The National (Editorial)
July 29, 2009 - 12:00am

It has emerged that the US president Barack Obama delivered letters to the leaders of several Arab nations in June, including the UAE, requesting their support in a renewed peace process. While some have responded positively to the request, and some tentatively, others have criticised the effort so long as Israel refuses to budge on the settlements, Gaza remains under crippling blockade, and Israel continues to promote policies aimed at making the country exclusively Jewish in nature.

Certainly the Arabs have a litany of legitimate grievances against Israel, not least of which is the refusal of successive Israeli governments to accept the Arab Peace Initiative. But at best the peace plan is only a framework for a regional accord and a formulation of their vision for a comprehensive peace. It is an important first step, but it will be meaningless unless the Arab world is prepared to take steps to realise their goal: an end to 60 years of enmity and, more importantly, Palestinian statehood.

Some of the foot-dragging is understandable. There has been little indication that Israel is serious about meeting its requirements under the road map to peace, let alone the Arab Peace Initiative. But their hesitation must be overcome if peace is ever to become more than a process.

This does not mean that the Arabs should take steps to unfreeze tensions without some assurance of reciprocity from the Israelis. Progress must first be made in overcoming Israeli intransigence on several key issues, such as stopping Israeli construction in what is to be part of a future Palestinian state under the Arab peace plan.

While the US has sought to achieve a settlement freeze and force Israel to live up to its commitments under the road map, Israel has demurred. Citing both what it claims is the allowance of some settlement growth by the Bush administration and domestic political barriers to halting construction altogether, Israel has refused Mr Obama’s insistence that it cease building across the 1967 borders. There is little sign that progress will be made without some sort of mitigation in Washington’s demands.

There are some signs that a compromise position is emerging. Tuesday’s meeting between Mr Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell and the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu ended with both men stating that “progress” had been made towards restarting the peace process. It is unclear if that progress included a compromise on the settlements, but there is speculation that the US will allow the construction of some 700 buildings that are near completion. It is unclear whether this will be acceptable to the Palestinians. Thus far, they have shown little indication that they will accept anything less than what is mandated under the road map: a complete, unequivocal freeze to construction. There is probably more wiggle room on the settlement issue in the Arab world, so long as any future freeze is comprehensive and covers the entire period of peace negotiations.

But simply judging from the sheer number of US officials visiting the Middle East, Mr Obama is serious about his promise to jump-start stalled peace negotiations. Such US support is rare, and both the Palestinians and the Arab world would be remiss to offer anything less than their wholehearted support of his efforts. This can’t be done only with words but must include tangible steps towards their final destination: peace in the Middle East.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017