A Simple Mideast Plan With Huge
By Shibley Telhami
Los Angeles Times
March 27, 2002
The Arab summit convening today in
Beirut comes at a critical juncture. Either a new path
to peace will be found that will stabilize the state
system that has been in place for the past half a
century or a serious military escalation on the
Palestinian-Israeli front will throw the region into new
On the summit agenda is a seemingly simple plan: Arab
endorsement of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's proposal to
offer normal relations between Israel and other Arab
states in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the
territories it seized in the 1967 Middle East War,
including the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights.
While the plan had the support of most Arab governments
even before the summit convened, the people of the
region remain highly suspicious. Local commentators and
opposition leaders have called Abdullah's proposal--and
the American support for it--a conspiracy to kill the
Palestinian intifada, which some believe is the
Palestinians' only hope to compel Israeli withdrawal.
Adding fuel to the simmering public sentiment has been
the way Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dealt with
the issue of whether to allow Palestinian Authority
Chairman Yasser Arafat to attend the summit.
Although Arafat on Tuesday declined to attend, Arab
commentators fumed that keeping Arab leaders waiting for
an Israeli decision on Arafat was humiliating.
Still, many in the region, especially governments and
the elites around them, view the Saudi plan as an
opportunity to show the world and the Israeli public
that the Arabs are ready to accept Israel and live in
peace--if Israel withdraws from Arab territory.
The signal of acceptance from an important Muslim state
came at a time when many Israelis are suspicious of Arab
intentions. For the U.S., the Saudi initiative opened up
a new avenue for diplomacy when the Bush administration
seemed to have no answer for halting the escalating
But U.S. encouragement of Arab support for the Saudi
initiative--and the Arab public's interpretation that
the summit reflects "American pressure"--has its own
Any summit resolution roughly endorsing the Saudi
initiative would not constitute a plan that would allow
immediate return to the negotiating table. The Arab
public, however, would interpret such a resolution as a
major gesture of peace when, instead, many want to see
support for the intifada.
Israelis are likely to reject the notion of full
withdrawal. And the conflict is likely to breed more
violence even if U.S. special envoy Anthony C. Zinni
succeeds in achieving a cease-fire for a short while.
The parties in the region will inevitably conclude that
the ball will be in the American court, and expectations
will be high.
The Bush administration would then have to make a
critical decision: It would have to put forth its own
peace plan and elevate its level of involvement in the
region beyond what it has been inclined to do, or it
would have to risk losing much Arab cooperation.
If the aim of recent American diplomacy, including the
mission of Zinni and the tour by Vice President Dick
Cheney, is to lay the ground for future Arab cooperation
in a possible confrontation with Iraq, then such
cooperation will become less likely if the
administration fails to deliver on the Arab-Israeli
Yet it is a risk worth taking. What happens on the
Palestinian-Israeli front is likely to affect the future
of regional politics beyond the issue of Iraq. The
Beirut summit brings to mind another important Arab
summit that was held in Rabat, Morocco, in 1974. The
issue at the time was also Arafat and his Palestine
For years many Arab leaders, including Egypt's Gamal
Abdel Nasser and Jordan's King Hussein, claimed to
represent the Palestinians.
It was Saudi Arabian King Faisal whose speech at the
Rabat summit ended the debate. The PLO was accepted as
the "sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian
That resolution was not simply a victory for Arafat; it
signaled an end to pan-Arabism as well as the
normalization of the state system in the Middle East.
As the Palestinians were seen to represent themselves in
a drive to establish their own state, other Arab states
were freed to pursue their own independent policies.
This has been the logic of the Arab system ever since.
Today, the possible unraveling of the
Palestinian-Israeli peace project--and with it Arafat
and the Palestinian Authority--could have significant
ramifications for states across the Mideast.
Shibley Telhami, a professor of government and
politics at the University of Maryland, is co-editor of
"Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East"
(Cornell University Press, 2002).
Copyright © 2002,
The Los Angeles Times