At a meeting of the 21-member League of Arab States in the Saudi capital of Riyadh last week, Arab leaders reaffirmed the 2002 "land-for-peace" agreement to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A new initiative on the existing agreement, this time by Saudi Arabia, once again calls on Israel to return all lands captured in the 1967 war; the creation of a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem; and the right of Palestinians to return to their homes in what is now Israel.
In return, the Israelis will be guaranteed permanent peace and diplomatic recognition of their nation state.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who hosted the Arab summit, was also critical of feuding Arab leaders who have failed to take a strong collective stand against Israel and are helpless against other foreign occupiers in the region.
While condemning the U.S.-British intervention in Iraq as an "illegal foreign occupation," Abdullah said the "blame should fall on us, the leaders of the (greater) Arab nation, with our ongoing differences, our refusal to walk the path of unity. All of this has made the nation lose its confidence in us."
Chris Toensing, editor of the Washington-based Middle East Report, told IPS that Saudi Arabia is asserting a regional leadership role for itself with both the resurrection of the 2002 peace plan and the pan-Arabist rhetoric about unity.
The Saudis are doing this partly to convince Washington of their importance, and partly to persuade the peoples of the region that they are distancing themselves from Washington, he added.
"I doubt the region's peoples are persuaded," said Toensing, who is also director of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP)
Still, he pointed out, Washington has taken sufficient note of Riyadh's concerns to send U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on her recent mission to the Middle East.
"The thinking (probably correct) is that Riyadh is happy so long as there is a U.S.-led 'peace process' between Israel and the Palestinians, regardless of whether that 'process' is actually leading anywhere," he added.
Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, says the new Saudi interest in reprising the 2002 Arab League summit proposal could be the basis for a new diplomatic initiative aimed at ending the Israeli occupation and reaching a just and comprehensive peace in the region.
But this would succeed only "if -- a big if -- Israel wanted to end the occupation and establish such a peace."
Unfortunately, there is no evidence of that, and more importantly, no evidence of U.S. willingness to exert the necessary pressure on Tel Aviv, Bennis told IPS.
In any event, says Toensing, as long as Israel and the United States insist that the new Palestinian government meet their conditions before any negotiations can occur, then all diplomatic initiatives are a non-starter.
"As for the Saudis' rhetoric about Arab unity, this is a bit rich coming from some of the main authors of the divisive 'Shiite crescent' theme and one of the Arab governments that blamed Hezbollah for the devastation wrought by Israel in Lebanon," he added.
Bennis argues that Rice's visit to the region, and especially her renewed closeness with the Saudi leadership has less to do with Israel-Palestine than it does with winning Arab leaders' support (especially Saudi) for rising U.S. threats against Iran.
The Arab League summit proposal -- which would guarantee not only peace but full normalization, trade and tourism, and complete regional integration of Israel into the Middle East -- is premised on Israel's withdrawal from all of the territories occupied in 1967, meaning all of the West Bank, all of Gaza and all of Arab East Jerusalem, said Bennis, author of "Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer."
But it also requires a just solution for Palestinian refugees based on UN resolution 194, which guarantees the right of return and compensation.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's claimed interest in the revived proposal is conditioned by a preliminary announcement of Israel's continued rejection of any right of return, she pointed out.
In fact, Olmert has escalated his rejection, saying not a single Palestinian would be allowed to go home.
"Further, he has made clear that Israeli interest in the proposal assumes what he euphemistically calls a 'land swap' -- clearly based on Israel's annexation of the three huge settlement blocs populated by 80 percent of the 240,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, as agreed to by (U.S.) President Bush in his letter to (former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon in 2004," Bennis said.
The real goal of the revitalized discussion is to divert global attention from Washington's continuing economic embargo against the entire Palestinian population despite the new unity government; to try to raise Olmert's now three percent approval ratings at home; and to encourage Arab rulers' backing for a U.S. strike on Iran by providing the political cover for them to be able to claim that a solution on Palestine is at hand.
"Actually ending the occupation, unfortunately, is not on anyone's agenda," Bennis said.
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Albion Monitor April
1, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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