Another forlorn summit

With Israel continuing settlement expansion and Arabs clinging to a path proven fruitless, something has got to give, writes Khalid Amayreh in Ramallah

A cloud of tear gas envelopes Palestinian demonstrators in a West Bank village near Ramallah

Palestinians reacted with a combination of ambivalence and disenchantment to the outcome of this week’s two-day Arab summit in Sirte, Libya. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, who participated in the summit, voiced general satisfaction, describing the conference’s decisions as “good and reasonable”. He particularly praised the decision to allocate $500 million for Jerusalem, saying he hoped it would be implemented soon.

Abbas also welcomed the summit’s decision to give American-led efforts to restart the stalled peace process a “chance”, saying that the “exhaustive approach we are adopting towards the cause of peace is necessary so that we won’t regret anything we should have done and didn’t do.” Regardless, it was clear that on the “street level” reactions were negative, spurred by widespread disillusionment with the Arab League, especially its notorious failure to formulate a meaningful Arab stance on the Palestinian question.

Palestinian frustration in this regard stems in part from a collective feeling that whatever decisions Arab leaders adopt at their summit meetings remain largely within the “realm of rhetoric” and don’t rise to the level of being serious challenges to Israel’s efforts to Judaise East Jerusalem and efface the city’s Arab-Islamic identity. Most Palestinians have come to interpret the mediocrity of Arab summits as either a failure to understand reality in occupied Palestine or as an expression of a shrinking commitment by the Arab world to the Palestinian cause.

This attitude was expressed by the Islamic Liberation Party, an emerging Islamist force, which accused Arab leaders meeting in Libya “of betraying Jerusalem as you have always done”. Even Hamas, which is not particularly eager to burn bridges with Arab regimes, criticised the summit for “doing next to nothing to end the criminal siege on the Gaza Strip”. A statement issued by Hamas also criticised the summit for failing to “address Israel’s arrogant attitude towards the occupied city of Jerusalem and its threats to demolish Al-Aqsa Mosque”.

Predictably, Hamas took issue also with the summit’s adherence to peace negotiations as the only option available to the Arabs, arguing that such discourse would only embolden Israel. It reminded summit attendees that the paths of direct and indirect talks with Israel had been tried many times, only to prove futile. Also predictably, Israel rejected the decisions of the Sirte conference, especially with regards to Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told cabinet ministers this week that, “Israel will continue to safeguard its interests in Jerusalem irrespective of any external considerations.”

Netanyahu’s terse reaction serves as vindication for those who argue that in the absence of a firm Arab-Muslim stance on the Palestinian cause Tel Aviv will continue to disregard whatever decisions the Arab world takes. Indeed, Arab inaction — or more correctly, impotence — may even give Israel the impression that it can do anything, including demolishing or taking over Islamic shrines in East Jerusalem and elsewhere.

Regarding American efforts to restart peace talks between the PA and Israel, it is uncertain what effects the Arab summit will have. The decision to uphold the Arab Peace Initiative despite Israeli provocations, especially continued settlement expansion, should be welcomed by the Obama administration. On the other hand, Israel has already — and repeatedly — rejected this initiative, and the Obama administration has largely failed in efforts to influence Tel Aviv. The Arab Peace Initiative calls for peace and normalisation of relations with Israel in exchange for a total Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem.

Abbas was quoted this week as saying that the Palestinians would know within a week if it were possible to renew peace talks with Israel. Al-Ahram Weekly asked Ghassan Khatib, head of the PA Press Office in Ramallah, what Abbas was waiting for in order to make a final decision on renewing talks or not. Khatib responded that the PA was waiting to see if the Obama administration would succeed at the last minute in convincing Israel to freeze settlement expansion in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Describing Sirte’s outcome as “generally positive” and “supportive of the general Palestinian stance”, Khatib said the PA had an alternative plan in case the Obama administration failed to rein in the Netanyahu government. The plan, said Khatib, is based on four elements: first, keeping building the required institutions upon which Palestinian statehood will be based; second, the intensification of popular, non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation and the inclusion of large segments of the Palestinian people in the resistance; third, fighting Israel in every possible international legal forum; and fourth, working internationally towards the recognition of Palestinian statehood with or without Israeli consent.

Khatib said that as far as the PA was concerned, the possible renewal of talks with Israel would depend on — and thereafter be governed by — a host of conditions that would prevent Israel from resorting to stalling tactics. These include setting a timeframe for completing talks not exceeding two years, that talks would have to be based on UN resolutions, including halting settlement expansion, and an agreement that all issues, known as “core” or “final status issues” would be discussed. Given the Israeli position, and in particular the make-up of the current Israeli government, it is unlikely that Israel will agree to take part in such talks, even if the US exerts pressure on Netanyahu to do so.

In consequence, most observers foresee two possible scenarios: one being the collapse of the Israeli government and the organisation of new general elections in Israel; the second being the possibility that the Obama administration resorts to “imposing a solution” on the two sides. There are many question marks hanging over the feasibility of the second scenario in light of the protracted realities of the conflict.

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