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March 12, 2010 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 596

Behind the Scenes of Arab Politics: Arab Sources on Renewing of Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations

March 12, 2010 | By H. Varulkar
Palestine | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 596

On March 3, 2010, the Arab Peace Initiative Follow-Up Committee, comprising of Arab foreign ministers, decided to give "one last chance" to negotiations with Israel, approving the renewal of indirect talks between Israel and the PA for a period of four months only. The committee convened in response to U.S. pressure on PA President Mahmoud 'Abbas to renew negotiations with Israel, and on the Arab countries to back him in this move. The Arab backing is meant to enable 'Abbas to back down from his demand that negotiations with Israel be conditional upon an absolute freeze on Israeli settlements, including in Jerusalem.

The committee's decision represents a partial and time-limited withdrawal from its former resolutions, which backed 'Abbas' demand for a complete settlement freeze. Following its November 12, 2009 meeting, the committee issued a statement saying: "[We] uphold the Arab position that the renewal of negotiations [between Israel and the PA] requires Israel to meet its legal obligations and put a complete halt to [the construction in] the settlements..."[1] The committee's stance therefore represents a softening in the overall Arab position – not just the Palestinian position – in response to American pressure.

It should be noted, however, that even at the November 2009 meeting, the foreign ministers already discussed the steps to be taken in the event that the talks fail. According to the concluding statement, one of the options would be to call for a special Security Council meeting to discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders within a definite period of time. Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim Aal Thani said at the meeting that the next Arab League summit would have to consider revoking the Arab peace initiative altogether.[2] The possible failure of the talks was also addressed by the Saudi daily Al-Watan in its November 16, 2009 editorial. The daily stated that the failure of the talks has created a situation in which the Palestinians have new options, such as the return to armed resistance.[3]

The recent decision of the follow-up committee, which places a time limit on the talks and discusses alternatives to negotiations, is another step in the new policy adopted by the Arabs since January 2009, which places conditions and constraints on the Arab peace initiative. At the January 2009 economic summit in Kuwait, Saudi King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz announced that the Arab peace initiative "would not stay [on the table] forever." Likewise, the concluding statement of the March 2009 Doha summit placed constraints on the initiative in response to Syrian pressures: it stipulated that Israel must not only accept the initiative as is, but must also begin to meet its obligations as set out in the initiative's "sources of authority" – namely U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338. These resolutions exclude the element of normalization with all Arab countries, which does appear in the Arab peace initiative.[4]

Saudi Arabia's acquiescence to the decisions of the follow-up committee (in November 2009 and March 2010) indicates that even this country is gradually withdrawing from its peace initiative. (The Arab peace initiative was already amended significantly, immediately after its presentation in 2002, at the insistence of the Arab countries, who added a clause on the Palestinians' right of return). In fact, the Saudi consent represents another step towards aligning its positions with the other Arab countries, as explicitly stated by Saudi Foreign Minister Sa'ud Al-Faisal after the March 3 meeting.

On March 10, 2010, the follow-up committee held an emergency meeting at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, to address the Israeli government's decision to approve 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem. The committee demanded that Israel cancel the decision, otherwise it would be pointless to hold negotiations. According to Arab League secretary-general 'Amr Moussa, Mahmoud 'Abbas told him that he had no intention of starting negotiations in the present circumstances.[5]

The following is a review of Arab press reports on the decision of the follow-up committee.

Arab Foreign Ministers: A Final, Four-Month Opportunity for Talks with Israel

In the announcement issued after their two-day summit in Cairo (on March 2-3, 2010), the committee members stated that the renewal of direct negotiations with Israel would require the latter to freeze all construction in the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967, including in Jerusalem. The statement said further, "The indirect talks [in the format] suggested by the U.S. will not yield results, considering Israel's illegitimate actions in the occupied Palestinian lands, and especially in light of [Israel's] ongoing violations in Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem, and the Gaza Strip. If these moves continue, they will bring about the failure of the talks. [However,] even though [this committee] is not convinced of Israel's sincere [desire] to reach a just peace, it believes that the indirect talks must be given one last chance, in order to facilitate the U.S.'s role, and in light of the [the U.S.] promises to PA President [Mahmoud 'Abbas]."

The committee set two constraints on the talks: First, they would last up to four months only; second, direct talks would not be resumed automatically, but only under the conditions stipulated in the Arab League announcement of November 2009.[6]

The committee decided to reconvene in four months, in the first week of July, in order to assess the progress of the talks and determine the next steps to be taken. It stated, "If the indirect talks fail, and if Israel continues its [illegitimate] moves in the occupied territories, the Arab countries will call for an urgent meeting of the Security Council in order to reassess the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in all its aspects, and will urge the U.S. not to veto [the convening of] this meeting..."[7]

'Abbas to Arab Ministers: If You Tell Me to Go to War, I Will Be the First to Do So

According to a Palestinian source who attended the deliberations of the follow-up committee, the PA president concluded his address to the committee with the following statements: "I am committed to whatever decision you take. If you agree, we will go for [indirect] talks and give [the Israelis] a chance. If you reject [this idea], I will abide by your decision... If there is another alternative, tell me what it is. If the alternative is war [with Israel], I promise you that I will be the first [to set forth]." This elicited a jocular reply from Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim Aal Thani, who said: "Abu Mazen, we fight only with money." Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu Al-Gheith also replied jokingly: "Let those who have not signed a peace treaty with Israel go to war."[8]

In Phone Conversations during Summit, Mitchell Exhorts Ministers to Back 'Abbas

The same Palestinian source reported that the U.S. envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, spoke by phone to all the committee members during their sessions.[9] According to the Syrian daily Al-Watan he urged them to back 'Abbas, so as to enable him to withdraw from his previous positions (i.e. his demand to freeze construction in the occupied territories, including Jerusalem, as a condition for renewing the talks with Israel).[10]

Syria: The Palestinians Are the Ones that Should Take the Decision and Bear the Consequences

The only country that objected to the decision to resume negotiations was Syria. Its representative in the follow-up committee, Yousuf Al-Ahmad, said that the committee had no authority to empower the Palestinians to make this move, and that the committee had been founded with the aim of marketing the Arab peace initiative. He criticized the Arabs for capitulating to the Americans, saying: "Obviously, the decision was taken in advance, even before the convening of this summit, and now we are expected to give Arab backing to a Palestinian decision made in advance... It is also obvious that foreign elements were in contact with most of the delegations present here today, and [the delegations], in turn, promised them that the Arabs would back the Palestinian decision..."

Al-Ahmad slammed Mahmoud 'Abbas, 'Arab League secretary-general 'Amr Moussa, and the Arab foreign ministers for withdrawing the demand for a complete settlement freeze. He argued that this was a new Palestinian position aimed at entering into negotiations with Israel without any guarantees, and that allowing 'Abbas to do so would be tantamount to legitimizing all of Israel's actions in Palestine. He added that the Palestinians are the ones that should make this decision and bear the historic responsibility for its consequences. He pointed out that Syria did not ask for Arab backing when it decided on indirect negotiations with Israel, and said: "We all heard Abu Mazen say it: he has received no guarantees from the Americans, but has only heard from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that [her country] supported these talks. This is what President Mahmoud 'Abbas said just a short while ago! Are we now expected to formulate such an extreme Arab position based on nothing more than a spoken promise?..."

Al-Ahmad added that Obama has yet to prove his ability to do anything about Israel, and that past experience indicates that America's promises and guarantees are not to be relied upon. He concluded: "If you are leaning towards accepting the Palestinian request and issuing an Arab decision supporting the indirect talks... we Syrians will in no way be party to it..."[11]

Due to Syria's firm opposition, it was decided to refer the issue to the Arab Minister's Summit, which convened March 3 in the Arab League headquarters in Egypt.[12] At the summit, 'Amr Moussa stated that the follow-up committee's decision had been unanimous. This elicited an interruption from Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem, who denied this claim, stressing that Syria was against renewing the indirect talks.[13] According to some reports, Qatar was likewise reluctant to approve the renewal of the talks, but eventually decided not to record its objection in the protocol.[14]

Palestinian Source: Syria Is Invited to Stay Out of Our Business Altogether

A member of the Palestinian delegation to the follow-up committee responded to the Syrian claim that the decision on resuming negotiations should be left to the Palestinians. The source said to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "[It seems that] the Syrians choose when to be involved in the Palestinian cause and when to keep out of it... If the negotiations are a Palestinian affair, then [I hope] you Syrians keep out of all [Palestinian] affairs... [But] what happened to all the [Syrian] statements about the struggle [with Israel] being a pan-Arab struggle, and about the centrality of the Palestinian cause[?]..."[15]

'Amr Moussa: The U.S. Isn't Fulfilling Its Required Role; We Have Given Obama a Chance

Arab League secretary-general 'Amr Moussa said at a press conference following the Foreign Ministers' Summit: "The extension that has been granted for the negotiations... represents a crucial juncture in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because, as far as we are concerned, it is the limit [of our patience]. There was a consensus among [the members of the follow-up committee] that the U.S. is not fulfilling its required role. The disagreement was [over a different matter]: Syria claims that there is no point and no reason to give negotiations another chance, while most of [the Arab foreign ministers] believe that if Abu Mazen has received promises [from the U.S.], then we must give the U.S. a chance despite our reservations and our misgivings as to [the sincerity] of Israel's position...

"Among our resolutions, we set an alternative – namely that if the [talks] fail, we will dismiss [the U.S.] as a fair mediator, and refer the issues of Jerusalem, the Palestinian question, and the [occupied] Syrian and Lebanese territories to the Security Council. The official Arab position is that the issues of Jerusalem and the holy places must be referred to the international court, the [U.N.] Human Rights Commission, and [other] international bodies."[16] Moussa added: "There is a consensus among all the Arab countries that Israel is not [likely to] give [us] anything, but for the sake of fairness, we have given U.S. President Barack Obama a four-month opportunity to hold the so-called proximity talks and see what happens."[17]

Saudi Arabia's Position: The Arabs Have Other Options

In recent statements, Saudi officials repeated the official position approved by the follow-up committee, and stressed that Israel and the U.S. were being given a last chance. Saudi Foreign Minister Sa'ud Al-Faisal told the Saudi daily Al-Madina: "The foreign ministers in the committee have decided to give one last opportunity to the two sides, [namely] to the Americans, who are sponsoring the peace process, and to the Israelis. [This opportunity] will last four months, in an attempt to push the peace process forward. At the end of this period, if there is no progress in the peace process, and if Israel ignores the... the Arab peace initiative – which has been endorsed by all the Arab countries as a suitable basis for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict – then the Arabs will adopt a suitable position."

About the recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Syria, manifest in mutual visits aimed at improving inter-Arab relations and advancing the peace initiative, Al-Faisal said: "There is a significant warming in inter-Arab relations... and a significant accord between several active Arab states, especially between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria. We hope that [in future, there will be accord]... among all the Arab countries."[18]

Editorials in the Saudi government dailies explained the motivations behind the committee's decision, and warned that the Arab peace initiative would not last forever, explaining that if these negotiations fail, the Arabs would turn to other options. An Al-Watan editorial stated: "...The Arab decision was meant to thwart Israel's attempts to break out of its isolation and lay part of the blame for the failure of the peace process on the Palestinian side, even though its own settlement policy was the reason for the suspension of the direct talks. Furthermore, the four-month time limit placed on [the talks was meant to] convey the message that there is a limit to the [Arabs'] patience vis-à-vis Israel and its foot-dragging, and that the Arabs have other options. The mildest of these options, which the Arab foreign ministers hinted at, is to refer the matter to the U.N. and the Security Council. [Another] aspect of the Arab League's decision is an emphasis on the Palestinian cause as a major concern of the Arabs, and [on the fact that] that the Palestinian representative to the negotiations will by no means stand alone in the face of Israeli and Western pressures to give up the [Palestinians'] legitimate national rights in the occupied territories – including in Jerusalem, upon which the hopes of one and a half billion Muslims are pinned, and which in any case is not just a Palestinian problem but a pan-Arab, Islamic and international problem, because it is sacred to all three heavenly religions..."[19]

Another Al-Watan editorial argued in a similar vein: "...The decision to agree to the renewal of indirect talks is a rope that the Arab foreign ministers have thrown to George Mitchell, who has returned to our region, in hopes that he would use it to rescue the drowning peace process. The Americans' first responsibility is to make sure that Israel doesn't use this rope to strangle the peace process and stop it for good...

"The Arab peace initiative is still the only agreed-upon framework for achieving a just peace, but as King 'Abdallah said, it will not remain on the table forever. If the present [process] does not help to restore the usurped Arab rights, that does not mean that [we should] disdain [the option of restoring] the rights of the future generations. Therefore, the upcoming Arab League summit, to be held next month in Libya, may be a summit of 'alternatives,' in which the Arab leaders will review their options in case the four months of indirect talks... fail to produce tangible results. It is not enough to give the thief a chance to give back what he stole. He must also understand the implications of missing this opportunity."[20]

'Amr Moussa likewise spoke of the steps to be taken if the indirect talks fail: "During the 120 days [of indirect talks], there will be intensive Arab activity, which will include contacts with the U.N. General Assembly... I have already contacted [U.N.] General Assembly chairman Dr. 'Ali Al-Treki for purposes of coordination. When the extension expires, we will present the whole matter to the Security Council, and maybe there will be a unilateral declaration of the establishment opportunity, the world will unanimously approve such a declaration."[21]

An editorial in the Saudi daily Al-Madina likewise addressed several alternatives to negotiations: "The Arab League must already prepare a practical plan to be used if negotiations fail. This plan must include short-term, mid-term, and long-term activity, in several directions, in order to cope with Israel's rejection of the conditions and demands of peace. [It should] include an appeal to the U.N. and to the [Hague] International Court of Justice, and efforts to impose sanctions on Israel, like those imposed by the international community on the racist South African government – sanctions which bore fruit."[22]

*H. Varulkar is a research fellow at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 13, 2009.

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 13, 2009.

[3] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 16, 2009.

[4] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 510, "The Doha Summit – A Defeat for the Saudi-Egyptian Camp," April 8, 2009,

The Doha Summit – A Defeat for the Saudi-Egyptian Camp.

[5] www.alarabiya.net, March 11, 2010.

[6] This announcement stated that "an absolute and immediate halt to the all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian lands, including in East Jerusalem, will enable the renewal of direct negotiations." It stated further that these negotiations "will be based on the agreed-upon sources of authority," will continue for "a specified time period," and will be held "under strict supervision, in order to guarantee [that neither side] sabotages or delays [the talks] and that [the sides] remain committed to implementing the understandings that will be reached regarding the final settlement, including the issues of Jerusalem, the settlements, the Palestinian refugees, water, borders and security [arrangements], as well as the release of the prisoners according to international guarantees. Al-Watan (Syria), November 13, 2009.

[7] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Al-Hayat (London), March 4, 2010.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 4, 2010.

[9] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 4, 2010.

[10] Al-Watan (Syria), March 4, 2010.

[11] Al-Watan (Syria), Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 4, 2010.

[12] Al-Hayat (London), March 4, 2010.

[13] Al-Watan (Syria), Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 4, 2010.

[14] Al-Hayat, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), Al-Watan (Syria), March 4, 2010.

[15] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 4, 2010.

[16] Al-Hayat (London), March 4, 2010.

[17] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 4, 2010.

[18] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), March 4, 2010.

[19] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 4, 2010.

[20] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 5, 2010.

[21] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 4, 2010.

[22] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), March 5, 2010.

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