Arab leaders doubtful on 2-state solution to Palestinian conflict
By Michael Slackman
Friday, February 22, 2008
CAIRO: Arab leaders will threaten to rescind their offer of full relations with Israel in exchange for a complete Israeli withdrawal from occupied lands unless Israel gives a positive response to their initiative, indicating the Arab states' growing disillusionment with the prospects of a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At an Arab League meeting in March in Syria, the leaders plan to reiterate support for their initiative, first issued in 2002. The initiative promised Israel normalization with the 22 members of the league in return for the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as the capital, and a resolution of the issue of Palestinian refugees.
But this time, "there will be a message to Israel emphasizing the need to respond to the initiative; otherwise, Arab states will reassess the previous stage of peace," said Muhammad Sobeih, assistant secretary general of the Arab League in charge of the Palestinian issue. "They will withdraw the initiative and look for other options. It makes no sense to insist on something that Israel is rejecting."
Israeli officials on Friday rejected the Arab complaints and said that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had responded positively to the Arab League initiative as a basis for negotiations.
Mark Regev, the spokesman for Olmert, said Israel was engaged in serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians on nearly a daily basis, in order to settle the conflict on the basis of two independent and sovereign states.
"Israel has responded positively to the Arab League initiative," Regev said. "We've praised the initiative, and we said we were willing to have negotiations with the Arab world on its basis, and the prime minister has praised it. To say we've ignored it is simply incorrect."
The talks with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and his chosen negotiators go on "almost daily," Regev said, with Abbas-Olmert meetings every other week.
Another Israeli official, who asked not to be identified for diplomatic reasons, played down the comments from Sobeih. The official said that in general, Amr Moussa, head of the Arab League, and his secretariat staff were more "critical and negative than Arab League foreign ministers." He described Moussa and his staff as "more Nasserite" and said that European interlocutors "tell us, 'Don't expect much from Amr Moussa.' "
Many Arab leaders never warmly embraced the idea of a two-state solution to the conflict because of their distaste for Israel, but they accepted it as a means to stabilize the region and tamp down extremism. Now, however, there is a growing feeling that Israel wants to create only a rump Palestinian state that would be neither viable nor truly sovereign. And that, officials say, is not only unacceptable, but also dangerous.
That perception hit Arab leaders hard when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians crashed through the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt in January, in the wake of an Israeli policy to cut off supplies to Gaza to protest the rule of Hamas there and the continuing rocket fire on Israel.
When the Palestinians poured into Egypt, suddenly, officials in both Jordan and Egypt – the only neighbors with peace treaties with Israel – grew frightened that Israel planned to solve its Palestinian problem by forcing Egypt to absorb Gaza, and Jordan the West Bank.
"The crisis was an awakening for those who didn't know or were not familiar with plans or ideas to drop Gaza on Egypt's shoulder," said an Egyptian government official speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the subject. Israeli officials have said that they would like Egypt to take over administration of Gaza.
As a result, there is a growing sentiment in Arab states that the principle at the core of the peace process – the two-state solution – has no future. Increasingly, the peace process, once aimed at figuring out how to get from here to there, is back to a more fundamental point: where to go.
"There Is No Longer Space for Two States on the Palestinian Land," read a headline in a recent edition of Al Hayat, a pan-Arab newspaper in London.
Egyptians and Jordanians say that the way events have evolved, there is no likelihood that a real Palestinian state would be formed. A truncated entity, one dotted with Israeli settlements and divided by internal Palestinian conflict, would in the end be no state at all, and would serve only to empower radicals and fuel the conflict in perpetuity, Arab political analysts and government officials said.
"There is a general Arab sentiment of despair regarding this issue," said Dureid Mahasneh, a member of the Jordanian team that negotiated the treaty with Israel in the 1990s.
That despair is accompanied by anxiety and fear that momentum is moving in favor of the more radical players, like Hamas and its patron state, Iran.
"Hamas is going to be fortified," said Mahmoud Shokry, a retired Egyptian ambassador to Syria who serves on the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, a government advisory group. "Not only Egypt, but all the Arab countries have to think about this."
Arabs blame Israel – as the occupying power – for the diminishing viability of a two-state solution, even while Sobeih said he would never, under any circumstances, accept Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.
"People no longer trust that a Palestinian state can be established, for one sole reason: the brutality of the Israeli state and the retreat of the Arab world," said Abdullah el-Ashaal, a former assistant to the Egyptian foreign minister and a professor of international law at Cairo University, who was articulating a widely held position in this region. "And this is why there is a return to the radicalization of the Arab attitude, meaning the words 'peace process' no longer hold any meaning."
Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Jerusalem.