Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 October 2007
Issue No. 865
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

De facto recognition for the Zionist entity?

Dina Ezzat tries to assess the Arabs' possible gains and concessions in the next peace meeting

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad announced that his country would participate in an international foreign ministers meeting inWashington later in the autumn only if the Syrian-Israeli file was included in the agenda of the talks, contributing yet another hurdle to the success of this already contentious meeting.

Since US President George W Bush announced his plan to host the meeting, the concern in Arab and European quarters was that Syria would be automatically excluded by the US from that meeting. The Arab League and its key member states, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, demanded that the US include Syria in the list of invitees. Late last month, at the UN General Assembly, US Secretary Condoleezza Rice officially informed Arab interlocutors that Syria would be invited to the meeting in its capacity as member of the Arab League Peace Initiative committee. According to statements made by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, following a meeting with President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on Sunday, Syria is one of 36 participants that are expected to be invited by the US to the meeting.

Given that no agreement has yet been reached on the agenda of the meeting, it is not clear whether or not the files of the Syrian track of the peace process would be included. Most Arab sources suspect that it would not. However, nobody, not even some American sources, is willing to completely dismiss the inclusion of some sort of reference to the Syrian and Lebanese tracks in the agenda , or for that matter the outcome of the Washington meeting.

Sources involved in the preparations for the meeting say that an Arab demand to include a clear reference to the three pending tracks of the settlement of the Arab-Israeli struggle was forwarded during a meeting that brought together the foreign minister of the international Quartet on the Middle East and their counterparts in the Arab League Peace Initiative committee, along with the secretary generals of the UN and the Arab League.

According to Hesham Youssef, chief of the cabinet of the Arab League secretary-general, this demand will be further pursued during consultations to be conducted in the coming weeks between members of the international Quartet and the Arab League Peace Initiative committee.

However, as Youssef admits, the inclusion of a reference to the Syrian track is only one of many details that will have to be promptly addressed if the Washington meeting is to succeed. According to Youssef, the mere participation of Arab officials from countries that conduct no diplomatic or even trade ties with Israel in the meeting along with the Israeli foreign minister is already a concession that Israel would have to reciprocate.

Youssef acknowledges that in the framework of the multilateral talks that were spurred by the Madrid Peace Conference, there was joint Arab-Israeli participation in committees that addressed issues related to regional security, environment, water, economic cooperation and Palestinian refugees. However, he added, Arab governments firmly believe that they would find it very difficult to participate in such an undertaking while Israel is continuing with its illegal settlement activities or the blockade it imposes on the Palestinian people. Such practices simply contradict the basic intentions required to operate a genuine and productive peace process, Youssef said.

According to Youssef, this is why there is still much apprehension on the Arab side in terms of participation, especially on the part of some Arab countries with no relations with Israel. This is also why Arab leaders with long experience in dealing with the peace process like President Hosni Mubarak have been stressing the need to reach a coherent understanding on the possible outcome of the meeting before it convenes, Youssef said.

In New York, Arab and international partners did not reach agreement either on the agenda or on the outcome. However, a clear Arab position was reached. The main demand was that there needs to be an agreement that the objective of the Washington meeting is to achieve a final and comprehensive settlement for the Arab-Israeli conflict within a reasonable and agreed upon timeframe. Also requested by the Arab side were clear dates for the commencement of negotiations and a coherent follow-up mechanism with a visible role for the UN.

Moreover, the collective Arab delegation in New York demanded that Israel should commit to a moratorium on all settlement activities and the construction of the separation wall. Israel, the Arabs also demanded, needs to lift the siege it has been imposing on the Palestinian people. Demands were also made in relation to the release of Palestinian prisoners.

According to Youssef a positive response to these demands is perceived in many Arab diplomatic quarters as crucial for their participation in the meeting. It is the positive response, or the lack thereof, on the part of the US and Israel that will decide the Arabs stance on the meeting.

The chief of the cabinet of the Arab League secretary general said that Rice promised the Arab delegations in New York that the meeting is going to be both serious and substantive. However, we still need to reach a common and clear understanding of what exactly all sides would consider as serious and substantive and how the final status issues of the Palestinian track would be addressed.

Meanwhile, Youssef is keen that the Arab participation in the Washington meeting would not amount to normalisation. When you talk about normalisation you are talking about the establishment of diplomatic and other forms of relations that go way beyond the mere presence in the same avenue or even appearing in the same picture, Youssef said. And in any case, he added, Steps from the Arab side would not be taken for free. Concessions cannot only be made by the Arab side. This has been made very clear to all those concerned.

Yesterday, at the headquarters of the Arab League, permanent representatives of its member-states met Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa to discuss the next move in the preparations for the meeting. Of particular concern was the message that Arabs would pass to Rice during a regional visit expected in less than 10 days.

Meanwhile, the meeting also discussed the initial outcome of the early meetings held between Palestinian and Israeli delegations aimed at preparing for the Washington meeting.

According to recent statements by Abbas in Cairo, close Arab coordination is essential to secure the inclusion of as many Arab demands as possible in the agenda of the meeting and in whatever joint statement that might come out of the meeting. Following his talks in Cairo with Mubarak and Moussa, Abbas was in Amman for talks with Jordans King Abdullah. Mubarak and Abdullah had already met late last week on the same issue. More high- level Arab meetings are expected in coming weeks.

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