Analysis |

Palestinians Could Be Planning a Surprise at Arab League Summit

Some observers expect Abbas to soften demands for opening of talks with Israel.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Every March the journey of the leaders of the Arab countries to the Arab League summit begins, and as is true every year, this year too it will turn out that the Arab League is not exactly the arena where the problems of the region can be solved. This time Jordan is the host and preparations for the arrival of the leaders have almost been completed. The main political and diplomatic work is done behind the scenes, by means of phone calls, emissaries and memoranda of understanding, so that the conference can at least begin with a joint statement acceptable to all. After all, Arab unity, at least at this festive occasion, has to be seen as untarnished.

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About 30 subjects are scheduled for the agenda, from the war in Yemen that doesn’t really interest anyone, although over 10,000 people have been killed in it, to the war in Syria, where in the past six years between 350,000 and 450,000 people have been killed (what are 100,000 people more or less?), to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This time, explain most of the government spokespersons, the Palestinian issue will be the focus of the discussions. As though in previous years the subject was marginalized. After all, it’s the only conflict where the Arab countries can present a common stance, except for the theatrical performances in which the late Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi used to place a polished mirror before them, mocking their impotence when it comes to the Palestinians.

But this time there may be a surprise. Ahmed Aboul Gheit, secretary general of the Arab League who served as Egypt’s foreign minister during the reign of Hosni Mubarak, said that the Palestinians are expected to introduce a new diplomatic proposal. Nobody knows the details and whether there really is such a proposal, not even Palestinian sources, who don’t understand on what the secretary general is basing his statement. Egyptian pundit Sayed Qadri presented an interesting forecast last week, to the effect that the league is expected to adopt a new approach to the conflict, in which the equation “land for peace” will be replaced by support for the establishment of a Palestinian state in return for Arab normalization with Israel.

Our assessment is based on the Arab realization that the previous equation, on which the Arab peace initiative was based, did not convince Israel and the U.S. administration to work to promote the process, one reason being that it was too ambitious in including the Golan Heights and Gaza. Other Arab pundits with whom Haaretz spoke also believe that the time has come to adopt a new policy that will accord with the reality on the ground, “in which Israel continues to build in the settlements and every day erodes the chances of establishing a Palestinian state,” according to a Lebanese journalist who sent his explanations by email.

“The Arab countries have no lever for pressuring Israel, but if [U.S. President Donald] Trump, contrary to his statement at the press conference with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, adheres to the establishment of a Palestinian state, and if – as we read in the Israeli press – he doesn’t give a green light to the expansion of Israeli construction in the territories, this is the opportunity to convince him to adopt the idea and to provide him with motivation to act accordingly,” believes a Jordanian journalist who works for a government newspaper.

What does Abdullah say?

Is that also the view of King Abdullah of Jordan? “This is one of the ideas that the king discussed with Trump, and in his understanding, Trump did not reject it outright,” says the Jordanian journalist. Talk of “updating” the Arab initiative was also heard towards the end of the Obama administration, but at the time the idea encountered the firm opposition of Saudi Arabia to any change, and mainly to the Israeli request to advance the normalization to negotiations and withdrawal. The minimum demanded by Saudi Arabia was an Israeli declaration of a cessation of construction in the territories, an examination on the ground of this declaration, and negotiations according to a strict timetable.

Several days after the end of the Arab summit conference, on April 2, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi is scheduled to meet with Trump, one reason being to turn over a new leaf in relations between the United States and Egypt after the chill during the Obama era. In advance of the meeting Sissi will want to present a consensual Arab viewpoint that will advance the negotiations with the Palestinians. But as opposed to the Arab initiative that was unanimously accepted in 2002, this year Egypt can no longer be certain that Saudi Arabia, the author of that initiative, will support it in light of the tension between the two countries.

Syria, which 15 years ago had the status of a key Arab League country, has been ousted from it for now, and although an empty seat with the Syrian flag in front will be saved, no Syrian representative will participate in the summit. Sissi himself managed to anger the Gulf states this year when he supported the Russian initiative in the United Nations on the question of Syria, and relations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are not particularly good either.

Last week Abbas came to Cairo for a meeting with Sissi for the first time in about 10 months, and he was pressured once again into becoming more flexible regarding his preconditions for beginning negotiations with Israel. Apparently the visit ended badly, despite the Egyptian announcement that relations between Cairo and Ramallah are excellent. Abbas insists that Israel stop building in the territories as a condition for renewing negotiations, and wants the delineation of borders be the first subject to be discussed by the two sides. The question now is how Israel will respond to Trump if he presents it with the option of Arab normalization in exchange for a Palestinian state.

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