27 Jan. - 2 Feb. 2000
Issue No. 466
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Regional track resumedBy Sherine Bahaa
Postponed for three years due to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's tenure as regional "thorn in the side", the multilateral Middle East peace talks will be resumed in Moscow beginning 1 February. Arab officials view the talks as an opportunity to tackle the most serious obstacles to regional cooperation outside of the framework of bilateral negotiations.
"We are on the verge of a new era, and planning for the new Middle East order, but Arab rights are still at the forefront of our agenda," Mustafa El-Fiqi, Egyptian Assistant Foreign Minister for Arab affairs, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Multilateral talks began shortly after the opening of the 1991 Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid. The United States and Russia, the sponsors of the process, believed that holding talks on regional issues such as arms control, the environment, refugees, water resources and economic cooperation would strengthen the basis for conducting bilateral talks between Israel and each of the Arab countries involved in the negotiations.
Regional cooperation projects were also thought to be one way to bring in outside investment with the aim of improving the regional economy after decades of war. However, Syria and Lebanon have boycotted all multilateral talks' committees since they were first convoked.
Progress in earlier multilateral sessions was hampered due to the lack of progress in bilateral peace talks, particularly on the Syrian and Palestinian tracks.
Despite the resumption of peace talks between Damascus and Israel last month, Syria and Lebanon announced that they would also boycott the upcoming meetings in Moscow. They cited similar reasons: progress in bilateral talks has to take place first before discussions on regional cooperation. Egypt and other Arab countries are also expected to make the same point, despite their participation.
Even though officials from more than 60 countries are to gather in Moscow for the opening of the talks, the Russian government cannot afford to give them its undivided attention. "Moscow [faces] special circumstances, especially given the shadow cast over the meetings by the Chechen war," said El-Fiqi.
Some Arab officials are more optimistic believing that multilateral talks will allow for a more thorough discussion of certain regional issues -- for example refugees and water -- that might not be properly covered in bilateral talks.
With the aim of promoting Arab interests most effectively, Arab foreign ministers are meeting beforehand to coordinate their positions on regional cooperation. Palestinian Authority official Faisal Al-Husseini said that ministers from Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Tunisia and Morocco were due to meet in the coming days.
Successful talks, however, depend on more than efforts by the Arab side alone. "If Israeli cooperation turns out to be elusive and nothing concrete materialises, we may decide to collectively boycott the talks," said Gawad Anani, former Jordanian foreign minister.
Explaining the relation between the multilateral and bilateral talks, Anani said the Arab world "understands the [multilateral] talks as serving the bilateral [ones, rather] than the opposite". The Arab League decided to boycott the multilateral talks in 1997 in protest against Netanyahu's intransigent policies and refusal to implement agreements already reached with Palestinians.
Arab countries consider regional cooperation to be the card they can use to press Israel to proceed more seriously with the peace process. "If the multilateral talks can conclude some of the issues that are tackled in the bilateral tracks, what is the use of boycotting them," said Jordan's former minister, Anani.