Sunday,21 January, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1373, (14 - 20 December 2017)
Sunday,21 January, 2018
Issue 1373, (14 - 20 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Arab capitals seek measured response

Most Arab capitals believe a negotiated Palestinian-Israeli settlement is the only way around US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, writes Dina Ezzat 

photo: Reuters
photo: Reuters

On 13 December Arab delegations arrived in Turkey to take part in an Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) conference convened at the invitation of Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Arab representation will not be high profile, according to one Arab diplomat. That this should be so is less the result of tensions between Ankara and several Arab capitals but because of the line most Arab leaders want to draw when it comes to reacting to US President Donald Trump’s recent recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Jerusalem was occupied by the Israeli army during the 1967 War. Determining its status was long deemed a central issue of the final status talks that have not been seriously pursued since a failed attempt by former US president Bill Clinton in 2000.

Most Arab countries expressed dismay at Trump’s 6 December announcement though Arab leaders, for the most part, did not themselves speak against the decision which was made public following talks Trump conducted with influential Arab leaders including President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, Jordan’s King Abdullah and the powerful Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohamed bin Salman.

Statements issued by Arab presidential press offices and foreign ministries were mostly limited to stressing that the Trump announcement was incompatible with UN resolutions and would not help the peace process they had hoped Washington would pursue.

According to Arab and other Middle Eastern diplomats, a resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations focused on final status issues is what most Arab capitals, especially those with direct involvement in and influence over the Palestinian file, want to see happening.

Palestinian-Israeli talks were suspended a decade ago, largely as a result of Israel’s continued construction of illegal settlements on Palestinian land occupied in 1967.

During two successive Arab League meetings — one held on Thursday at the level of the permanent representatives of the 22 member states, the second on Saturday at the level of foreign ministers — stressed the need for the resumption of peace talks during which the status of Jerusalem should be decided in line with the parameters set by the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991.

In 1995 US Congress passed a motion moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv, where it has been based along with every other embassy, to Jerusalem. In 1999 a funding bill was passed to execute the Congressional act. Clinton, and every president that followed him, Democrats and Republicans alike, used a waiver every six months to delay the transition, citing “security interests” as the reason.

Trump, who promised in his election campaign to make good on the transition, used the waiver once.

“The move was clearly coming. Arab capitals had been briefed as much by their embassies in DC,” said one Washington-based Arab diplomat.

Last week Trump informed Israel that the actual move of the embassy, for which preparations would start, still remained contingent on security assessments.

Cairo-based regional and other foreign diplomats say that during his round of calls with the Arab leaders Trump made it clear the move was consistent with his election platform. A highly informed Egyptian source says Trump refused a request made by some Arab leaders to delay the announcement for another six months pending the initiation of what it is hoped will be a conclusive Palestinian-Israeli peace deal.

“I am not so sure there can be such a deal. I know Trump, with the support and in some cases pleas of Arab leaders, is working on a scheme he was hoping to propose before Christmas but which is now set for spring 2018. Whether this will lead to a peace deal — the deal of the century or whatever they call it — is debatable,” says an informed regional diplomat.

There is no sign Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to pursue a deal with the Palestinians, say Arab and foreign diplomats. In the word of one Cairo-based European diplomat: “Netanyahu is in a very comfortable situation; he has warm relations with his peace partners, he has growing cooperation with leading Arab Gulf states and now Trump is giving him Jerusalem on a silver plate.”

That said, Arab leaders are convinced if pressured enough by the Americans Netanyahu would enter into negotiations from which something might emerge.

Concerned diplomats say Arab capitals have told the Trump administration and Netanyahu himself a display of commitment to pursue a peace deal “inspired by” the two-state solution is urgently needed.

But by now it is an open secret that to speak of a two-state solution that allows for a Palestinian state — the word viable has fallen out of use — with East Jerusalem as its capital is an act of willful optimism.

Nothing in the ideas that Trump envoy Jared Kushner is working on with Netanyahu, and with Arab leaders, resembles a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, including East Jerusalem, as posited in the Arab Peace Initiative adopted in the 2002 Beirut Arab Summit. What is being offered, says a Washington-based Arab diplomat, is far less, “much too little for Mahmoud Abbas [the Palestinian President] to accept”.

Egyptian sources say Abbas remains sceptical of Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s encouragement to begin peace talks before it is too late for the Palestinians to secure anything at all.

“The view we adopt is that we need to get started and once we do momentum could pick up,” said one Egyptian source. This is not the view in Abbas’ office, something that did not change after the brief talk Abbas had in Cairo early Monday evening with President Al-Sisi.

A Palestinian source says the two leaders “expressed their views on how to handle the recent development regarding Jerusalem which they both find disturbing” but offered no additional details.

King Abdullah of Jordan, current chair of the Arab Summit, was scheduled to join Al-Sisi and Abbas for their meeting but had to delay his trip. He is still expected in Cairo, and will also travel to other Arab capitals for consultations.

The Arab ministerial meeting that convened on Saturday at the Arab League’s headquarters in Cairo concluded an Arab summit could convene within four weeks or so to discuss the future of Jerusalem.

Abdullah was keen to ensure the Arab position — “moderate and realistic, taking into account the facts on the ground,” according to one Arab League source — would not be marginalised by yesterday’s OIC Summit, either by the host and chair of the event, Turkey, or by the Iranian or Qatar delegations which were expected to attempt to force some kind of escalation.

Egyptian sources say Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia coordinated their positions during the Arab ministerial meeting on Saturday precisely to avoid proposals that had been circulated demanding Arab ambassadors be recalled from Washington and Israel, and economic and other forms of cooperation with Tel Aviv be suspended.

During a joint press briefing following talks with Netanyahu in Paris on Sunday French President Emanuel Macron said he opposed the Trump announcement. During talks in Brussels on Monday Netanyahu heard the same line from member states of the European Union.

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