Arabs’ visit to Israel: Diplomatic milestone or photo opportunity?

July 30, 2007 - 0:0

Many analysts viewed recently’s visit by the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan - the only two Arab countries beside Mauritania with ties to Israel - as a step toward reconciliation, particularly as it comes amid a flurry of diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Tony Blair, the UK’s former prime minister, was in Beit-ul-Moqaddas last week on his maiden voyage as Middle East peace envoy for the Quartet. The U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is also due to visit next week. Israel too hailed the visit as the first time countries representing the 22-member Arab League have visited the Jewish state. Describing the visit as historic, Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev said: “In the past, the Arab League has opposed dialogue, normalization and any contact with Israel and this is the first time the Arab League has authorized a delegation to visit Israel."" But Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa stressed that Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdelelah al-Khatib and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit were representing their own countries, not the Arab League, which has no relations with Israel. ""They are not acting under the banner of the Arab League. They are not going on behalf of the Arab League nor have they been sent as delegates by the Arab League... They represent two Arab countries that for certain circumstances entered into peace accords and official diplomatic relations.” The visit was mainly aimed at presenting a long-standing peace plan that Israel has frequently rejected. The proposal, called the Arab Initiative or the Saudi Initiative as it was proposed in its original form by the Saudi crown prince more than five years ago, was recently readopted by Arab League members at a meeting in Saudi Arabia. It suggests reaching a land-for-peace accord with Israel as it offers the Jewish state normal ties with all Arab countries in return for a full withdrawal from territory Israel occupied in 1967 in order to pave the way for the creation of an independent Palestinian state. The plan also calls on Israel to agree to the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees; a demand that the Israelis have long rejected despite Arabs’ insistence that there can be no peace without solving the refugee problem. Many Arabs don’t consider recently’s visit as a major milestone toward reconciliation as long as the on-ground realities remain the same, according to an editorial on the Christian Science Monitor. Indeed, there are many obstacles that hamper the realization of a peaceful settlement. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have not seen progress for seven years, a period in which more than 5,000 people have died in violence, the large majority of them Palestinians. However, Arab leaders have shown renewed interest in getting back to the negotiating table. ""We are extending a hand of peace on behalf of the whole region to you, and we hope that we will be able to create the momentum needed to resume fruitful and productive negotiations,"" Jordan's Abdulelah Khatib said during the visit. Khatib also said that Israel should ""not waste this historic opportunity"". For his part, Mark Regev said: ""The challenge is to take that initiative, which is a piece of paper, and transform into something that will forward the peace process.” Regev also said that his government wants more countries to participate in the delegation, adding that Israel talks with about half of the Arab League members, although many of these contacts are unofficial. For any senior Arab official whose country doesn't have diplomatic relations with Israel, a visit is seen as a premature step toward thawing what's largely been a decades-long cold war. ""Many Arab states didn't feel that it was appropriate to give Israel what would be seen as a diplomatic victory,"" says Mouin Rabbani, senior Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group in Amman, Jordan. ""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."" One the eve of the visit, Israeli and Palestinian news agencies reported that Saudi Arabia withdrew its support for the mission. The reasons behind this decision could be Saudi fears that such a visit could upset Al Qaeda elements in the kingdom, and the fact that there is an embarrassing situation where senior Arab diplomats meet with Israel officials, but don't meet with Hamas. In fact, any progress needs to address recent developments in Gaza which last month fell under the control of Hamas, the resistance movement boycotted by both Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party that holds sway in the West Bank. ""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,” says Mustapha Barghouthi, a Palestinian Legislative Council member. It’s not clear how Arab leaders could start peace negotiations with Israel over their initiative while the Palestinians are torn apart between Israeli-occupied, Fatah-controlled West Bank and Hamas-run Gaza. From Israel’s perspective, this split is the key reason why now is the best time to woo Arab leaders, and possibly turn them against Hamas. (Source: