Israel resists Arab peace initiative

The 19th Arab League (AL) summit, held in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh on March 28-29, voted to re-affirm support for the "Arab peace initiative" proposed by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah five years ago.

The summit, which was attended by government leaders from all 22 AL member-countries except Libya, also called for a nuclear-weapons free Middle East "without double standards" — a reference to the Western powers' demand that Iran abandon its efforts to produce nuclear-power plant fuel while ignoring Israel's production of nuclear weapons.

The Saudi peace initiative was first proposed by Abdullah in February 2002 and endorsed by the AL's March 2003 summit in Beirut. It offers a comprehensive peace settlement and the "normalisation" of relations between Israel and all the Arab states. It calls for Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian territories that it has occupied since June 1967; a "just solution" to the Palestinian refugee problem (based on UN General Assembly resolution 194), the creation of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital city.

In 2002, however, the initiative was rejected out of hand by Israel. On the day after the Beirut summit, Israel, with Washington's support, launched a massive military assault on the West Bank city of Ramallah, surrounding Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's leadership compound with 60 tanks and pounding it with tank shells.

This was then followed by Israeli military assaults on the Palestinian cities of Tulkarem, Qalqila, Jenin and Nablus. At the time, it was the biggest Israeli assault on the cities in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967, resulting in hundreds of Palestinian civilians being killed and thousands of others being left homeless.

A week before the Riyadh summit, Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni declared that Israel would not even entertain negotiations around a peace plan that included recognising the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the areas they lived in before the establishment of the Israeli state in Palestine in 1948 or a withdrawal of Israel troops to Israel's pre-1967 armistice line, the UN-recognised "Green Line".

Livni's call for the dropping of these aspects of the AL peace initiative were categorically rejected by current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian PM Ismail Haniyeh, as well as AL secretary-general Amr Moussa.

At the end of the Riyadh summit, Moussa told a press conference that the "response from Israel is that they want normalisation and nothing else... They come to us asking the Arab position to be amended. No, we say, why should we?"

Associated Press reported on March 29 that Lebanese President Emile Lahoud warned that "Israel and its allies are trying to thwart the Saudi peace initiative and to empty it of its contents".

Jordan's King Abdullah called on Washington to push Israel to accept the AL offer. "Peace between Arab states and Israel cannot be reached unless Israel deals positively and seriously with the Arab initiative", he told the summit. "That is the real challenge for the leaders of the region and the world, especially the United States."

In the wake of the summit, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has admitted that his government is in a weak position domestically and internationally after losing what Israel now officially calls the "Second Lebanon War" last August, and its failure to convince Washington and the EU to diplomatically boycott all members of the new Palestinian "national unity" government formed by the Fatah and Hamas parties.

Washington, which is desperate to have the Arab states continue to publicly support its bloody occupation of Iraq and to back attempts to diplomatically isolate Iran, has avoided any public criticism of the renewed AL peace initiative, thus undermining attempts by Israel to reject it outright.

Three days after the conclusion of the AL summit, Olmert told German journalists that "if the Saudi king initiates a meeting of heads of moderate [Arab] states and invites me and the head of the Palestinian Authority, I will be glad to attend and express our opinion".

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice immediately praised Olmert's suggestion, saying his call for a regional conference represented a "positive" step.

However, Arab leaders have reacted coolly to it. "Olmert's response was an attempt to normalise relations without responding to the initiative's demands", Mohamed Basyouni, former Egyptian ambassador to Israel and head of the committee for Arab affairs in the upper house of the Egyptian parliament, told the Inter Press Service on April 12. "It was a totally unacceptable manoeuvre that puts the carriage before the horse."

"Olmert's call for a peace conference was just a distraction; an attempt to play for time", Gemal Kemal, political analyst and deputy editor-in-chief of the Egyptian government daily Al Misaa, told IPS.

An Arab foreign ministerial meeting is scheduled for April 18, when 11 Arab foreign ministers will convene in Cairo for a follow-up meeting on the AL peace initiative's prospects.

According to Kemal, "If Israel remains steadfast in its refusal of the offer, the Arab countries can try to embarrass it in front of the UN. What's more, a decision by Cairo to halt steps towards normalisation with Tel Aviv would not be difficult and would enjoy broad popular support." He added: "Israel fears this step, as it would be a difficult one to reverse."

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