Friday, September 24, 2010

Arab Moderates: Help, or Hindrance?

At the re-launching of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, attention will be focused on Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu. But Egypt's ailing president, Hosni Mubarak, will also be in attendance, as will Jordan's King Abdullah II. To maintain their bona fides as Arab moderates, the two men helped cajole Abbas to resume face-to-face negotiations with Israel. So did other Arab states in the U.S. orbit, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates.

Their support was needed: left to his own devices, the politically enfeebled Abbas would no doubt have preferred to stay put. He and his team are already threatening to walk out when Israel's moratorium on settlement-building expires on September 26. At home, Abbas's participation in Washington is opposed by the leaders of all factions of his own organization, the PLO; Hamas's Khaled Mashaal has declared the talks "illegitimate" and not binding on the Palestinian polity; and ten other Syrian-backed rejectionist groups have similarly condemned the talks.

Thus, even if, for argument's sake, Abbas sincerely wants to break the cycle of self-destructive rejectionism characteristic of Palestinian Arab politics for the past century, he will need truly unequivocal backing from Mubarak, Abdullah, and the rest. But would Cairo and Amman take the lead? If history is any guide, the answer is no.

On his way back from a round of negotiations at Camp David in 2000, Yasir Arafat went straight to seek the support of Mubarak. Yet far from encouraging compromise with Israel, Mubarak adamantly opposed it. For his part, Abdullah, who had come to the throne the previous year, kept his head down. Today, the situation is, if anything, even less conducive to supporting peace with Israel.

In Egypt, Mubarak's party has just nominated the eighty-two-year-old ruler for a sixth presidential term, should he want it. (Rumors are rife that he might step aside in favor of his son Gamal.) Meanwhile, ordinary Egyptians are embittered by the regime's miserable economic performance and cynical about prospects of political reform. But when it comes to Israel, opinion hardens: Mubarak, who patented the "cold peace" paradigm, is criticized as being too soft. The blackouts plaguing the countryside in this summer's withering heat have accelerated demands that Egypt stop exporting natural gas to Israel.

Abdullah's position is possibly even more complicated, because much of Jordan's population is Palestinian Arab. The king's attendance in Washington this week has been denounced by Jordan's Trade Unions Council as a betrayal of the Palestinians. Jordanian chemists have refused to invite their Israeli colleagues to an international conference scheduled for the fall in Amman. The government, under intense pressure over a troubled economy, faces an Islamist-inspired boycott of parliamentary elections slated for November.

Abdullah, Mubarak, and Abbas may get points from the Obama administration just for showing up alongside Netanyahu. The Gulf Arabs won't even do that much. Timid though they have been in their peacemaking rhetoric, they are roundly condemned for it at home.

In the long run, this playing for time by the so-called Arab moderates is unsustainable: it agitates rejectionists while offering nothing tangible to Israelis who want a deal. The Arab states were instrumental in creating, perpetuating, and exacerbating the Palestinian problem. If anyone has a moral obligation to solve it, they do. A good place to begin would be to make it explicit to Abbas that they will back him unreservedly should he decide to negotiate with Israel in good faith.

-- August 2010

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