The Middle East Channel

The Arab Peace Initiative under review

The Arab League Ministerial Council that convened in Doha Sunday to review the Arab Peace Initiative and reevaluate the peace process concluded without any decisive action. Qatar's Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani maintained that the initiative would "not be on offer for ever." Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas objected saying, "It is not permissible to talk about sidelining the Arab Peace Initiative. It should stay." Abbas went on to warn that withdrawal of the initiative could lead to regional war. From press reports, there is no sign that the ministers undertook an in-depth evaluation of the initiative itself to better understand why it has not been successful, or to consider how to revitalize it.

The initiative, adopted by the League of Arab States in March 2002, was an historic opening that could have made a major contribution toward resolving the Israeli- Palestinian as well as the Israeli-Arab conflicts. When the initiative was put forward, Ariel Sharon was Prime Minister of Israel, and there was no likelihood that the architect of Israel's settlement policy would agree to the withdrawal to the 1967 lines called for by the Arab states. The primary audience for the initiative was not the Israeli government, but the Israeli people. The message to Israelis essentially was: In the context of a comprehensive peace, with your neighbors and the Palestinians, the entire Arab world will "consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended" and "establish normal relations with Israel." 

If the initiative had said just that much and nothing more, it would have had a powerful effect on Israeli society and ultimately Israeli politics. Instead, the initiative went on to detail what was expected of Israel in a peace agreement. And when the initiative addressed the Palestinian refugee issue, it called for the "achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194."

This was the deal killer. To Israeli ears, to speak of Resolution 194, then and now, is to speak of the right of return of Palestinian refugees. It conjures up images of millions of Palestinians returning to Israel and turning Jewish-Israelis into a minority. This was not what the Arab states had intended, and it was pointed out that the initiative said the solution was "to be agreed upon" and that everyone knew that Israel would never agree to more than a very minimal return.

Such textual parsing however, made little impact. The image was that the Arab states were demanding a major return of refugees. The tragedy of the initiative is that while Palestinian and Arab leaders seeking to end the conflict understand that only a tiny minority of refugees will ever return to Israel, Palestinian and Arab politics prevents them from saying this openly. This in turn, prevents them from having an impact on the Israeli public and Israeli politics. President Abbas is correct that the initiative must not be withdrawn and should not be allowed to slip away. But how can it be preserved? How can it be revitalized?

The key is to push forward. Rather than speaking enigmatically about Resolution 194, what is needed today is a detailed proposal on refugees that both peoples can accept. While neither the Arab states nor the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) are likely to come forward with a transformative plan, it might be possible for a third party to do so, and for the Arab states and the PLO to say "Yes." Such a plan would have to include substantial financial compensation for the refugees as well as creative new ideas for addressing their needs, symbolic and material. Perhaps the Obama administration will do just that; more likely it will shy away, judging the probability of failure too high. The U.S. president has yet to decide, but it would be a mistake to rely on the Americans.

There is, however, another alternative, one recently proposed in the New York Times by Former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, Former EU High Commissioner Javier Solana, Nobel Prize winner Thomas C. Schelling, and me: The United Nations, if necessary, the U.N. General Assembly, should appoint a special peace commission, headed by a distinguished American, such as Bill Clinton. This commission would go to the region and directly engage, not the governments, but the two peoples. It would collect new ideas, hold hearings, and study public opinion. Its first mission would be to answer the fundamental question: Is there a way to address the core issues of the conflict, including Jerusalem and refugees, which the majorities of both populations would support?

If the commission concludes that there are solutions that could win majority support on both sides, it would proceed to formulate a draft treaty document. This would then be presented to the PLO and the Israeli government as the starting point for the resumption of bilateral negotiations. Assuming that the commission has identified a plan supported by both populations, if either government agrees to use the proposal as the point of reference, the other side will be under enormous pressure from its own public to follow suit.

Although the Arab states are not going to formulate a new peace plan, they could give new life to their offer of normal relations with Israel in exchange for a comprehensive peace, by asking the United Nations to fill in the details. This move could be headed by Egypt. When the Arab Peace Initiative was first issued, Israel rested content in the stability of the Mubarak regime and the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. In that context, though there was never a warm peace, much of what the API offered from Israel's most powerful neighbor was taken for granted. With the ascendency of the Muslim Brotherhood and the election of President Mohamed Morsi, all that has changed. Today the future of Israeli-Egyptian relations is an open question. Imagine the impact if Egypt, governed by the Brotherhood, were to reset the diplomatic agenda by taking the lead in asking the United Nations to develop a peace plan, consistent with the API, that could be accepted by both the Palestinian and Israeli peoples.

It is now almost 20 years since the Oslo Accords were signed and standard bilateral negotiations have consistently failed. It is time to try a new approach, one that will harness the potential of the Arab Peace Initiative to a process that centers on the Israeli and Palestinian people, rather than their governments.

Jerome M. Segal directs the Peace Consultancy Project at the University of Maryland. He is president of The Jewish Peace Lobby.

STR/AFP/GettyImages

The Middle East Channel

Egyptians abroad vote on referendum as government delays IMF loan

Egyptian expatriates have begun voting in embassies around the world on a referendum pushed by President Mohamed Morsi on a disputed draft constitution. Voting in Egypt will be held over two days, December 15 and 22. At the same time, the Egyptian army is planning to hold "unity" talks with rival factions in Cairo, deeply divided over the referendum. Egypt's Defense Minister General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi invited Morsi, political leaders, and government officials to participate in the dialogue. Opponents of the largely Islamist drafted constitution have called for the referendum to be postponed. However, Morsi has remained steadfast, despite mass protests, that a new constitution must be passed before national elections can be held. Meanwhile, Finance Minster Mumtaz al-Said announced on Tuesday that a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan to Egypt would be delayed for a month due to the political crisis which has dampened Morsi's ability to push through necessary economic reforms. On Sunday, the government issued a variety of new taxes, only to reverse the decision hours later due to backlash from the opposition as well as from within the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt's economy is verging on collapse, and the British-based banking giant HSBC warned that further delay could seriously jeopardize Egypt's recovery.

Syria

U.S. President Barack Obama has formally recognized the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the "legitimate representative" of the Syrian people, paving the way for greater U.S. support for to the opposition. The United States joins Britain, France, Turkey, and the Gulf states, which recognized the National Coalition shortly after it was formed in November. The announcement came ahead of a meeting of the "Friends of Syria" -- foreign ministers from more than 70 countries gathering in Morocco to discuss the conflict in Syria and options for a political transition. The group includes representatives from many western and Arab countries who have opposed Assad, but excludes Assad's allies Russia and Iran, as well as China, which has joined Russia to block U.N. resolutions on Syria. The "Friends of Syria" also formally recognized the opposition council and called for President Bashar al-Assad's resignation. The group will create a relief fund "to support the Syrian people" but there was no commitment for supplying arms to the opposition fighters, although that was not ruled out for the future. The National Council said recognition is nice, but called for "real support" including humanitarian assistance and military equipment. Meanwhile, between 125 and 300 people were killed in bombings and gunfire in Hama province in the predominantly Alawite village of Aqrab, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. According to opposition activists, the civilians were being held hostage by Shabiha, pro-government militiamen, in a building that was bombed by government warplanes. Activists said the Free Syria Army was making a siege on the building. These accounts cannot be verified as there have been conflicting reports, and the Syrian government has not made any statements on the incident.

Headlines  

  • Kuwait's emir named a new cabinet Tuesday, the 11th since 2006 due to a series of political crises, after parliamentary elections were largely boycotted by the opposition.
  • Masked gunmen killed senior intelligence officer, Colonel Ahmed Barmadah, outside his home in the southern Yemeni port city of Mukalla on Tuesday. No one has claimed responsibility. 

Arguments and Analysis

Turkey's Distinctive Brew (Soner Cagaptay, The Atlantic)

"It is 5 a.m. in Istanbul, and I am looking for coffee. Having arrived in Istanbul's old city the night before and seriously jetlagged, I decided to walk into the Eyup quarter, which hosts Istanbul's most sacred mosque, Eyup Sultan. I hoped the revered shrine, which attracts early morning worshippers, would have an open coffee shop nearby, and I was right. As prayers ended, I watched Eyup's worshipers flow from the mosque, sipping a bland cup of instant coffee, unaware I was about to be treated to an experience of cultural flavor unique to Turkey.

A large group of Salafists, with their trademark trimmed beards and kaftans, walked out of the mosque, heading to my coffee shop. What happened next is a lesson in Turkey's distinctive direction compared to its Muslim neighbors: The Salafist men ordered coffee and Turkish bagels (simit) from the barista, a young woman sporting a tattoo and sleeveless shirt. Neither the exchange between the barista and the Salafists, laden with polite honorifics and formal Turkish speech, nor their body language, suggested tensions between the two opposing visions of Turkey brought into close encounter for me to witness.

As this encounter so succinctly encapsulates, Turkey's two halves are like oil and water; though they may not blend, neither will disappear. Turkey's Islamization is a fact, but so is secular and Westernized Turkey. But the historical roots and current manifestations of this synthesis indicate that it is a model that will be difficult to replicate elsewhere in the region, as Islamist governments rise to power after the Arab Spring. "

Syria's New Opposition (Daniel R. DePetris, The National Interest)

"Nearly a month into its existence, the reorganized and reformed Syrian political opposition has made a number of strides in an attempt to speed up the fall of President Bashar al-Assad's regime. Formally named the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the bloc has secured international recognition from a host of countries over the past two weeks, including France and Britain. On Tuesday, President Obama announced in a television interview that the United States would follow suit. Washington has been the most eager to consolidate and strengthen opposition to the Assad regime, promising an extensive amount of diplomatic contact with its representatives and a hefty amount of financial aid in the future.

Yet kind words and promises of aid from the international community will not help the National Coalition in planning for a post-Assad government if the body remains a mystery to the people it is supposed to represent. The same problems that ruined the Syrian National Council as a credible alternative to the Assad regime could very well stain the new National Coalition if its leaders do not convince the Syrian people that they are more than just a passive debating society."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images/KHALIL MAZRAAWI