Arabs Spurn Obama
In recent weeks, U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell has been meeting with Israeli leaders in an effort to resolve policy differences between Washington and Jerusalem on the issue of settlements. Reports indicate that the United States and Israel “have significantly improved the atmosphere” between them and are discussing their differences closely and in private, as one would expect from two allies.
The same cannot be said of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and most Arab states, which have not shown any interest in bridging their differences with the United States and reaching out for peace with Israel.
In fact, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has raised his demands on Israel higher than ever before. He has refused to talk to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu until Israel completely freezes all construction in areas east of the Green Line (the 1949 Armistice line between Israel and Jordan).
Abbas won’t even agree to ask the Arab states to take small confidence-building measures toward Israel. “We can’t talk to the Arabs until Israel agrees to freeze settlements and recognize the two-state solution,” Abbas said. “Until then we can’t talk to anyone.”
Abbas now says that he has no incentive to speak to his Israeli counterpart. “I will wait for Israel to freeze settlements,” he said. “Until then, in the West Bank we have a good reality...the people are living a normal life.”
Most Arab leaders are even more obstinate than Abbas. In a visit to Washington last week, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal bluntly said no to President Obama’s request for gestures to Israel. Instead, al-Faisal insisted that Israel’s acceptance of the Arab Peace Initiative remains the only path to peace.
The initiative, first proposed in Beirut in 2002 and reaffirmed in the 2007 Arab League summit in Riyadh, calls on Israel—as a prerequisite for peace and “normal relations”—to completely withdraw from all territories captured in the 1967 Six-Day War and accept a “just” and “agreed upon” solution to the Palestinian refugee problem on the basis of U.N. Resolution 194, which calls for the “return” of refugees to Israel.
“The question is not what the Arab world will offer,” al-Faisal said of Obama’s strategy. “The question really is: what will Israel give in exchange for this comprehensive offer?”
The Israeli government has welcomed the Arab initiative, but insists that the peace plan must be negotiated among the parties involved rather than presented as an all-or-nothing ultimatum. “If these proposals are not final, they can create an atmosphere in which a comprehensive peace can be reached,” Netanyahu said.
Most Arab leaders are publicly rallying behind the Saudi position. Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, and Jordan’s foreign minister, Nasser Joudeh, both came to Washington and said Israel is responsible for the lack of peace in the region. (There is one notable Arab contrarian: The crown prince of Bahrain, Shaikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, has written that Arab leaders need to be willing to talk to the Israeli public about the Arab Peace Initiative in order to “highlight the benefits of a genuine peace.”)
President Obama would obviously like to see more Arab leaders act like al-Khalifa. In his Cairo speech on June 4, Obama said that “the Arab states must recognize that the Arab Peace Initiative was an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities. The Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems.”
What could Saudi Arabia do to show Obama that it is sincere about peace? Allow Israeli civilian aircraft to pass through their airspace. Terminate the Arab League boycott of Israel. Establish trade relations, cultural exchanges, postal routes and telecommunications lines with the Jewish state. Include Israeli diplomats in regional meetings. Invite Israelis to participate in educational programs and sporting events. Visit Jerusalem and speak directly to the Israeli people.
Many members of Congress are urging Saudi Arabia to take some of those steps. Reps. Brad Sherman (D-CA) and Edward Royce (R-CA) sent a letter to Saudi King Abdullah, signed by 226 House members, calling on him to follow the example set by Egypt and Jordan, both of which opened ties with Israel before the signing of a peace treaty. Sens. Evan Bayh (D-IN) and James Risch (R-IN) are circulating a similar letter to President Obama—already signed by more than half the Senate—emphasizing the need for Arab states to take dramatic steps for peace.
Mitchell, a dedicated and persistent diplomat, understands the challenges of Mideast peacemaking and has sounded optimistic about his private conversations with Saudi leaders. But so far, there is no public indication by Saudi Arabia—a key player in the Arab world and a country with a longstanding alliance with the United States—that 61 years of rejecting Israel is long enough.
It is a rule that whenever Israel is in trouble, she can rely on the Arabs to bail her out by being idiots and assholes. This time is no exception. They are dealing with an American president whose middle name is 'Hussein' and they still can't grasp the idea that they can't get a settlement without negotiation, that the side that has lost six wars in a row doesn't get to unilaterally dictate peace terms.