The National (Editorial)
March 30, 2009 - 12:00am

The focus of this year’s Arab League summit, which begins today, is expected to be a push for greater unity among member states. A host of diplomatic initiatives hinge upon the Arab nations’ ability to set aside political and ideological differences. On the issue of the Palestinian peace process, for example, the divide between nations is deep and long standing. A draft declaration released ahead of the conference renews calls for Israel to adopt the Arab Peace Initiative, while cautioning that it will not remain on the table for much longer. While this declaration is not new, in the context of the changes in both the region and the world it is highly significant.

Barack Obama’s election has brought with it an opportunity for new progress to be made in the peace process. The US president’s appointment of George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East and the retention as national security adviser of James Jones, Mr Mitchell’s predecessor, indicate a policy of firm but fair treatment of both the Palestinians and Israelis. While it is unlikely that Mr Obama will make a substantial shift in policy towards Israel, greater impartiality can only be welcomed. The Arab world must seize the opportunity to press for progress in what has been an all too frequently stalled peace process.

It is even more pressing now, after Israelis voted in Benjamin Netanyahu, that the Arabs present a united front for peace. That, however, will not be easy. Just how deep the rifts between the moderate camp and the so-called rejectionists had become was revealed in the wake of the Israeli invasion of Gaza. Egypt especially came under attack during an emergency summit called by Qatar, at which the Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad let loose a barrage of inflammatory criticism of Hosni Mubarak. This is probably why Mr Mubarak is skipping this summit and sending a low level representative to Doha in his place.

Unfair though the criticism of Egypt was, Mr Mubarak’s absence is unfortunate. Feuds and recriminations will not advance peace or bring the Palestinians any closer to statehood. While Arab unity is a good thing in itself, it is also necessary. The Arab Peace Initiative remains the most comprehensive plan for Middle East peace and Palestinian statehood, but it has been ignored by Israel, and little wonder. The Arab enticements to Israel revolve around an offer of normalisation of relations and diplomatic recognition, which loses much of its allure if all the states do not sign on. Convincing Israelis that peace is worth making difficult concessions will be a big enough challenge. It becomes an even greater one if you cannot even offer them an agreement supported by all the Arab states.

And unity from all the Arab states would help to place pressure on the US to at least act on the initiative. The US has responded favourably to such a comprehensive agreement, but unless the Arabs can truly be said to support it, it is unlikely that it will expend precious political capital on pushing the agreement.

In the end, giving the Arab Peace Initiative a finite shelf life may be necessary to pressure Israel. But unless it is accompanied by a genuine diplomatic push from all the Arab nations, it will make little difference.


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