Arab Normalization Gestures to Israel

For internal circulation

24 July 09

 

No Normalization Under Occupation, Just Do The Right Thing 

by Akram Baker

Suggestions that the Obama administration has asked Arab countries to show a modicum of faith in his approach to Middle East peace-making by implementing a few confidence-building measures vis-a-vis Israel if and when it halts its settlement activity have raised a number of interesting and vital questions. Would this be normalization of relations with the Israeli occupier and a sell-out of Arab principles, or is it a good idea that merits further discussion? Is it the responsibility of the Arabs to reward Israel for ending illegal behavior or could these be the first steps toward a comprehensive settlement?

First of all, I do not believe in any normalization of relations with Israel so long as the Israeli occupation persists. There is no benefit in rewarding Israel for its continued intransigence. What I do believe is that the Arab countries should do all they can to support President Barack Obama in bringing a resolution to this horrific conflict. That can only be translated as the end of the Israeli occupation and the creation of a secure, independent and democratic state of Palestine based on UN Security Council resolutions. In the same vein, it is vital not to confuse rewarding Israel with helping Obama or–more importantly–helping one’s self.

The reality is that there is no better chance than right now for Palestinians to finally succeed in achieving their legitimate right to freedom. It is equally Israel’s big chance to achieve peace, security and normality after decades of being spoiled silly by the United States (which hasn’t done anyone any good). Obama has proven time and again since his inauguration that he is very serious about bringing peace to the region. Whether we look at the appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy or his public assertions that settlements must end, the US president has made it crystal clear that he will not be taking a back seat in this fight. As the first American president since Jimmy Carter to unequivocally declare Israel’s colonial settlement adventure illegal (and not a vague “obstacle to peace”), Obama is putting the US firmly back where it should be–in line with international legitimacy.

But Arab leaders (and people) would be fools to harbor the notion that Obama is going to do their bidding for them. For the first time in a generation, we see an administration in Washington that is looking after long-term US national security interests in the Middle East and not completely kowtowing to the extreme right wing of American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC. One needs to recognize that while Obama correctly deduced that the core issue at hand is land and that there is absolutely no chance in hell to reach an equitable solution with Israeli concrete flooding the West Bank, he was still putting his neck on the line in Cairo. But like everything he does, Obama is a master of choosing his own battles. A highly competitive man, he will not join a fight unless he is confident there is more than a reasonable chance of winning. The crux of the matter is that in this endeavor, success depends not only on Israel’s reactions but also on the Arab world.

When seen from this perspective, it becomes clear that it is the responsibility of Arab leaders to show that they are willing to take a calculated risk for peace. During the George W. Bush administration, it probably didn’t matter what the Arabs did, Bush would not have put any kind of pressure on Israel to cease and desist its settlement activity. However, the game has changed. So what does this mean in practical terms?

For example, the Gulf countries could open their air space to commercial Israeli flights to the Far East or India. This would have a positive effect in showing the world that Arabs are really serious about peace and it is Israel that is throwing a spanner in the process. If Israel refuses any type of equitable reciprocation, these rights can just as easily be withdrawn. By providing the president with extra leverage regarding settlements, the Arab countries would also be sending an emotionally resilient message of practical solidarity with Obama, the person and the office. In other words, they have everything to gain.

If Obama is to have any hope of bringing peace to the Middle East, he will need all the support that can be offered. Israel–especially the current Netanyahu government of right-wingers and outright racists–is not going to give anything up without a fight. But in order for the parties to comprehend that there is no option other than joint success or joint misery, the Arab world can take the courageous step of giving the US president a helping hand by just doing the right thing for everyone involved.- Published 23/7/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Akram Baker is an independent Palestinian political analyst. He is co-president of the Arab Western Summit of Skills, a platform for Arab professionals dedicated to reform and development in the Arab and Islamic worlds.

 


 

Let The Diplomatic Games Begin 

by Anouar Boukhars

In the last six months, the world has watched with interest and at times fascination the rearrangement of practices and strategies of American foreign policy. The new administration has articulated exciting bold principles and laid out new strategic parameters for how to tackle “the urgent, the important and the long-term all at once”. With the conviction of a grandmaster and the humility of an inquisitive statesman, US President Barack Obama has embraced the complexities and uncertainties of geopolitical involvement. But nowhere has such involvement been so dramatic and bold as in the Middle East, where President George W. Bush’s militaristic policies and dogmatic geopolitical thinking only prolonged conflicts and worsened crises, leaving a legacy of continuing devastation in Palestine and unfinished business in Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and elsewhere in the region.

Obama has to grapple with these realities. And grapple he has. Each decision he has taken or diplomatic foray he has made has been strategically calculated to remove what he called that “constant wound” or “constant sore” that infects all of America’s interests in the Middle East. It is within this context that his elevation of the Arab-Israel conflict to a top priority of America’s foreign policy can be understood. The president has stated numerous times that the status-quo in the region is untenable and Israel’s continuing settlement expansion in its colonies in the Palestinian territories is deeply harmful to America’s interests in the region and to Israel’s own long-term security. Freezing those settlements is therefore the first basic step on the road to resolving the conflict. Prospects for such resolution are dauntingly challenging but nevertheless promising.

Obama’s attempts to restore America’s credibility as an honest broker of peace have shaken the usual diplomatic niceties and political dynamics in the Middle East, forcing the main protagonists to the conflict to go scrambling for responses to the new diplomatic game. The hawkish Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, is trying to come up with elaborate diplomatic maneuvers and tricks to continue his expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, or at the very least, extract as many concessions from Arab states as possible before even committing to the well-known final parameters of a comprehensive settlement to the conflict: a return to the 1967 border with some minor adjustments as agreed to by the parties. Netanyahu’s intention was articulated in the speech he delivered in mid-June in which he reaffirmed his vision for a disjointed Palestinian state that lacks contiguity, viability and all the essential attributes of sovereignty.

For their part, the Arab states are playing the same tiresome diplomatic dance, holding out for timetables and initiatives coming from elsewhere. Instead of uniting their ranks and publicly conveying their determination to see Obama succeed in his mission to bring peace to the region, they content themselves with reiterating their demands for Israel to abide by its international legal obligations. So far, they have resisted calls to engage in a confidence-building process with Israel as long as the latter refuses to positively respond to the comprehensive and historic peace initiative they offered in 2002.

Breaking down this frustrating kabuki dance that the parties are engaged in is the task Obama has taken upon himself. His credibility and the success of his entire new foreign policy paradigm hinge on his ability to broker a just and lasting peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Such goal is achievable but dependent on his ability to pressure all parties to comply with the legitimate requests he has announced so far. Israel must bring to a total halt all its settlement activities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the Arabs must take steps to facilitate America’s new role as an honest broker. Such confidence-building measures can include a revival of diplomatic contacts and reopening of Israeli interest sections in countries like Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman. Major concessions should follow once all parties agree on the general parameters of a comprehensive peace plan that guarantees the security of Israel while ending its occupation of all Arab land, including the Syrian Golan Heights.- Published 23/7/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Anouar Boukhars is director of the Center for Defense & Security Policy at Wilberforce University. He is also a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.


 

The US And Confidence-Building Measures

by Oded Eran

In his July 13 meeting with American Jewish leaders, President Barack Obama alluded to the new theme in US Middle East policy. In her July 15 speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was explicit. The US expects immediate Israeli action on settlements and Palestinian living conditions and it expects Arab gestures to Israel, even before the implementation of a comprehensive agreement.

Confidence-building measures are not a new concept in the history of attempts to resolve the Arab-Israel conflict. The most effective one was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in November 1977. It convinced the majority of Israelis that he was sincere in his quest for peace and it enabled Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to agree to withdraw fully from Sinai. After the first Gulf war, the 1991 Madrid conference and the 1993 Oslo agreements, other less visible gestures were made. Israel opened diplomatic offices in Morocco and Qatar and Israeli citizens could travel to Morocco, Tunisia and some Persian Gulf states with relative ease. Several Arab states opened interest offices in Tel Aviv.

This exchange–negotiations between Israel and its immediate neighbors, the Jordanians and the Palestinians, and some Arab gestures–came to an end in 1996. Some say this was because of the reopening of an ancient tunnel in the Old City of Jerusalem. Some argue that it was caused by the Likud electoral victory that year, though Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu went on to negotiate the January 1997 Hebron Agreement and the October 1998 Wye River Memorandum. Both are precedential in their nature in the Palestinian-Israeli context. But Arab-Israel relations were nonetheless frozen and they remain so.

The juxtaposition of a settlement freeze with Arab gestures will be of little impact. The majority of Israelis are ready for a settlement freeze–certainly when it comes to avoiding friction with the US. There is, however, no Arab gesture that would convince the other, pro-settlement part of Israeli society to agree to a total settlement freeze. The Israeli government itself already opposes a freeze in Jerusalem. A portion of those Israelis who strongly support settling in the West Bank might be swayed by Arab recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people as demanded by Netanyahu in his speech of June 14. This means that any Arab gesture short of such a major shift would have very marginal value for an Israeli government attempt to win support for even a limited freeze.

Moreover, the value of small, partial Arab gestures has worn off. Short of a spectacular event such as a Saudi royal or Syrian presidential visit to Jerusalem, there is little that can excite Israeli public opinion. A visit by the president of Israel to Damascus or Riyadh could have a similar impact. But the opening of an Israeli semi-diplomatic office in Doha, Qatar cannot stir emotions among Israelis–certainly not among those who support settlement activity.

One of the proposals aired recently in this context was Israeli flights in Arab airspace. This gesture has a practical meaning only in the case of Saudi Arabia and one or two Gulf states. Today, Israeli planes en route to Southeast Asia fly south over the Red Sea and then turn eastward. Permission to fly over Saudi Arabia would enable Israeli airlines to shorten the route. But that would still be a marginal concession, since Israelis (and others) can fly to Amman, Jordan and continue directly to any destination in East Asia. Royal Jordanian Airlines might be quite dismayed by such a Saudi gesture; it would lose a nice source of income.

The problem can be summed up as follows. On the one hand the Arab world, collectively or individually, is unlikely to offer the kind of CBMs that would be of a magnitude and a visibility to convince the relevant pro-settlement part of Israeli society and the government to make gestures such as a long-term, full freeze on settlements and/or improving living conditions for Palestinians. On the other hand, it is most unlikely that Arab states would either wish or be able to make the kind of bold gestures that would enable the Israeli government to push for what the US administration is currently demanding it do.

On the assumption that the most important issue for most Israelis is their long-term security, what could have an impact on Israeli society and Israeli governments are CBMs in this domain. Strangely enough, these CBMs could be offered by two different groups of players other than the Arab League. The first is Iran and its proxies, Hizballah and Hamas; the other is the international community and primarily the US. Obviously, it is most unlikely that Iran and its regional allies would be willing to participate in such an exchange of CBMs.

This is not the case with the US. In 2004, in advance of the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Israel obtained certain assurances about American positions regarding final status issues. A similar idea could now be pursued in matters relating to Israel’s long-term security. This could relate to a clearer bilateral understanding on how to deal with Iran (regardless whether there is or is not a US-Iranian dialogue), long-term US assurances regarding military supplies that would be formalized in congressional legislation, and administration reaffirmation of President George W. Bush’s 2004 letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Other ideas could include US willingness to advocate more publicly Israel’s individual association with NATO (and not only in the Mediterranean context) and a commitment to lobby Russia and others not to supply certain weapons to Iran.- Published 23/7/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Oded Eran is director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as Israel’s ambassador to Jordan and the EU and is a former negotiator with Egypt and the Palestinians.


 

The Gulf States Already Have Links With Israel

by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi

Should the Gulf countries maintain contacts with Israel if this would make life easier for Palestinians? Could having such ties propel the Middle East peace process forward?

Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr, prime minister and foreign minister of Qatar, spoke on al-Jazeera recently about last winter’s Israeli war on Gaza. Noting that the Turks were able to deliver emergency goods to the Palestinians immediately, he said, “I would have been glad if Egypt had done the same,” alluding to the fact that both counties have ties to Israel. He then added, “Everyone was asking us to shut the Israeli Commercial Office in Doha and we have done so. Show me now how this will benefit the peace process?” It could be argued that such commercial ties with Israel allowed Qatar in the past to donate $6 million to finance the building of the Sakhnin soccer stadium, which is mostly used by Arab Israelis.

The open secret is that all six Gulf countries maintain contacts with Israel and some have open commercial interests. Officials as senior as the current Israeli president himself have visited Oman and Qatar on various occasions. In fact, not too long ago a Gulf official asked me for contacts in the Israel Foreign Ministry (which I did not have). It was a very casual request, like introducing a potential business partner.

We now know that these ties exist thanks to the internet, the ultimate taboo- and myth-breaker of the Arab world. For instance, I have over the past few years received via email photographs of former and current Gulf foreign ministers with Israeli officials, mostly Shimon Peres during his time as foreign minister of Israel. There is also a popular YouTube video of a Gulf ruler and his foreign minister meeting with then Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni; the Gulf ruler gestures to the TV crew accompanying her to stop filming. As recently as a few years ago such a video would have not been seen at all, now it has thousands of viewers.

Der Spiegel uncovered the clearest example of Israeli rapprochement with the Arab Gulf states in early July when it reported that Israel voted for the UAE to host the International Renewable Energy Agency headquarters. The German journal attributed this to Israel wanting to build closer relations with the Gulf States. That strategy could be working: recently, five Bahraini citizens who were caught by Israel on board a ship were promptly handed over to an official visiting delegation from the island kingdom.

The Gulf States’ boldest step to normalize ties with Israel came from none other than Saudi Arabia: King Abdullah’s peace plan promises full normalization rather than a cold Egypt-style peace with Israel if an agreement with the Palestinians is reached. Additionally, Bahrain’s foreign minister last year suggested that the Middle East countries form a regional organization that includes Israel and Iran. In recent months, the United Arab Emirates allowed an Israeli tennis player, Andy Ram, to play in a WTP tournament held in the country. Previously, Israel Central Bank Governor David Klein visited the UAE in 2003 for World Bank and IMF meetings. Even conservative Kuwait recently witnessed a call by a candidate for the country’s parliament to establish relations with Israel.

What ties the Gulf states to Israel are mutual suspicions of the Iranian nuclear program. They also fear that a potential Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear installations could have serious repercussions for the Gulf states in economic, environmental and security terms. In contradiction to western media reports that the Gulf states have acquiesced in an Israeli strike, it is more likely that they would employ their contacts with Israel (and the US) to highlight the serious fallout of such a move. After all, the two Gulf countries with the closest links to Israel (via its former commercial representative offices there), Oman and Qatar, also happen to have the closest relations with Iran among all six Gulf states.

It is naive to think that simply having relations with Israel would make a difference to the peace process; some say it is counterproductive to reward the current hard-line Israeli government whose latest blunder is to insist that Arabic place names in Israel be rendered so as to present the Hebrew language equivalent (e.g., al-Quds becomes Yerushalayim, rendered in Arabic). However, it is equally naive to think that such ties don’t already exist, no matter how vehemently the Gulf states deny it.

Bahrain’s progressive crown prince recently highlighted the importance of communicating with Israel in an op-ed in the Washington Post. Clearly, the Gulf states can no longer be involved passively in perpetual peace processes that fail. One step they can take is to appoint a high-level peace envoy whose sole duty is to monitor and encourage, diplomatically and financially, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. What are needed now are practical steps that can finally improve the prospects for peace and dignified living for the Palestinians. If having ties with Israel can achieve that then few Gulf citizens will condemn their governments.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a non-resident fellow at the Dubai School of Government.  


Bitter Lemons International  –  23 July 09

Bitterlemons-international.org is an internet forum for an array of world perspectives on the Middle East and its specific concerns. It aspires to engender greater understanding about the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers and political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the region. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons-international.org and yossi@bitterlemons-international.org, respectively.

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