b i t t e r l e m o n s. o r g
    March 26, 2007 Edition 12                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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  The Riyadh Arab summit
  . The best opportunity in years        by Yossi Alpher
After the Riyadh summit, the Quartet should convene the principal parties to consult regarding a new peace process based on four pillars.
. A crucial summit        by Ghassan Khatib
Israel needs to prove its readiness for a political solution.
  . Wanted: a sane coalition        by Yossi Beilin
The leaders of the new Quartet could surprise us with their readiness to lead in directions where hitherto none had dared to venture.
. Don't provoke a backlash        by Camille Mansour
It is not surprising that the Israeli government could not simultaneously reject the two pillars of the new Saudi diplomacy on Palestine.

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The best opportunity in years
by Yossi Alpher

The Arab peace plan of March 2002 offers the best opportunity in recent years for Arabs and Israelis to get back on the peace track. But only if the coming Arab summit in Riyadh goes beyond merely reaffirming the plan, and if Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah once again displays dynamic leadership.

To be sure, the plan is flawed, as was the process that launched it in 2002. Its compromise formula for solving the Palestinian refugee issue still implies support for the right of return (which was reconfirmed explicitly in the Arab League's next four resolutions, lest Israel err in interpreting it). Its demand for the 1967 borders ignores UNSC Resolution 242 as well as compromises long agreed between Palestinian and Israeli leaders. And it addresses all relevant states save Israel, thereby seemingly constituting an Arab diktat rather than a platform for negotiation. This last feature was a particularly striking demand in Israeli eyes back in late March 2002, insofar as Arab League approval of the Arab peace plan coincided with the particularly traumatic Pesach suicide bombing in Netanya, which the League proceeded to ignore.

On the other hand, the Arab peace plan offers Israel normalization and even security arrangements with all 22 Arab countries in return for making peace with Palestine, Syria and Lebanon along lines that respect Israel's sovereignty and integrity. This is a serious offer that Israel has ignored too long. Both the Arab states and Israel must not miss the opportunity to do better by the plan.

There would appear to be two courses of action that the approaching Arab summit could take in order to make the plan more attractive as a basis for a new regional diplomatic departure. The first is amending the plan so that it conforms more closely to legitimate Israeli negotiating needs; this appears impossible in view of divisions within the Arab world. The second approach is to reconfirm the plan in language that makes it clear that it is understood as a basis for negotiation with Israel, with the latter free to table its reservations, and to "market" the plan more openly and effectively with the Israeli public through direct contact. It was none other than PM Ariel Sharon who responded to the plan back in April 2002 by inviting Abdullah to come to Jerusalem to present it. Knowing Sharon, the invitation was probably made tongue-in-cheek. Still, that is what Abdullah should now do.

Israel, too, has to do better with the plan this time. It has to present its own vision of the framework for comprehensive peace and market it to the Arabs, meeting them halfway with compromise ideas and offers. Here the big problem is that Israel does not currently have the kind of resolute and inspiring leadership displayed lately by Abdullah. Hopefully, that may change in the not-too-distant future. Experience tells us that the Israeli public, if challenged positively by Arab leaders, will respond by giving its leaders a firm peace mandate.

The United States, too, as leader of the Quartet, can do better. In meetings I have participated in recently with opinion-makers from throughout the Arab world, the US and Europe to discuss the regional dimension of Arab-Israel peace, we concluded that the single most important consensus step the Quartet could take after the Riyadh summit would be to convene the principal parties--Israel, the PLO, the international Quartet and the Arab Quartet (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Emirates)--to consult regarding a new peace process based on four pillars.

First, the new process should clarify the endgame of a permanent settlement in order to motivate both sides. Second, it should establish a comprehensive regional rather than a bilateral approach. Third, it must encourage concerned Arab states to assist and motivate. And fourth, it should enlist the Arab summit to legitimize the diplomatic process and its outcome.

Assuming the Riyadh summit comes through with an improved framework for the Arab peace plan, this is too good an opportunity to miss.- Published 26/3/2007 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.

A crucial summit
by Ghassan Khatib

The upcoming Arab League summit to be convened in Riyadh this week comes at a time of growing concern over the absence of regional order, the minimal level of Arab unity and coordination and the lack of overall leadership.

Regional conflicts and external interference have devastated the Arab world to an unprecedented degree. Hand in hand with this there has been a process of radicalization and political Islamization in the region that is contributing to widening the gaps between the Arab region and the rest of the world to include cultural and ideological levels as well as the existing gaps in terms of economic and social development.

The most pressing issues that require joint action and strong leadership are first, the bleeding wound that is Iraq--with all its regional ramifications, including the exploitation of that conflict by Iran to extend its growing influence in parts of the Arab world, a development perceived as a threat to the national security of some Arab countries, particularly in the Gulf.

Second is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, especially in its regional dimension. There is a growing belief that without a solution to this conflict, and by leaving the Palestinians to the mercy of the Israelis and thus continued suffering and injustice, the regional picture is complicated and regimes with an interest in regional stability and de-radicalization are endangered.

The explosive situation in Lebanon is another area of concern that requires the attention of the Arab League, especially since the problems there are a function of the policies of some Arab and regional countries that are exploiting Lebanese vulnerabilities for their own interests.

The Saudi success in hammering out the Mecca agreement that ended internecine fighting in Gaza, as well as the growing international and regional interest in Arab initiatives, have encouraged the Saudi leadership in their efforts for this summit, which is set to focus primarily but not only on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The growing conviction internationally, but especially in Washington, of the need to reactivate the political process between Israelis and Palestinians has also encouraged the Arabs to unify their efforts and activate their diplomacy.

It has yet to be ascertained whether the Israeli leadership and the internal political situation in Israel are conducive to such constructive political activities, however. The test that Arabs and other concerned parties have to set for Israel in order to judge its willingness to respond to these efforts and determine the Israeli desire for a solution is to obligate Israel to end measures that consolidate the occupation.

Since the Arab peace initiative considers a peaceful solution to the conflict one that adheres to international law, Israel needs to prove its willingness and ability to end those practices that contradict international legitimacy. Prime among those, of course, are an end to settlement construction and construction of the wall as well as Jews-only road networks in the West Bank. But Israel must also show a readiness to ease restrictions on Palestinian movement in order to allow for an improvement of living conditions.

The success of this Arab summit is important not only for the Arabs but also for anyone with an interest in Middle East stability, including Israel and the United States. Should the summit fail to show progress toward the settlement of some of the regional conflicts, it will only reinforce the radical elements in the region.- Published 26/3/2007 © bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning.

Wanted: a sane coalition

by Yossi Beilin

The Riyadh Arab summit presents an important opportunity for Arab countries: to strengthen a pragmatic coalition capable of confronting extremism in the Arab world, recommitting to the Arab peace initiative and advancing regional peace processes.

The new Quartet, comprising Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, is now recognized and encouraged by the rest of the world; witness the meeting just held between US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and leaders of the four states. The veteran Quartet made up of the UN, US, Russia and the EU functions on the basis of the lowest common denominator and generates more paralysis than new initiatives. In contrast, the new Quartet is likely to be more active, if only because it is acting on the basis of an egotistical but legitimate concern for the survival of its member regimes. Having concluded that in order to save themselves they must make a supreme effort to bring peace and stability to the Middle East, these leaders are likely to surprise us with their readiness to lead in directions where hitherto none had dared to venture.

I well remember a conversation with President Anwar Sadat that took place between the Camp David agreements of autumn 1978 and the Israeli-Egyptian peace pact signed in March 1979. I asked him which Arab state would be the second to make peace with Israel and he replied without hesitation, "Saudi Arabia". It was a bad mistake. The Saudis linked up with other Arab countries that resolutely opposed the agreement with Israel and lent a hand in boycotting Egypt, expelling it from the Arab League and moving the League's headquarters from Cairo to Tunis.

The Saudi initiative of March 2002 is the most far-reaching change in Saudi policy since those Camp David agreements. It constitutes a total reversal of the "three nos" of the September 1967 Khartoum Arab summit and reflects both the Saudi response to the events of 9/11 and the emergence of King Abdullah--even when he served as crown prince while his brother, the king, was effectively neutralized due to health problems. Now that Abdullah is king in his own right, he is initiating striking political moves like the Mecca summit, where he compelled Hamas and Fateh to form a national unity government. Anyone seeking to promote regional stability must recognize the positive nature of Abdullah's activities; we have been awaiting them ever since Sadat offered his assessment of the future Saudi role.

Undoubtedly, the situation we have found ourselves in since late 2000 is to a large extent the antithesis of the sense of diplomatic progress that characterized the 1990s. The failure of talks between Israel and Syria and Israel and the Palestinians, the outbreak of the second intifada, 9/11, the Iranian nuclear threat, the Hamas electoral victory--all these developments reversed our course, yet also generated a positive counter-reaction.

One of the more encouraging aspects of that counter-reaction has been the Arab League's response to the al-Qaeda phenomenon and the Iranian nuclear threat. Now, the establishment of a Palestinian unity government conveys a chance to create the unified Palestinian partner that we have long sought. Our attitude toward the new government must be determined by its performance rather than its composition or guidelines, problematic as they are.

If the new government succeeds in preventing any and all violence against Israel in accordance with a ceasefire in Gaza and the West Bank; if it brings about the release of Gilad Shalit; if it enables the PLO led by Mahmoud Abbas to manage diplomatic negotiations with Israel--then it will be fitting for the world to recognize it. At that point, it will also be possible to interpret the new government's guidelines in a more liberal manner, transfer aid funds to it and maintain normal contacts with it. Meanwhile, it would be a serious mistake to boycott those members of this government who for years have been committed to peace with Israel and who have made serious efforts to end terrorism and violence.

Recent events--the return to the Arab peace plan, the new Quartet, the Mecca summit, the establishment of a Palestinian unity government and the approaching Arab summit--all convey a new hope. That hope can be realized if we don't all repeat the mistakes of the past, and in particular if we don't perpetuate the mistake that for so many years has characterized all the regional and international actors: missing most of the opportunities.- Published 26/3/2007 © bitterlemons.org

Member of Knesset Yossi Beilin is chair of the Meretz-Yahad party.

Don't provoke a backlash

by Camille Mansour

More than ever, insofar as Saudi Arabia is concerned, a serious Palestinian-Israeli settlement process is a regional necessity and not a luxury that can be postponed to an indefinite future. The country has lobbied hard for its own peace proposal, which was adopted by the Arab League in 2002, to top the agenda again in Riyadh this week, at a League summit that could be one of the most crucial in recent memory.

What a difference a year makes. In March last year at the Khartoum summit, Saudi Arabia said it wouldn't host the 2007 summit. Several factors in the meantime have caused this U-turn: the outcome of the second Lebanon War, which is threatening to pit Iran, Syria and Hizballah against Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan; grave internal Lebanese divisions along these two axes (including noticeable Sunni-Shi'ite tension); the Iraq civil war with its Sunni-Shi'ite and al-Qaeda dimensions; the possibility of a military strike against Iran's nuclear sites and the armed confrontation between Fateh and Hamas in the streets and neighborhoods of the Gaza Strip. These developments, which reverberate negatively inside the kingdom itself (with the presence of a Shi'ite minority in the east, the frustration of public opinion over the international boycott of Hamas, the appeal of al-Qaeda among some of the youth), have put the Saudi leadership on the defensive.

In this threatening environment, Riyadh has undertaken a number of initiatives to calm the region. It has tried to find a modus vivendi with Iran. It has played a mediating role in Lebanon and, most successfully, it brokered the Mecca agreement to ease tensions between the Palestinian factions.

Furthermore, no global or regional power is currently in a position to criticize Riyadh for playing this moderating role, specifically on Hamas or Hizballah, even if it constitutes an acknowledgment of the political strength of these two movements. The US is embroiled in the Iraqi quagmire and whether it decides to withdraw from Iraq or escalate there or against Iran, it can offer nothing to alleviate Saudi fears.

Egypt has no influence over the emerging challenges and has proven incapable of preventing Palestinian clashes on its very doorstep.

Israel, whose leaders like to place the country in the same category as Saudi Arabia, has been following policies that only strengthen Iran's regional influence at the expense of the Saudis and other Arabs. Through its strategic failure in Lebanon last summer, its disdain for President Mahmoud Abbas' overtures, the miserable life it is imposing on the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza under the pretext of security and the need to boycott Hamas, Israel has almost succeeded in making Iran the main protector of the latter.

Against this background, it is not surprising that the Israeli government could not simultaneously reject the two pillars of the new Saudi diplomacy on Palestine. The first is the Mecca agreement and what it involves in terms of the formation of the Palestinian unity government and the forthcoming elements of that government's political program, such as honoring past Palestinian commitments, envisioning a Palestinian state on the territories occupied in 1967 and mandating the president to pursue political negotiations. The second is the Arab peace initiative as agreed upon in Beirut five years ago.

Incapable of dealing positively with the new Palestinian cabinet or changing its occupation policy on the ground--because of political weakness, of the implacable dynamics of settlement activities and the arrogance of military power--the Israeli leadership has so far chosen to pay lip service to the "positive elements" in the second pillar, i.e., the Arab peace initiative.

Let's recall that the text of that initiative promises the Arab countries' full recognition of Israel (including an "end of the conflict", peace, security guarantees and normal relations) in exchange for a full withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967, the establishment of a Palestinian state and the "achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194", an ambiguous formulation not inconsistent with the Clinton parameters of December 2000 and something even Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni could live with at the start of possible negotiations.

Clearly, the Israeli response to this Saudi--and Arab--overture is far from satisfactory. What is more disturbing is the Israeli attempt to be rewarded for its lip service. Israel wants the Arab League to forfeit the provision on the Palestinian refugee problem and accept to normalize relations with Israel before the start of any political negotiations.

While it is not expected that the Arab League will modify its 2002 text, it is necessary to caution that these Israeli demands do not augur well for the coming period. Maybe the sole positive element that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has found in the Arab initiative is the readiness to normalize relations with Israel. So expect that the next Israeli demand will be for the Arabs to modify their call for a full withdrawal, once more before the start of serious negotiations.

For her part, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appears almost as adamant as the Israeli leadership in boycotting the new Palestinian unity government and in trying to extract the maximum from her acknowledgement of the Arab peace initiative. It is true that she is complementing such an attitude with talk about a "diplomatic horizon" for Palestinians and Israelis, but it remains to be seen how forceful she will be on this track in the weeks and months to come.

It is hoped that all parties concerned, not only Israel and the United States but countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, have learned the lessons of the past 15 years: making or accepting demands that are not in conformity with international law and legitimacy in such an over-politicized regional environment risks provoking a serious, even violent, backlash.- Published 26/3/2007 © bitterlemons.org

Camille Mansour is professor emeritus of international relations. Since September 2004, he has worked as a UNDP advisor on Palestinian judicial reform.

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Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons.org and yossi@bitterlemons.org, respectively.

Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.