Michel Abu Najm
Asharq Alawsat
July 30, 2009 - 12:00am

George Mitchell, US special envoy to the Middle East, has made a statement in Cairo calling on the Arab countries to take measures toward the partial normalization of ties with Israel in order to facilitate launching peace negotiations on all Arab-Israeli tracks.

Meanwhile, knowledgeable diplomatic sources revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that the Gulf States and the Arab countries have reservations about responding [positively] to Mitchell's request and that they feel "annoyed" by the US insistence that they take certain steps that these countries consider "premature" and that "there is no reason to take them at this point in time."

These sources, which are familiar with the substance of Mitchell's talks, said that the Arab party conveyed to the US envoy its reservations abut his request while emphasizing the substance of the Arab peace initiative, which provides for a comprehensive peace in return for full relations and the normalization of ties with Israel. Mitchell, defended his request, stressing two key issues: First, he said that what he calls for "is intended to help the US President" in his current confrontation with the right-wing Israeli Government. So if the Arab countries want to benefit from the diplomatic momentum the US Administration is displaying, "they should not stand by with folded arms." They "start moving" so that Washington will not look as though it "is pressuring Israel only," which is the pretext that Israel's supporters in the United States are using in battling President Obama.

Second, he said that the Arab peace initiative, which Washington sees as one of the peace frameworks and points of reference, "has remained an empty overture, seven years after it was launched. So it is time for the Arabs to activate this initiative and give it a practical substance," which Mitchell claims to be seeking to achieve.

A high-ranking Arab official, who is visiting Paris, revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat the stance that the Arabs will adopt in response to the insistent request by the United States. This stance will reflect the "understanding" of what Washington says and calls for, and so they "will not reject the US request." They will give a positive response to it but will link this response to a host of conditions to ensure that their normalization steps toward Israel, even if they are symbolic ones, will not be "without a quid pro quo, reward Israel for its intransigence, or enable Israel to obtain additional Arab concessions."

What are the conditions that the Arabs want? First of all, they want to make sure that the US endeavors are "serious," effective, and capable of influencing the course that the current Israeli Government is pursuing, particularly regarding settlement construction. The Arabs also want to know what the US plan is, the US view of a final solution, the mechanism that governs it, and the time frame to which Washington will cling to achieve the goals of its plan, "because the Arabs are not prepared to continue to negotiate for dozens of years."

Washington is calling on the Arabs to take steps toward the normalization of ties with Israel "in return" for a halt to the Israeli settlement construction according to a formula that is being discussed between Americans and Israelis. The Arabs want their normalization steps to come after, not before, Israel freezes settlement construction and after they make sure that Israel is truly seeking to reach a settlement based on the principle of a two-state solution. In addition, the Arabs will request Israel to take "additional steps," including the restoration of the situation in the West Bank to what it was before the second Intifadah.

The Arab party points out that the Arab states have adopted positive stands toward Israel after the Oslo agreements and that Israeli officials have visited the Gulf states, that Israeli trade offices and semi diplomatic representation offices were opened in a number of Arab capitals, and that official diplomatic relations were established with Israel.

As the aforementioned high-level Arab official has noted, the Arab position will be governed by two additional principles: First, "voluntariness," that is, any Arab country that wants to respond positively to Washington's request and to take certain steps toward Israel will be "free" to do so and that there is absolutely no obligation regarding this matter. The other principle is "individuality," in the sense that the Arab League will not, for instance, make a collective decision calling for the normalization of ties with Israel, but each country will assume its own responsibility. The Arabs will not proceed toward a collective normalization of ties with Israel before peace is reached in the region.

As for the timeframe for a settlement, the Arab party will not request Washington to cling to a specific date for a settlement. It wants a reasonable time "horizon." This Arab source told Asharq Al-Awsat that the date of the US midterm elections would be an acceptable and reasonable time horizon for a settlement.


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