There has been a sudden change of pace in the Middle East peace-making process. After almost eight years of stagnation, of summit meetings that led to absolutely nothing other than photo-ops for the resident of the White House, the pace is suddenly picking up. For the moment only tidbits of information that are filtering through. Yet what seems certain is that the Obama administration has a new idea that will take the process forward.
The basis for all negotiations remains the Arab peace initiative, first introduced at the Beirut 2002 Arab League meeting. Almost every analyst inside the Washington Beltway is of the opinion that we are on the verge of witnessing something major.
Let’s back up: towards the end of April, King Abdullah II of Jordan was in Washington predicting doom and gloom, saying that unless there was a surge in the negotiations there would be violence on a large scale.
The people have had enough, the king told a select few over lunch in Washington, where he had met earlier with President Obama and major political and religious leaders. He delivered a message to the US leadership that Washington had better get involved in the peace process, and in a serious way. Only Washington’s clout, the prestige of the White House and the kind of pressure that only a US president can exert on Israel could save the day.
Jordan’s Abdullah came to the White House speaking for himself, as well as for King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in advocating a sense of urgency for talks to resume.
The king is the first to agree that peace between Israel and the Arabs will not solve all the region’s ills. But, said the monarch, it will go a long way in appeasing anti-US sentiments and it will take away one leitmotif of terrorism in the Middle East.
But just a few days later the king is in Berlin talking about new opportunities and of a new conference involving Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Egypt, the Palestinians and many more countries and parties.
So what happened? And what is happening?
No one is talking officially, most noticeably Obama’s chief Middle East negotiator, George Mitchell. Partially, what happened is that the new White House plan realizes that all the Middle East issues tied to the question of Palestine must to be solved at the same time. And that is what makes this all the more difficult.
As the “mind map” illustration shows, all the pieces need to fall into place at the same time, otherwise they leave the door wide open for “spoilers,” those who remain opposed to the peace process.
This new idea, several specialists believe, would be based largely on the Arab peace initiative, a comprehensive plan to settle the Middle East conflict. It offers Israel recognition by all 23 members of the Arab League (22 states plus Palestine) in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal to pre-1967 borders.
Of late there has been talk of revisiting the Arab peace agreement and amending it, primarily so that Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu does not look, at least in the eyes of his constituents, to have given in too easily to US pressures. And although many see Netanyahu as a super conservative, it is worth remembering that it was the Likud party that returned the Sinai and yielded Gaza, and they may just finalize the peace with the Palestinians.
“Netanyahu is going to surprise us all,” Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, an Israeli Labor minister, told the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. “He understands that there is a new administration in the United States… and that if we don’t come up with a peace plan, someone else will call the shots for us,” Ben-Eliezer said.
Yet there remains one more hurdle to jump, one matter which makes the rest of the issues appear weak by comparison: the issue of inter-Palestinian reconciliation, bringing Fatah and Hamas together. Ironically, in the end it may turn out to be that the final stumbling block holding up the creation of a Palestinian state may well be the Palestinians themselves. Unless they can place their differences behind them, they risk prolonging the conflict for another 60 years.
Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times in Washington, DC