side. Would all Arab countries be represented separately, or would there be one united delegation? This might not be easy, but since the Beirut declaration speaks about what all Arab countries would be ready to do, one needs a clearly-designated representative authorized to speak in their name. The Beirut declaration envisages an overall Arab change in attitude toward Israel, not just bilateral Israeli and Syrian and Palestinian agreements, so one needs to know who speaks for the Arab side. ONE MAY wonder whether all Arab countries would be ready for such a move. If, however, the Arab League got its act together and offered negotiations with Israel on behalf of all the Arab countries, it would be a real breakthrough. A mere repeated declaration of demands aimed at Israel, without mention of any willingness to negotiate over them, would be just another PR exercise, not a serious attempt to seek a diplomatically negotiated agreement. There can be no peace without negotiations, yet until now the Arab League has avoided this basic tenet of international diplomacy. The author is former director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.