Diplomatic surge on Mideast peace

Egyptian and Jordanian envoys traveled to Israel Wednesday to back an Arab peace plan.

Israeli officials celebrated the arrival Wednesday of the Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers, here to discuss a peace plan supported by the Arab League, as a historic day marking the first time countries representing the group of 22 Arab nations have visited the Jewish state.

For Israel, this reads as a significant step toward reconciliation, particularly as it comes between two heavyweight diplomatic missions focused on laying the groundwork for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Tony Blair, the British ex-prime minister, was here this week on his maiden voyage as Middle East peace envoy for the group known as the Quartet. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to arrive next week.

All of this comes as a deepening crisis in Iraq appears to be encouraging President Bush, Mr. Blair, and Arab leaders to reinvest in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And with Israeli leaders and Palestinians in the West Bank now talking, some analysts say the conflict here no longer looks like the most intractable part of the Middle East.

But to some of Israel's Arab neighbors, talk of the trip by its Jordanian and Egyptian representatives as a major milestone toward reconciliation oversteps the on-the-ground realities that leave Israelis and Palestinians far from peace.

Indeed, there are as many obstacles as there are approaches to overcome them.

A proposal for a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace deal – called the Arab Initiative or Saudi Initiative, as it was proposed in its original form by the Saudi crown prince more than five years ago – was backed by members of the Arab League in June, after the Hamas ouster of the secular Fatah movement in Gaza.

It suggests reaching a land-for-peace accord under more or less predictable lines: Israel would withdraw from much of the West Bank and East Jerusalem to pave the way for a Palestinian state, and would, in return, receive recognition from the Arab League.

The plan also calls for Israel to agree to the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel proper. Israelis say that's a nonstarter because it would lead to the destruction of the Jewish state, while Arabs say there can be no peace without solving the refugee problem.

Such gaps aside, both Israeli and Arab leaders have shown renewed interest in getting back to talking. Regional leaders, viewing the ascendancy of Islamic militant groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah with some trepidation, see this as an opportune moment to show that peace can produce results, and comes with benefits like foreign investment and social stability.

Hamas's surprise ability to seize Gaza raises concerns in Egypt and Jordan that their own branches of the Muslim Brotherhood may be emboldened by the Islamic militants.

"Of course the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan have visited before, but this is the first time that they're coming here under the auspices of a working group of the Arab League. This is historic," says Mark Regev, the spokesman of the Israel foreign ministry. "The challenge is to take that initiative, which is a piece of paper, and transform into something that will forward the peace process."

Mr. Regev says Israel had hoped for even more countries to participate in the delegation, as a gesture of seriousness about peace. Already, he says, Israel talks with about half of the members of the Arab League, although many of these contacts are unofficial.

"Israel would like the process of dialogue with the Arab world to be accelerated," he says. "Now, the current thinking is that the Arab states have to be more involved. Ultimately, we would argue that pragmatic, moderate Arab governments have an obligation to support pragmatic, moderate Palestinians," Regev says, referring to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

But what Israel would view as engagement, many Arab countries deem normalization, still a kind of social taboo. For any senior Arab official whose nation doesn't have diplomatic relations with Israel – and only Egypt, Jordan, and Mauritania do – a visit is seen as a premature step toward thawing what's largely been a decades-long cold war.

To make this point, the Jordanian and Egyptian leaders said Wednesday that they were representing their own countries, not the Arab League as a whole.

The difference may seem like hair-splitting. But to regional players, the way the arrival of a delegation of Arab leaders to Israel is portrayed is a matter of great importance.

"The main card the Arab countries have to offer is normalization, and by participating in a delegation to Israel, they're giving their trump card away, and so they're not going to do that without getting anything in return," says Mouin Rabbani, senior Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group in Amman, Jordan.

Mr. Rabbani says that there were initial reports that the delegation would include officials from countries that don't have relations with Israel. "Many Arab states didn't feel that it was appropriate to give Israel what would be seen as a diplomatic victory," Rabbani says.

On the eve of the arrival of Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdelelah al-Khatib and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Israeli and Palestinian news agencies reported that Saudi Arabia was withdrawing support from the mission. There was no shortage of speculation over why, including fears that a delegation visit seen too favorable to Israel could upset Al Qaeda elements in the Saudi kingdom.

"There is a potentially embarrassing situation where senior Arab diplomats are meeting with Israel officials, but don't meet with Hamas," Rabbani adds.

Mustapha Barghouthi, a Palestinian Legislative Council member, says "The Saudis are upset because they want the Palestinian internal dialogue [between Hamas and Fatah] to be reinstated. Eventually, we have to talk to each other."

But from Israel's perspective, that split is the key reason why the window of opportunity is now wide open.

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