Contact, not negotiations
Is the resumption of meetings on the Arab-Israeli peace process an indication of its resurrection? Not necessarily, reports Dina Ezzat
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit have been in contact recently, their main aim being to arrange for a possible meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh, later this month. Any such meeting would come against the backdrop of a collective Arab political mandate extended to Egypt and Jordan to communicate with Israel on the prospects of reviving the long-stalled Arab-Israeli peace process, on the basis of the 2002 Beirut Arab peace initiative. It would also come in the wake of a series of meetings that Egypt is planning to host next week in the Red Sea resort, on the fringe of a scheduled conference on Iraq.
Next week's conference should bring together the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the secretary-generals of the Arab League and the UN, the high policy and security coordinator of the European Union, and the foreign ministers of the US and Russia. "The meetings that will take place are going to be consultations among participants in the Iraq conference to exchange views on the latest developments in relation to the peace process," said Abul-Gheit earlier this week. Abul-Gheit, however, affirmed that this week's consultations do not replace meetings of the Arab Quartet (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) and the International Quartet (the US, EU, UN and Russia) that are tentatively scheduled for early next month.
Sources say that this week's consultations will focus on ways to get Israel and the Arab states into a process of negotiations on the basis of the Arab peace initiative. "So, basically, this week's meetings in Sharm El-Sheikh come as part of the implementation of the resolution adopted by the Ministerial Committee on the Arab Peace Initiative on 18 April in relation to communicating a clear message to the international community about the need to start negotiations and move beyond mere meetings," commented an Egyptian diplomat.
The Arab ministerial meeting, which brings together 13 Arab countries including all sharing borders with Israel, agreed that it would make contact with the international players directly involved in the peace process This would be done with a view to demand that pressure be put on Israel to embrace a series of confidence- building measures, including the return of Israeli troops to their positions of 28 September 2000, and the suspension of the construction of the separation wall and illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. In return, sources say, Arab countries would be willing to calm down tense diplomatic relations with Israel. This calming down, they explained, would include the resumption of trade relations with Qatar, Bahrain and Morocco, suspended some seven years ago in retaliation for Israeli aggression on the Palestinians.
"So we are interested in exploring the political horizon for Arab-Israeli contacts as a means to fast-track a serious process of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations on the basis of the Arab initiative," explained one source who requested anonymity. According to this source, however, the Sharm El-Sheikh meetings will be clear in underlining that this "Arab-Israeli political horizon" will not be granted for free. Nor will it substitute for movement on the Palestinian-Israeli political horizon. "If Israel does not move towards meeting the demands of the Arab side there will be no progress in terms of relations with Arab countries," the source said. He added, "we are willing to engage positively, but we are not willing to move on to the normalisation track, without serious and substantive progress on negotiations. Mere meetings will not do, from our point of view."
Meanwhile, this week's consultations in Sharm El-Sheikh, along with Livni's expected encounter with Abul-Gheit, and possible future visits by Abul-Gheit and Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdelilah Al-Khatib to Israel, would also aim to establish a mechanism for negotiations on the basis of the Arab initiative. "We insist to work on the basis offered by the initiative, but we are not at all saying that the initiative is a 'take it or leave it' offer. This is also part of the message we wish to communicate clearly, to counter the Israeli argument that suggests otherwise," the source said. He was keen to add, "at the same time we are not prepared to enter into an endless process of talks on the initiative."
Senior Palestinian sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed little faith in the potential outcome of such meetings. "It might not be said in public, but it is said in private meetings often: the prospects are very bleak," said a senior Palestinian official. As far as this source is concerned, "there is nobody who is really in a situation to move forward on a substantive process." He argued that the Israeli government is weaker than ever before, with its prime minister now faced with new resignation demands over his disastrous handling of the crisis with Lebanon last summer. Moreover, the source said, the Palestinians "have no strong government and no strong president". Meanwhile, he added, the US administration is exiting the White House soon and French President Jacques Chirac and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who promoted an international conference on Middle East peace, are also retiring from office. "No matter how interested they are, regional players cannot substitute for all the other missing ingredients," the official stated.
Informed Palestinian sources say the meetings that have been held between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, with or without the participation of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have been "inconsequential to say the least". "We have not been able to finalise a deal on the exchange of prisoners. Olmert simply said he would not release all those whom Hamas had demanded be freed. He goes on complaining about the [Palestinian] unity government as an incomprehensible alliance between moderates and extremists," said one source.
Some say the meeting that took place earlier this week in Cairo between Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal was to allow the list of Palestinian prisoners whom Hamas demands be released in exchange for Gilad Shalit -- an Israeli soldier captured by a Palestinian Islamist faction nearly a year ago -- to be re-examined. "Some changes were agreed upon and we are taking the list again to Olmert, with the support of the Egyptians, but we are not sure if it will work," said a Palestinian official who took part in the meetings.
Egyptian and Palestinian sources agree that progress on the exchange of prisoners could facilitate daily relations between Palestinians and Israelis, but would not necessarily jump-start a serious negotiations process. The latter would require a much-lacking political will, especially on the Israeli side. It also requires time, resources and a determination that some key players -- especially the current US administration -- might not possess.