By Barry Rubin
There’s something very strange about this alleged new Arab League peace initiative and I find no serious addressing of these issues in the media coverage. A step toward efforts by Arab states to move toward proposing a possible peace with Israel is a good thing. Especially touted is an idea, mentioned by Qatar’s representative at the Washington meeting, to accept an agreement that small border modifications could be made to the pre-1967 lines.
Here’s how the Associated Press reported on this, with the headline, “Arab League sweetens Israel-Palestinian peace plan“:
“The Arab League’s decision to sweeten its decade-old proposal offering comprehensive peace with Israel has placed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a bind and swiftly exposed fissures in his new government.”
In other words, you’d have to be a fool or a knave to reject this deal and the issue has divided Israel’s government. Yet chief negotiator Tsipi Livni was right to have reacted positively to the proposal and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be right to ultimately reject it.
After all, there are a lot of unaddressed points in the coverage that make me strongly suspect that this is a public relations’ stunt to convince America and Western opinion that the Arab states want peace with Israel when not all of them do so.
And that’s one of the key questions. At the meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry there were representatives of the Arab League, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian Authority.
But Arab League bureaucrats can’t agree on anything. Only a vote of the Arab League’s almost two dozen members can establish an official position. So this was not an Arab League plan at all. To represent it as an official Arab position is, then, untrue.
Indeed, we already know that the Palestinian Authority (PA) opposes this formula. At any rate, the United States cannot even get the PA to negotiate with Israel and yet fantasies of comprehensive peace are spread around by it. The mass media is cooperating in this theme, seeking to make Kerry look good at least.
Then there is the list of countries involved. I have no difficulty in believing that the governments of Bahrain, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are ready for a deal. Jordan has already made peace; Saudi Arabia proposed a reasonable offer a decade ago a decade ago (before it was sharply revised by hardliners before becoming an official Arab League position), and Bahrain’s regime is desperately afraid of Iran and has become a semi-satellite of the Saudis.
But what about the other three countries? Are we to believe that the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt, the Hizballah-dominated regime in Lebanon, and the quirky but pro-Hamas and pro-Muslim Brotherhood regime in Qatar have suddenly reversed everything that they have been saying in order to seek a compromise peace with Israel? Highly doubtful to say the least.
In other words, the reportage ignored the interesting detail about the three most radical regimes (Qatar’s regional policy is radical; not its domestic policies) suddenly making a concession to Israel that had been previously unthinkable? It’s sort of like taking for granted, say, Joseph Stalin’s supposed embrace of capitalism or France’s rulers proclaiming that American culture is far superior to their own.
And let’s also remember the radical forces not present. The Syrian rebels will be holding the Arab League seat are dominated by Islamists. Hamas itself, which governs the Gaza Strip, will refuse to abide by any such agreement. Remember that this group represents at least one-third of Palestinians and perhaps a plurality over Fatah, which governs the PA. Tunisia’s Muslim Brotherhood-dominated leadership have even written into the country’s new constitution that it can never make peace with Israel!.
Finally, there is a curious lack of mention over the demand, enshrined in the previous “Arab Peace Initiative” about what is called the “right of return.” Namely, to satisfy PA demands Israel would have to accept the immigration of hundreds of thousands of passionately anti-Israel Palestinians who had lived in the country 60 years ago (or their descendants) and who have been fighting all that time to wipe Israel off the map.
Is the “right of return” as a condition for making peace still in the small print? I don’t see that anyone else has asked that rather important question. Presumably it is still there. Consequently, what is in fact a suicidal offer to Israel is made, by selective reporting, to make it sound like an attractive offer. But if the demand for a massive immigration of hostile Palestinians is indeed dropped that in fact is the real news. Of course, the PA would passionately denounce such a step and since it has said nothing on the point one might assume that this demand still stands.
Then there are the citizens of these Arab countries—stirred up by Islamists and radical nationalists–who would seek to overthrow them if they believed their rulers were going to make peace with Israel. And there has been no hint from these regimes before and no statements now back home in Arabic to indicate any dramatic change of heart.
This supposed new plan, then, is a bluff. None of the above points have been explained in the Western media. Suddenly, we are to believe, for example, that the Muslim Brotherhood has turned dovish! Well, of course, because the U.S. establishment has been arguing they were already dovish.
That doesn’t mean it is a bad thing as a sign of the times. I believe that the Arab states of the Persian Gulf would like to see the Arab-Israeli conflict decline and even end. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates no longer profit from this battle. They are frightened of Iran and revolutionary Islamists, and the Shia Muslim challenge in general. Such governments view Israel as a positive strategic factor given these real and big threats. You might add Algeria, Morocco, and Jordan to the list of moderates. Iraq doesn’t care anymore, while the Kurds in Iraq and Syria are almost pro-Israel.
And if these countries feel that saying or pretending to agree that peace with Israel is a good thing for their image in the West that is positive also. (Unfortunately, though, they know how easily they can get away with double talk.)
But if you factor in the Islamist-ruled places—Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Tunisia, and soon Syria—into the equation the picture looks different. And if you add public opinion and the efforts of revolutionary Islamists who would denounce any such deal as treason things look totally different.
If even Saudi Arabia were to make peace with Israel what would happen internally? There would be riots, revolts, new manifestations of the currents represented by Usama bin Ladin, an escalated subversion from Iran. Of course, the monarchy knows this very well.
On top of that, remember that these governments know that they cannot depend on the United States to get them out of a jam in the face of their rivals and enemies. Indeed, many of them believe—with real reasons–that the Obama Administration is helping their enemies.
In other words, to speak in English in Washington to make the Americans happy is one thing; to do things in practice is something else entirely. This supposed initiative, then, will not go anywhere.
It is, however, interesting to compare this development with the total refusal of Arab states to make such a gesture when Obama asked them to do so back in 2009. Is the change due to the relative moderates’ greater fear of Islamist overthrow? Of Iran getting nuclear weapons? A response to Obama’s reelection? Of the radical, pro-Islamist forces trying to lull America and the West into an even deeper sleep so that they think more Sharia states will not make for more radical regimes?
One can almost hear the radicals’ reasoning: We have to keep the Americans at bay until we consolidate power at home and we have to keep the Americans handing over billions of dollars to finance the fundamental transformations we intend to make.
What it does show once again, however, is that the strategic picture in the region has changed dramatically. The Arab-Israeli conflict is a minor issue compared to the Islamist threat at home and from neighbors, the Iranian threat abroad, and the Shia challenge to these predominantly Sunni Muslim, conservative or nationalist, monarchical or dictatorial regimes.
Here is the paradox of the situation. The very threats that make some governments wish the conflict would go away are the same threats that stop them from actually doing something about it.
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——————– Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His next book, Nazis, Islamists and the Making of the Modern Middle East, written with Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, will be published by Yale University Press in January 2014. His latest book is Israel: An Introduction, also published by Yale. Thirteen of his books can be read and downloaded for free at the website of the GLORIA Center including The Arab States and the Palestine Conflict, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East and The Truth About Syria. His blog is Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia. ShareThis