Monday, August 17, 2009

Mubarak's and Arab States' Peace Plan: Israel Gives Everything, Arab States Think About It

By Barry Rubin

Egyptian President Husni Mubarak, in a major interview, August 17, explained his position on regional peace with Israel. The problem is to understand what it means in practice.

Here’s what he said in his briefest explanation of this policy:

"I affirmed to President Obama in Cairo that the Arab initiative offers recognition of Israel and normalization with it after, and not before, achieving a just and comprehensive peace,"

What does this mean?

In order to get normalization with the Arab world, Israel must first meet the terms of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Consequently, Arab states give the PA veto power over their actions, a major reason why the conflict has been sustained for decades and will continue for decades more.

I think anyone will find it very hard to discover a single instance of any Arab country pressing the PLO or PA toward a more moderate policy at any time over the last 25 years. That isn’t going to happen now either, though the idea of their doing so is a central element in the current U.S. policy.

Think about what has just happened: in a face-off between the United States (and not just any U.S. government but the "wildly popular" President Obama) and the PA, the PA won. Obama requested that Arab states take steps toward normalization or confidence-building with Israel to promote peace and to persuade Israel to stop construction on settlements.

The PA called on Arab states not to do so.

They aren’t doing so.

Mubarak, however, notes one small exception:

"I told him that some Arab states which had mutual trade representation offices with Israel could consider reopening those offices if Israel commits to stopping settlement [building] and resumes final status negotiations with the Palestinian Authority where they left off with Olmert's government."

In fact, it has been reported that the two countries in question—Qatar and Oman—might do so. This is the sum total of U.S. success in getting Arab states to offer to do something.

The basic offer then is this: If Israel promises to stop building apartments and, probably, never does so again, Qatar and the UAE will “consider” letting one or two Israeli diplomats come there to run a low-profile commercial office. But note that if Israel in future does anything the Arab side doesn’t like (or the PA demands it) these offices will again be closed, while Israel will still have to freeze construction forever.

The mention of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is also significant. Olmer says that he offered the PA very generous terms when he was in office which the PA rejected. Mubarak sets a second condition: that the starting point must be the Olmert offer.

Israeli offers are made on the basis of explaining the concessions Israel is prepared to make if the other side also makes concessions. In other words, Israel's best offer and the PA's maximum demands are where negotiations must begin. 

This is an old trick. Other examples are the PA's demands that the Taba negotiations (by a left-wing Israeli group and not even an official delegation) should be the starting point, or the similar case of the Geneva talks, or Syria's similar use of a conditional offer by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to demand that negotiations start with Israel agreeing to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights without Syria offering anything in return.

This type of unequal bargaining--Israel must yield everything and then the Arab side will start talking about what it will do--also applies to Arab offers on the broader question of Arab-Israeli peace.

Basically, here’s how things stand right now with the Arab states' negotiating position:

Israel withdraws from all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem; dismantles all settlements; arranges massive compensation payments for Palestinians; allows all Palestinian refugees who wish to do so (possibly several million people) to go live in Israel; accepts a Palestinian state with an unlimited army and no serious security guarantees for Israel (because the PA won’t agree to anything else); and at that point…

At that point, Arab states say—but who knows what would happen?—they will recognize Israel and make peace with it.

But that’s not all. For Mubarak's "offer" and the Arab peace plan might also require Syria to consider its conflict with Israel wrapped up. Suppose Israel meets all the PA demands outlined above. It is highly likely that Arab states will say: That’s not enough because Israel must also withdraw from the entire Golan Heights on terms which Syria will accept before there can be peace and normalization. And Syria will not agree to any serious security guarantees or the smallest compromise.

This is the implication of the much vaunted “Arab peace plan” or “Saudi plan.”

Doesn’t sound too good, does it? And this is Mubarak speaking who, of course, is far more moderate than the Syrian regime and others in the region.

Is any of this presented in the mass media or U.S. government when there is talk of Arab plans and peace offers?

Well, here's how the New York Times explains it:

"In White House meetings beginning Monday, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt is expected to tell the Obama administration that Arab nations want peace, but are unwilling to abide Mr. Obama’s call to make good-faith concessions to Israel until Israel takes tangible steps like freezing settlements, an Egyptian official said."

Here's how it is presented by that Egyptian official:

"Mr. Mubarak will tell Mr. Obama that from the Arab perspective, the best way to build confidence is to press Israel to freeze settlements, implement an economic plan to improve life in the West Bank, ease pressure on Gaza and agree to negotiate with all issues on the table, including the status of Jerusalem and refugees, said Ambassador Hossam Zaki, spokesman for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry.

“`If they do this and engage immediately in negotiations with Abu Mazen, this is a recipe for openness and the Arabs will make the gestures needed....But they don’t want to make this first step. They are demanding the Arabs make the first step. The Arabs should not make the first step. They are the occupying power. The occupation must end.”

As quoted this might sound reasonable but what it means is what I described above.

Once upon a time, power meant something in Western diplomacy. The way to look at it might be: Israel has the land, you want it, what will you give to get it back?

For Israel, possession of the West Bank and east Jerusalem is an asset, but the Western interpretation generally is that it is an immoral and costly burden.

By taking the West Bank and east Jerusalem off its hands, the Arabs claim to be doing Israel a favor. By forcing it (in theory at least) to give up a lot for a litttle, U.S. and European policymakers assert that they are doing Israel a favor, too.

It won't work that way. Israel holds the cards and it will continue to do so unless it gets in exchange enough to guarantee a lasting and stable peace by its reasonable definition.

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