But this particular summit, which began yesterday in Damascus, may qualify as a challenger for the prize for worst possible. Even by the high standards of Arab League melodrama and disunity, the Damascus 2008 summit is disturbingly problematic. Indeed, it could be argued that this summit may have marked a new nadir in Arab disunity, of the sort achieved in the early 1980s when Egypt, a founding member and leading force of the organization was boycotted for its decision to sign a separate peace agreement with Israel.
Only 12 of the 22 members of the League were represented at the summit by their respective heads of state. Lebanon boycotted the summit, while Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, leading members of the organization, sent low level officials to the Syrian capital. Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister went further and said Damascus should be ‘punished’ for its meddling in Lebanese politics and for foiling an agreement that would resolve the political crisis that has plagued the country for more than a year.
The Syrians tried to keep up a façade of calm, insisting that that in spite all pressures, and a full-court-press by the U.S., in place since the Damascus was included in the axis of evil by President George Bush, they have managed to host a respectable League summit. They also took a jab at the Saudis by pointing out that in spite their criticism of close ties between Damascus and Tehran, ‘at least we didn’t invite a Persian to an Arab summit,’ reference to Riyadh’s invitation of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Gulf Cooperation Council conference in 2007.
The infighting within the Arab world over the role and inroads Iran is making, either in Lebanon, Iraq, the Gaza Strip and elsewhere, is not likely to be resolved any time soon, and we are in for more rounds of similar displays of disunity in the coming months. But one of the more troubling aspects of this summit is the support for a threat to rescind the Arab initiative of 2002, which offered Israel peace and normalization in return for a pullout of territory occupied since 1967. The deal includes a few other conditions, most importantly from Israel’s point of view, of a call for a negotiated agreement on the return of Palestinian refugees. The firebrand Secretary General of the League, former Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, said that a decision was made “to evaluate and review Arab strategies and the plan of action regarding reviving the peace process.” This review is set to begin sometime in the middle of this year. A similar decision was reached by Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo three weeks ago.
Let’s acknowledge from the onset that Israel is no saint. There is no point in detailing here the shortcomings of its policies, or lack thereof, over the years. The point is that plenty of time was wasted and conscious decisions were made, for domestic political reasons, to avoid taking courageous and substantive steps toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, notwithstanding terrorism and violence. But it should also be said that the Arab League initiative is only half-impressive. Its formula is well known and it comes down to ‘land for peace.’ That is not good enough.
If the Arab League really wants to leave its mark in history, and does believe that adhering to international law is critical to resolving the conflict, then it needs to do something truly impressive. All 22 heads of state should go to Jerusalem as a group, pray at Al-Aqsa mosque, and visit the Knesset. And there they should declare that they recognize Israel’s right to exist within the 4 June 1967 borders, in line with the same United Nations decision to support the partition of Palestine and the 1949 armistice agreements. Of course, they should also take the opportunity to remind the Israelis that if they want normalization, peace, diplomatic missions, etc., they need to relinquish all occupied territory, allow the establishment of a Palestinian state, and assist it to become a viable, livable country. Moreover, they should also tell Israel that this historic visit does not mean diplomatic recognition, but it means historical reconciliation with the partition of Palestine and the rejection of plans, practical or imaginary, to destroy Israel.
In the next segment of this entry, I will explain to the skeptics why this seemingly impossible act of unity and symbolism on the part of the Arab League is not only doable but urgently necessary at this time.
31 March, 2008