Arab Summit Contoured by Regional Crises

Fears Over Iraq, Lebanon, Iran Become Backdrop for Renewed Peace Initiative

By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 28, 2007; A10

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, March 27 — Arab heads of state began gathering Tuesday to relaunch a five-year-old peace initiative that was initially rejected by Israel, ignored by the United States and left dormant by Arab leaders after it was introduced in 2002.

A changed Middle East — marked by the violence in Iraq, the crisis in Lebanon and Iran’s ascendance — is spurring renewed interest in the plan, analysts said.

“There is an urgency now because of Iran’s increasing influence,” said Abdel-Moneim Mustafa, Egypt bureau chief for the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat. “The United States is pushing for a resolution to the Palestinian problem because they now understand that it’s all interconnected; you can’t have peace and stability in Iraq without peace and stability in Palestine. The greater Middle East project starts in Palestine, not Iraq,” Mustafa said.

Saudi Arabia, never known as a diplomatic powerhouse, has become more assertive in recent months. In February, Saudi leaders persuaded warring Palestinian factions to agree to a power-sharing government. The kingdom has also sought to resolve the political impasse in Lebanon between the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah and the Western-backed government of Fouad Siniora. And the kingdom’s national security adviser, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, has been trying to ease the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.

“Iran has taken advantage of the failure of the peace process, and the vacuum in Arab leadership,” said Riyad Mansour, managing editor of Jordan’s Addustour newspaper. “It supported Hezbollah and embraced Hamas when all Arab doors were shut to them. Iran’s growing influence is the slap that woke up a sleeping Arab world.”

Saudi political analyst Adel al-Toraifi said the failure of the United States’ Middle East policies has also increased its reliance on oil-rich Saudi Arabia. “It’s no longer all about oil,” Toraifi said. “Now it’s all about politics. They need them to help counter Iranian influence, to keep Iraq stable,” he explained. With spiraling violence in Iraq, and Egypt grappling with internal issues, “now there’s only the Saudis,” Toraifi said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has reached out to moderate Arab governments — some of which do not recognize Israel — partly on the basis of their shared concern about Iran’s rising regional influence.

But since Olmert expressed fresh interest in the Arab initiative, the Palestinians have sworn in a new Hamas-led unity government that does not recognize Israel. The hard-line policies of the new Palestinian government may make it difficult for Arab leaders to change the initiative in the ways Olmert has said are needed for it to serve as a basis for peace talks.

When the initiative was announced during an Arab League meeting in Beirut in 2002, it offered Israel for the first time full recognition by all its Arab neighbors in exchange for the return of Arab land captured during the 1967 Middle East war. The plan also called for the right of return to present-day Israel for Palestinians who fled or were forced out when the Jewish state was created in 1948.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said that unless the reference to the right of Palestinians to return is removed from the initiative, or rephrased to suggest the refugees be settled outside Israel with fair compensation from the Israeli government, the plan cannot be a starting point for serious negotiations.

Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, said the initiative would also have to be softened on the issue of Israel’s final borders. Olmert has said he will not give up Israel’s largest settlements, which have been built on land captured in 1967.

Shoval said Israel should use the common mistrust of Iran to rally moderate Arab support, perhaps producing “an Arab declaration of detente toward Israel” from the summit.

Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, told Saudi television on Tuesday that the plan would not change . “The only part of the plan that Israel likes is the normalization of ties. But if Israel wants something, it needs to give something. There will be no normalization without talking about refugees and withdrawal from Arab lands,” he said. “We will not change any aspects of the plan. Nothing is for free.”

Correspondent Scott Wilson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

About altoraifi
Al Toraifi is the current Editor-in-Chief of Al Majalla, the leading Arab magazine. A specialist on Saudi foreign policy, he is recognized as a commentator and participant in televised programs for CNN, NBC, BBC and Al-Arabia TV. Awarded the post-graduate International Conflict Prize 2008 from Kingston University for outstanding work, Mr Al-Toraifi is currently a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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