Francis Matthew
Gulf News (Opinion)
May 20, 2009 - 12:00am

The leaders of the Arab world have become very clear in the past few months that there is a deadline for the Arab peace initiative, and they are not willing to let Israel continue stalling them for decades without any consequence as it refuses to withdraw from the West Bank, continues to expropriate land, and expands its colonies.

Amr Mousa, Secretary General of the Arab League, said this week that the Arab peace initiative should run out at the end of 2009 unless there is an active response from Israel. "It has to stop by December 31, 2009," he told me at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East. At the same conference King Abdullah II of Jordan spoke in favour of a deadline when he spoke of the two-state solution and comprehensive peace, spelling out that "these goals are in reach, but the time to act is not indefinite".

Those leaders of the Arab world who have been supporting or conducting peace talks with Israel are being forced to toughen their position for three reasons. First, their own natural frustration with the failure to move forward. Second, they have been anxious to publicise their ideas while the Obama administration formulated its policy and tactics on Palestine, so their position could become part of American thinking during the first 100 days of the new US administration before this week's visit to the US by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But the third reason is even more compelling, since any Arab supporter of the peace process is losing credibility with the Arab and Palestinian people, to the great advantage of rejectionist groups like Hamas. A peace process needs someone to make peace with, and as the Israelis are not interested, then the Arabs trying to make peace with them are made to look increasingly silly. They will have to toughen their position if they are to retain any public respect.

This is why in addition to the idea of a deadline, Palestinian and Arab politicians insist that any peace talks have to include a complete freeze in colony activity while they are under way. "The map must stay the same so that we can negotiate," said Mousa.

In addition, a peace process has to include some kind of verifiable action with neutral monitors to report exactly what is happening on the ground. They do not want to lose out yet again to an Israeli negotiating team talking to them about one thing, and the military reality on the West Bank being completely different, as has happened all too often in the past, and especially when Netanyahu was Prime Minister last time in the late 1990s.

The capacity for the Israelis to stall the early stages of a step-by-step negotiation, and so destroy the final steps, has meant that this time the Arabs are keen to put all their issues on the table at the start. "We cannot accept the step-by-step process," said Mousa, spelling out that talks should include all details of the final borders, the status of occupied Jerusalem, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees; as well as Israel's demands on security.

A conversation with Saeb Erekat, Chief Negotiator for the Palestinian Authority, made it obvious that the two-state solution is the only option for peace that the Palestinians will consider. In response to a Gulf News question that there were too many colonies, Israeli security corridors, roads, and road blocks, for the two-state solution to work, he said that only 1.2 per cent of the West Bank is built up with Israeli colonies, and they could easily be removed.

A lot depends on how the discussions between Obama and Netanyahu this week play out over the next few months.

Obama has made clear that he sees a Palestinian state as being in the United States' national interest, but since he took office as Prime Minister Netanyahu has deliberately refused to say that he supports a two-state solution.

This classic Netanyahu trick means that the attention of the whole world has been focused on this false problem specially created by the Israelis, which Netanyahu can reverse any time he wants, when the pressure gets too high. But meanwhile the world has not been paying attention to the real situation on the land as more land was taken, the wall continues to split communities, and more road blocks are put up every week.

Netanyahu is too canny to get himself completely isolated from Obama, and despite the shocking anti-Arab members of his coalition, he is likely to remain in touch with the Americans. But the real test will be if Obama starts to insist on action, such as a freeze of colonies, or even a withdrawal. At that stage Obama will have to be ready to stop the Israelis trying to stall the process.

That is why the Arabs are right to insist on clear deadlines and neutral monitors to make sure that what is agreed in the conference room happens on the ground.


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