Emile Hokayem
The National (Opinion)
August 12, 2009 - 12:00am

When the Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al Faisal publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the slow and incremental US push for peace between Israel, Palestine and its other Arab neighbours two weeks ago, the Arab world was quick to applaud him. His frustration and impatience were made abundantly clear in the presence of the rebuffed US secretary of state Hillary Clinton: “Incrementalism and a step-by-step approach has not and we believe will not achieve peace. Temporary security, confidence-building measures will also not bring peace.”

With those remarks Mr al Faisal exposed the fundamental divide between the US and Arab peace strategies. The US views the gap between the parties as too wide and Palestinian divisions as too deep at the moment, and advocates reciprocal confidence-building measures first. Without building such trust before sitting at the table, the thinking goes in Washington, any serious push for peace is likely to fail, if not backfire.

The Arab states, incensed by growing Israeli intransigence and its rejection of the Arab Peace Initiative, prefer, in the words of Mr al Faisal, a “comprehensive approach that defines the final outcome at the outset and launches into negotiations over final status issues: borders, Jerusalem, water, refugees and security”.

Arab frustration is understandable. The Iran-obsessed Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows no goodwill: he has formally accepted a two-state solution, only to strip any Palestinian state of any meaningful sovereignty and pursue an aggressive settlement policy.

And the Obama administration has yet to unveil a complete, convincing strategy. The US peace envoy George Mitchell, who has so far visited the region no fewer than five times, has been silent on this issue, talking in a seemingly loose-knitted manner about settlements, institution-building in Palestinian areas, and security. There are indications, however, that a major announcement by Barack Obama backed by a communications campaign will soon follow his envoy’s quiet preparatory work.

Meanwhile, the Arab states cannot simply do nothing while waiting for US plans to crystallise. They have watched with delight the dispute over the US demand for a complete settlement freeze, yet they seem unwilling to press their advantage at this crucial time. According to a recent poll, only 6 per cent of Jewish Israelis consider Mr Obama’s policies pro-Israel, and 50 per cent judge them more biased towards the Palestinians than towards the Israelis.

The price of so alienating the Israeli public may be stark and humiliating if Mr Obama fails to obtain anything from the Arab side. He has put presidential prestige on the line, sending letters to seven Arab heads of state asking for their help. The Arab states are likely to scoff at the idea that they, the wronged parties, should make gestures of goodwill to Israel – particularly the Saudis, who will point out that the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, the brainwork of senior Jordanian diplomats and Mr al Faisal himself, was a comprehensive inducement that Israel rejected.

What the Arab states can do is offer inducements that are reversible. That is the logic of the peace deposit: it can be withdrawn at any time. Political capital spent this way would win favour in Washington at a time when pressure on Israel must be sustained.

The US cannot impose a peace deal on Israel, just as the Arab states cannot force the Palestinians, Lebanese or Syrians to accept a settlement. They can clear the air, mediate, proffer carrots and wield sticks, but the ultimate decision lies with the warring parties and their publics.

Of that, the US administration is all too aware: witness Mr Obama’s campaign to restore America’s image in the Arab world. His Cairo speech has allayed the fears of Hamas, which explains the recent positive statements coming from its leadership. Arab public opinion has a positive view of his efforts, while he has been criticised for not reaching out to the Israeli public in a similar way.

This is why, in making gradual gestures, the Arab states’ target audience should be less the Israeli government and more the Israeli public – a point made last month by the crown prince of Bahrain. “Peace is a process, contingent on a good idea but also requiring a great deal of campaigning – patiently and repeatedly targeting all relevant parties,” Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa wrote in The Washington Post. “This is where we as Arabs have not done enough to communicate directly with the people of Israel.”

Israelis are overwhelmingly sceptical about the peace process, worried about Iran’s nuclear progress and concerned about US policy, a situation that primarily benefits Mr Netanyahu’s uncompromising stance. He calculates that he can afford strained relations with the US because he expects the pendulum to swing soon, once the US Congress rallies behind him and Arab fickleness undermines Mr Obama’s peace package. But he would have a harder time if Israelis saw him as the sole obstacle to peace in the face of a constructive Arab position and determined US pressure.

Despite its many flaws, Israel is a democracy in which public opinion matters. Arab countries may prefer the comfort of state-to-state relations, but they have an opportunity to score points in Washington and strengthen the Palestinian negotiating position if they engage more decisively in a game of triangulation. Communication and reversible gestures do not amount to normalisation. This, as the Saudi position endorsed by the Arab League rightly states, will have to await a comprehensive peace.

Saudi Arabia has shown great initiative in shepherding and protecting the Peace Initiative, and more recently scolding the Palestinian leadership for its infighting. Precisely because of such leadership, and in tandem with other moderate Arab states, it can make life difficult for Mr Netanyahu and much better for everyone else.


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