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Monday, March 26, 2007

Don't Provoke a Backlash

Don't provoke a backlash

by Camille Mansour

More than ever, insofar as Saudi Arabia is concerned, a serious Palestinian-Israeli settlement process is a regional necessity and not a luxury that can be postponed to an indefinite future. The country has lobbied hard for its own peace proposal, which was adopted by the Arab League in 2002, to top the agenda again in Riyadh this week, at a League summit that could be one of the most crucial in recent memory.

What a difference a year makes. In March last year at the Khartoum summit, Saudi Arabia said it wouldn't host the 2007 summit. Several factors in the meantime have caused this U-turn: the outcome of the second Lebanon War, which is threatening to pit Iran, Syria and Hizballah against Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan; grave internal Lebanese divisions along these two axes (including noticeable Sunni-Shi'ite tension); the Iraq civil war with its Sunni-Shi'ite and al-Qaeda dimensions; the possibility of a military strike against Iran's nuclear sites and the armed confrontation between Fateh and Hamas in the streets and neighborhoods of the Gaza Strip. These developments, which reverberate negatively inside the kingdom itself (with the presence of a Shi'ite minority in the east, the frustration of public opinion over the international boycott of Hamas, the appeal of al-Qaeda among some of the youth), have put the Saudi leadership on the defensive.

In this threatening environment, Riyadh has undertaken a number of initiatives to calm the region. It has tried to find a modus vivendi with Iran. It has played a mediating role in Lebanon and, most successfully, it brokered the Mecca agreement to ease tensions between the Palestinian factions.

Furthermore, no global or regional power is currently in a position to criticize Riyadh for playing this moderating role, specifically on Hamas or Hizballah, even if it constitutes an acknowledgment of the political strength of these two movements. The US is embroiled in the Iraqi quagmire and whether it decides to withdraw from Iraq or escalate there or against Iran, it can offer nothing to alleviate Saudi fears.

Egypt has no influence over the emerging challenges and has proven incapable of preventing Palestinian clashes on its very doorstep.

Israel, whose leaders like to place the country in the same category as Saudi Arabia, has been following policies that only strengthen Iran's regional influence at the expense of the Saudis and other Arabs. Through its strategic failure in Lebanon last summer, its disdain for President Mahmoud Abbas' overtures, the miserable life it is imposing on the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza under the pretext of security and the need to boycott Hamas, Israel has almost succeeded in making Iran the main protector of the latter.

Against this background, it is not surprising that the Israeli government could not simultaneously reject the two pillars of the new Saudi diplomacy on Palestine. The first is the Mecca agreement and what it involves in terms of the formation of the Palestinian unity government and the forthcoming elements of that government's political program, such as honoring past Palestinian commitments, envisioning a Palestinian state on the territories occupied in 1967 and mandating the president to pursue political negotiations. The second is the Arab peace initiative as agreed upon in Beirut five years ago.

Incapable of dealing positively with the new Palestinian cabinet or changing its occupation policy on the ground--because of political weakness, of the implacable dynamics of settlement activities and the arrogance of military power--the Israeli leadership has so far chosen to pay lip service to the "positive elements" in the second pillar, i.e., the Arab peace initiative.

Let's recall that the text of that initiative promises the Arab countries' full recognition of Israel (including an "end of the conflict", peace, security guarantees and normal relations) in exchange for a full withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967, the establishment of a Palestinian state and the "achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194", an ambiguous formulation not inconsistent with the Clinton parameters of December 2000 and something even Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni could live with at the start of possible negotiations.

Clearly, the Israeli response to this Saudi--and Arab--overture is far from satisfactory. What is more disturbing is the Israeli attempt to be rewarded for its lip service. Israel wants the Arab League to forfeit the provision on the Palestinian refugee problem and accept to normalize relations with Israel before the start of any political negotiations.

While it is not expected that the Arab League will modify its 2002 text, it is necessary to caution that these Israeli demands do not augur well for the coming period. Maybe the sole positive element that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has found in the Arab initiative is the readiness to normalize relations with Israel. So expect that the next Israeli demand will be for the Arabs to modify their call for a full withdrawal, once more before the start of serious negotiations.

For her part, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appears almost as adamant as the Israeli leadership in boycotting the new Palestinian unity government and in trying to extract the maximum from her acknowledgement of the Arab peace initiative. It is true that she is complementing such an attitude with talk about a "diplomatic horizon" for Palestinians and Israelis, but it remains to be seen how forceful she will be on this track in the weeks and months to come.

It is hoped that all parties concerned, not only Israel and the United States but countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, have learned the lessons of the past 15 years: making or accepting demands that are not in conformity with international law and legitimacy in such an over-politicized regional environment risks provoking a serious, even violent, backlash.- Published 26/3/2007 ©

Camille Mansour is professor emeritus of international relations. Since September 2004, he has worked as a UNDP advisor on Palestinian judicial reform.

Source: Bitter Lemons

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