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Life Left Yet for Mid-East Peace? PDF Print E-mail
Peace News
Wednesday, 17 January 2007 14:21

Life Left Yet for Mid-East Peace?

- Patrick Seale - After long years of hibernation, the Arab-Israeli peace process is beginning to show faint signs of life. It is as if the repeated explosions of violence over the past six years -- the second Palestinian intifada, the terror and counter-terror, Israel?s cruel siege of Gaza and its devastating war in Lebanon, as well as the ongoing catastrophe in Iraq, and the looming American confrontation with Iran -- have at last shocked the local actors and the international community into exploring prospects for a broad regional settlement.


Condoleezza Rice commits to facilitating Olmert-Abbas meetings; unofficial meetings are reported between Syria and Israel; and progress was made last week at a conference on Israel-Palestine in Madrid. Can and will Israel follow through?

Life in the Middle-
East Peace Process?

Patrick Seale

Agence Global
January 17, 2007

Copyright ? 2007 Patrick Seale
[Republished at PEJ News with AG permission]

A number of developments have captured international attention.

? U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has announced that she will hold informal talks within the next month with Israel?s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmud Abbas, to explore the political horizon, whatever that may mean. Washington will probably be the venue.

It is not yet clear, however, whether this is a serious American move to get the peace process moving or merely a gesture to placate moderate Arab states whose support the United States needs to stabilise Iraq and confront Iran.

? In a blunt wake-up call to the Bush administration, James Baker and Lee Hamilton declared in the recent report of the Iraqi Study Group that "The U.S. will not be able to achieve its goals in the Middle East unless the U.S. deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict." President George W. Bush, however, has cherry-picked the report and has discarded its main recommendations.

? In a scoop last Tuesday, in the Israeli daily Haaretz, a leading journalist, Akiva Eldar, reported that unofficial Syrian and Israeli representatives had been holding secret talks in Europe over the past two years and had hammered out the broad lines of a peace agreement.

Taking part in the talks were Abe Suleiman, a Syrian-American businessman, resident in the United States, and Dr. Alon Liel, an Israeli academic and businessman, who is former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and former ambassador in Ankara.

Both men seem to have been acting in their individual capacity, although they are believed to have been assisted by a Swiss diplomat, and by Geoffrey Aronson, of the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace, who is a leading American expert on Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Such unofficial contacts can be useful in probing each side?s intentions, but, if leaked, can cause embarrassment. Israel?s Prime Minister Olmert does not wish to anger the Americans by admitting to contacts with Syria, a country Washington continues to view as an adversary. For its part, Syria tends to see back-channels as a trap. Predictably, both Syria and Israel have denied any official connection with the secret talks.

? The most significant sign of life in the peace process so far was the large conference held in Madrid from 10 to 12 January with the ambitious aim of jump-starting official negotiations between the parties -- Israel, Syria, the Palestinians and Lebanon.

Entitled Madrid fifteen years later, the conference was organised by civil society organisations with the support of the Spanish, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish governments. Spain?s Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos was the prime mover. In a strong signal of Spanish commitment to the peace process, the participants were received by the King of Spain.

The next step, now being discussed, is to convene a steering group in Madrid within the coming month, probably cochaired by Moratinos and by Norway?s Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store, to rally support for a new international conference -- this time on the official level -- inspired by the one which launched the peace process in Madrid in 1991.

Sponsors of the steering group are believed to be seeking high-level Arab participation, or at least an "Arab umbrella" in the form of endorsement by the Arab League.

A number of key notions emerged from this month?s gathering in Madrid. The first was a tremendous sense of urgency and fear that the situation in the Middle East could spin out of control if the peace process was not immediately revived. This was best expressed by Javier Solana, the European Union?s foreign policy chief. "The next six months are crucial," he warned. "The moment for action has arrived. The Middle East crisis cannot wait for the next U.S. President."

A second notion, widely supported, was the need to revitalise the Saudi peace plan which, having been endorsed by the entire Arab world at the Beirut summit of March 2002, offered Israel peace and normal relations with all 22 Arab states if it withdrew to the 1967 borders.

Felipe Gonzales, a former Spanish prime minister, called this Arab peace plan a "milestone in history," a "point of no return on the road to peace," while Amr Mousa, the Arab League Secretary-General, urged Israel "not to be afraid of peace," but to work "to become a full member of the Middle East community of nations."

This theme was taken up by the two Syrian delegates, Dr. Riad Daoudi, legal adviser to the Syrian Foreign Ministry, and Bushra Kanafani, the Ministry spokeswoman, who both stressed that while Syria had made a strategic decision in favour of peace, Israel?s intentions remained uncertain and negative.

Daoudi aroused great interest by outlining in detail the history of Syria?s peace negotiations with five Israeli governments from 1991 to 2000. He demonstrated that it was Israel?s reluctance to withdraw to the 4 June 1967 lines that had caused the talks to fail.

The Arab peace offensive launched at Madrid by the Syrians and Palestinians seemed to unnerve the Israeli participants -- who included such well-known public figures as Shlomo Ben Ami, Dan Meridor, Colette Avital, Dalia Rabin, Roni Milo, Moshe Shahal and David Kimche. The Arabs seemed, in effect, to turn the tables on the Israelis by complaining that it was the Arabs who now had no peace partner.

Jibril Rujoub, a Palestinian national security adviser, put the issue bluntly: "No Israeli leader is a partner for a two-state solution. No Israeli leader recognises the Palestinian people."

"We are ready to negotiate on all issues," cried another prominent Palestinian, Hannan Ashrawi, "but are you, Israelis, ready to remove settlements?"

A third notion, which won wide support, was that the time had come to abandon the gradual, step-by-step approach, which was obsolete and created distrust, and move fast towards a comprehensive final settlement.

A fourth notion, underlined by Norway?s Foreign Minister Jonas Store, by the veteran Egyptian presidential adviser Osama al-Baz, by the senior Palestinian official Nabil Shaath, and many others, was that, in the absence of the United States, the European Union must act to re-launch the process -- in the hope that the United States would eventually catch up.

This did not convince the Israeli participants. Shlomo Ben Ami, a former Labour foreign minister, argued that "America has to lead the process." Israel, he argued, needed guarantees, which only America could give. The trans-Atlantic alliance, he maintained, was the key to Middle East peace.

What did all these fine words amount to? The Arabs and the Europeans are eager for peace. They want Israel to end its 40-year occupation of Palestinian territories, dismantle the illegal settlements, stop building the separation wall on Palestinian land, and come down from the Golan. In exchange they offer full peace and an end to the conflict.

But the harsh reality is that the United States, the only country with leverage over Israel, is busy with its war in Iraq, and with the challenge posed by a resurgent Iran. In spite of Condoleezza Rice?s laudable if timid efforts, the Washington seems to have little time or inclination to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. No representative of the U.S. government attended the Madrid conference, and there was hardly an echo of it in the American press.

In turn, Israel?s government, its support slumping at the polls, hardly seems willing or able to make historic decisions. But peace cannot wait. In the view of many participants, if it is not concluded soon, a regional war could break out, with all the additional horrors that would bring.

Patrick Seale
is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.

Copyright ? 2007 Patrick Seale


Released: 18 January 2007
Word Count: 1,334


Advisory Release: 18 January 2007
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Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for The Nation, The American Prospect, Le Monde diplomatique, as well as expert commentary by Richard Bulliet, Mark Hertsgaard, Rami G. Khouri, Tom Porteous, Patrick Seale and Immanuel Wallerstein

Last Updated on Wednesday, 17 January 2007 14:21

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