THE NEWS THAT Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and PLO chairman Yasir Arafat will not attend the Arab League summit in Beirut is a blow to the United States’ efforts to muster support for the less-than perfect-but-better-than-nothing peace plan proposed by Saudi Arabia’s essential leader, Crown Prince Abdullah.
We hold no illusions about Arafat. He is a stone-cold killer more devoted to retaining his own power by plotting the destruction of Israel than to seeking peace for the Palestinians. Anyone who doubts that characterization need only consider the recent Israeli seizure of a ship carrying 50 tons of Iranian-supplied arms to Arafat, as well as the more-recent revelations that, not quite a year ago, aides to Arafat struck a long-term deal arranging for Iran to supply heavy arms and financial support to the Palestinians waging guerrilla war against Israel.
Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, however, has misplayed his hand in choosing this potentially pivotal moment to declare that Israel should have killed Arafat 20 years ago when it had him under siege in Lebanon. He has also overplayed his hand by imposing restrictions — which could have resulted in Arafat’s exile — on Arafat’s trip to Beirut. Had he attended the Arab summit, Arafat would have faced pressure to show flexibility or be exposed — once again — for the fraud that he is.
Assessing the situation for the New York Times, former American ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk said, "Neither Arafat nor Sharon want to be seen as knuckling under to pressure. And neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are convinced that the US is serious and willing to stay the course. Therefore, they may consider that they don’t need to take them seriously. That puts the administration in the same dilemma as the Clinton administration: when the going gets tough, do you leave or double your bet?"
The answer is clear: with the situation in Afghanistan appearing increasingly unstable, the long-term threats posed by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein becoming clearer, and the latest intifada showing no signs of abating, the US must redouble its efforts.
An aside before moving on: Arafat and Sharon are old men determined, it too often appears, to make the future conform to old — albeit potent — visions of the past. There is little chance of the US’s bringing about a positive change among Palestinians. Nor, at this point, does it seems probable that the US would openly intervene in Israeli domestic politics. But Israel is a democracy, which cannot be said of any other regime in that region. And democracy is an asset in this seemingly hopeless situation.
Vague rumblings are beginning to stir about the need for a new government in Israel. Let's hope that when the time comes to shift power, Israel will be guided by a modern leader, not a dinosaur. Whether new Israeli leadership comes from the right, left, or middle, he or she must be media savvy, understand how US politics works, and have the ruthless sense of creativity that the current situation calls for.
An equal, and perhaps even greater, blow to US efforts to orchestrate support for the Saudi peace initiative was the last-minute decision by Egypt’s Mubarak to boycott the Arab League meeting. Mubarak is supposed to be an ally. And while, like most US-backed Muslim autocrats, he publicly supports America while privately tolerating or encouraging fundamentalists dedicated to the destruction of both Israel and the US, his failure to take his seat at the table is a diplomatic disappointment. But perhaps it should not come as a surprise.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the two pillars that prop up this disorganized organization of 22 states — which, as June Thomas points out in Slate, agree on almost nothing "other than opposition to the state of Israel." For years, the League’s policy was simple: no recognition, negotiation, or peace with Israel. Upon signing its historic peace treaty with Israel, in 1979, Egypt was suspended from the League for 10 years. But now the League needs Egypt more than Egypt needs the League.
As disappointing as all this is, Saudi prince Abdullah’s peace proposal could still be the single most important sign of hope for an Israeli-Palestinian resolution. Although the plan as presented sets nearly impossible terms for Israel, it is the first time since Anwar Sadat governed Egypt that an Arab leader has openly voiced not only the need for resolution, but also a willingness to take part in making it happen.
The reasons seem clear. It’s not that Arab leaders are suddenly concerned about Israel — or even about the Palestinians, for that matter. For years, Arab states have collectively used the Palestinians as pawns, first to destroy Israel and more recently to divert the attention of their own angry fundamentalist populations away from their own despotic rule.
Simply put, the despots of the Middle East face a tough and uncertain future. If the Palestinian violence led by young extremists who subscribe to a cult of suicide escalates, these entrenched leaders will see the handwriting on the wall. They will be the next targets of this youth movement nurtured by Iran, Iraq, and Osama bin Laden.
If they can now play a role in brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians — and perhaps create a Palestinian state beholden to them — they stand to garner greater support and protection from the US, and maybe even help from the Israelis in their bid to stay in power.
As we go to press, word comes from the New York Times Online that Crown Prince Abdullah reiterated the need for peace in what was termed "an emotional and obviously heartfelt speech." Unfortunately, shortly thereafter, the summit was disrupted by a walkout of Arab states objecting to Lebanon's decision to bar a telecast address by Arafat.
Let’s hope that even after the apparent and hopefully temporary unraveling of the Arab summit, peace still has a chance.
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