Thursday, April 03, 2008

A constructive role for the Arab League

Wrapping up its meeting in Damascus on Sunday, the Arab League threatened to "reevaluate" its 2002 peace offer to Israel. The plan is contingent, Secretary-General Amr Moussa warned, on "Israel executing its commitments."

Actually, it is Arab League policy which needs reevaluation. Six years after it was tendered by the Saudi Crown prince, now king, Abdullah, Arab leaders still do not comprehend why Israelis haven't enthusiastically embraced their initiative.

First, some context: The Arab League was founded in 1945, in Cairo. Its primary mission was to obstruct the emergence of a Jewish state anywhere in British-controlled Palestine. In 1946, the Arab League supported the intransigence of Haj Amin al-Husseini, mufti of Jerusalem, over more moderate Palestinian Arab voices. It then rejected the 1947 UN Partition Plan, which would have created two states - one Arab and one Jewish - living side-by-side in peace.

After the 1948 war, rather than reconcile with Israel, the League spearheaded the creation of UNRWA, effectively perpetuating the statelessness of Palestinian refugees. In 1957 it sealed their fate by rejecting appeals that they be resettled in Arab states, just as Jewish refugees from the Arab countries had been resettled in Israel.

It was with the League's imprimatur that Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser created the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1963 - four years before the West Bank and Gaza came under Israeli control. Then, in March 1979, the League suspended Egypt for signing a peace treaty with Israel. Cairo was not readmitted until 1989.

AND THEN, in March 2002, after nearly six decades of unremitting hostility, the League apparently changed direction and adopted the Saudi peace initiative.

But even this giant leap falls short. It demands Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines; acceptance of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital; and a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194.

On borders, at least on the Palestinian front, it is common knowledge that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Qurei are, right now, poring over maps, trying to come up with an agreement in principle which would presumably take effect only after the Palestinians stop violence, terrorism and incitement against Israel and both peoples approve of the deal.

Arguably, the biggest obstacle for Israelis in the Saudi plan is that it addresses the plight of Palestinian refugees by invoking General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948. Carried out in practice, it would inundate Israel - Jewish population 5.3 million - with 4.5 million stateless Palestinians. Few Israelis view this as anything but a recipe for the demographic destruction of the world's only Jewish state. And yet the idea that an organization unambiguously created to quash the birth of a Jewish state, and long dedicated to that goal, would ever offer even the theoretical opportunity of "normal relations" - albeit on terms no Israeli government could possibly accept - should not be summarily dismissed. And it hasn't been.

In March 2002, then foreign minister Shimon Peres declared Israel was prepared to discuss the plan; not as a diktat, but as a starting point. So it is really up to the Arab League to modify a fundamentally flawed offer by opening up negotiations with Israel. Let Secretary-General Moussa himself come to Jerusalem - where he would be cordially welcomed - to pursue such discussions.

Instead of reaching out, an Arab League in disarray has continued its hard-line, anti-Israel rhetoric. That's easier than bridging internal gaps between Hamas and Fatah, and over Iraq, Lebanon, and Alawite-led Syria's ever-closer melding with the Persian ayatollahs. Moussa had to make the most of a summit boycotted by the kings of Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, as well as by Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Yemen's Ali Abdullah Salah. Hence his denunciation of invented Israeli "war crimes" in Gaza, and perhaps also PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's incongruent plea for League intervention to save "besieged" Palestinians. Comic relief was provided by Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, who helpfully pointed out that Arab leaders hate and conspire against each other.

With Damascus now assuming the Arab League presidency, it's hard to see the organization playing a constructive role in ushering in an era of peace and reconciliation. Still, a good place to begin would be for Arab leaders to address Israel's concerns about their March 2002 proposal.

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