Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 June 2009
Issue No. 952
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Dismay prevails

Arabs are disappointed by Netanyahu's policy statement on Middle East peace, but will they do anything? Dina Ezzat looks for answers

Arab foreign ministers will meet Wednesday at the Cairo headquarters of the Arab League to debate a unified reaction to the Middle East policy statement of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Originally scheduled to consider some form of positive Arab response to the US commitment to pursue Middle East peace, the meeting is now hostage to Netanyahu's speech that many in the Arab world view as "negative", if "expected".

In the words of one Syrian diplomat who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly by phone, the meeting of Arab foreign ministers will no longer discuss possible signs of normalisation between Arabs and Israel to encourage Israel to pursue peace, but rather will aim at sending a clear Arab message expressing dismay at Netanyahu's speech.

On Sunday Netanyahu said he would allow the establishment of a disarmed Palestinian state on unqualified parts of the occupied Palestinian territories only if Arabs, including the Palestinians, accept that Israel is a "Jewish state". The statement prompted immediate furore from the Palestinians who qualified Netanyahu's conditions -- and proposal -- as destructive to all chances of peacemaking. A little later, Egypt took the lead in criticising Netanyahu for conditioning the establishment of a Palestinian state on Arab acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state.

Speaking Monday, hours after Netanyahu's speech, President Hosni Mubarak charged that Netanyahu's statement torpedoes all chances to resume Middle East peace talks. According to President Mubarak, no Palestinian and no Arab can agree to what Netanyahu proposed, either on the character of the future Palestinian state or the qualification of Israeli as a "Jewish state".

Mubarak added that the "Middle East will remain a scene of instability for as long as a peaceful and fair settlement for the Palestinian cause remains evasive."

Mubarak spoke as Lebanon, one of the largest hosts to Palestinian refugees, voiced concern over the intentions behind the Netanyahu speech. Acting Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora, who had just held talks in Cairo with Mubarak and with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, said that the Netanyahu speech is a blow to all efforts aimed at a peaceful settlement to the Arab Israeli conflict. Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hizbullah, went a step further. He criticised US President Barack Obama for deeming Netanyahu's position "a positive step".

Obama said Monday that it is understandable that scepticism is difficult to dispel, but that overall the Netanyahu policy speech acknowledged the establishment of a Palestinian state. Washington was not the only Western capital to give a positive nod to the Netanyahu speech.

However, in Cairo for talks with senior Egyptian and Arab League officials, Robert Serri, the UN secretary- general's envoy for the Middle East, sounded reserved in his reaction to the speech. Serri said that what Netanyahu offered was not all that is required to kick-start a constructive process of negotiations that would promptly lead to Middle East peace.

According to press statement that Serri made hours before Netanyahu spoke, the UN has three main demands of the Israeli government: to acknowledge that the establishment of two states is the ultimate objective; to freeze illegal Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territories; and to allow reconstruction material to get into Gaza soon.

In Cairo Monday, Serri discussed with Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit ways to work around the challenges raised by Netanyahu's speech.

An Egyptian diplomat who spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity said that Cairo was not expecting a great deal of commitment to peacemaking from Netanyahu but, "we were hoping that he would avoid putting the issue of the Jewish nature of Israel in such a confrontational fashion".

An Arab League source, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "It would have been naïve to expect anything positive out of Netanyahu, but what he is offering is impossible to work with."

Both the Egyptian and Arab League sources agreed that the Netanyahu speech indicates that the Obama administration has failed to put enough pressure on Netanyahu to commit to the basic requirements of restarting stalled negotiations. Both said that it would be difficult now for any Arab capital to grant the Obama administration any sign of "opening up towards Israel".

On Monday President Mubarak still expressed hope that Obama would be able to pick up the pieces of Arab- Israeli peace talks. He gave no indication, however, on how this would be done in view of the Netanyahu statement. An Egyptian official said that President Mubarak is considering a trip to the US in the last week of July. "We will see then what the Americans have to offer," he said.

Later this month, the Arab Peace Initiative Ministerial Committee is planning a meeting with the Quartet in Italy on the fringes of the G8 meeting. An Arab diplomat told the Weekly that Arabs would make clear demands of the Quartet that any talk on the Jewish nature of Israel, or the qualification of the Palestinian state as a mere self- rule entity, be shelved.

This week in Luxembourg, Arab League Secretary- General Moussa met with European Union foreign ministers to discuss chances of grasping the US commitment to pursue Middle East peace. According to a diplomat who joined Moussa at the meeting, Arabs are determined to prevent Netanyahu from turning his policy statement into an internationally acknowledged position.

"For us, we cannot work with what Netanyahu proposed and we want the world to realise that we cannot be talking about a semblance of a Palestinian state and a Jewish Israeli state," he said.

Speaking in Cairo earlier this week following talks with Moussa and Mubarak, EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana said that the EU would work hard to support Obama in his pursuit of Middle East peace. Solana said that the Europeans are intensifying their contacts with all concerned parties to push for an opening.

The US presidential envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, is planning to meet Netanyahu in Paris in a few days to consider the US's next move.

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