Arab Responsibility, Not Rhetoric

With the Obama administration working hard to restart some kind of Middle East peace process, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maneuvering between U.S. pressure and his own right-wing constituency regarding a settlement freeze, and the Palestinian Authority taking steps to improve the security and economy of the West Bank, the silence emanating from the Arab world has been deafening. That is, until this past week.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Saudi Arabian Prince Turki al-Faisal ostensibly laid out the Arab world's position: no steps toward normalizing relations with Israel will be taken, until Israel completely withdraws from all occupied territories. "Land First, Then Peace," the title of the article says.

Not only is such a maximalist demand irresponsible in the present context, it is also completely unrealizable in practice. The only logical conclusion anyone can reach from such statements is that Saudi Arabia, and perhaps the rest of the Arab states, are simply not interested in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.

As someone who just recently called publicly on Israel to do its part -- via a settlement freeze -- in the interests of peace, I can say that it comes as a distinct disappointment to see no reciprocation from the Arab side. However, it's arguably not that surprising given the Arab track record on this issue.

Leaving aside the irony of having a Saudi prince lecture the West and Israel about morality and international law, the Arab world in particular has been a terrible friend to the Palestinian people, despite all its rhetoric to the contrary. For years we have been told by Arab leaders that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be the foremost concern of everybody involved in the Middle East. For years, though, they have failed to take steps on their own which would ease both Palestinian suffering and Israeli security concerns.

Palestinian refugees still languish in camps in Lebanon and Syria, while the Arab world focuses on territorial disputes like the Shebaa Farms and the Golan Heights. Financial assistance pledged by the Arab states for Palestinian development projects has been slow to materialize, even as trade between the Palestinian Authority and its Arab neighbors makes up a miniscule fraction of total Palestinian economic activity. Prince Turki al-Faisal hectors Israel about its sincerity and motives, and yet the Arab states have shown no willingness to prepare their own people -- via public pronouncements and education in the classrooms -- for genuine reconciliation between Jews and Arabs. (***)

As I've observed the Saudi leadership over the past 60 years, I cannot help but speculate that they have never wanted -- nor want now -- a vibrant, secular, industrious Arab Muslim state that could set a bad example for their own citizens. After all, the particular brand of Wahhabi fundamentalism institutionalized in Saudi Arabia has come to both dominate the kingdom and support extremism across the globe.

In a telling contrast to the Saudi position, the crown prince of Bahrain recently stated, courageously and correctly, that "Our biggest mistake has been to assume that you can simply switch peace on like a light bulb. The reality is that peace is a process, contingent on a good idea but also requiring a great deal of campaigning -- patiently and repeatedly targeting all relevant parties. This is where we as Arabs have not done enough to communicate directly with the people of Israel."

Even if Israel were to meet the Saudis' expectations and withdraw from all presently occupied land, what kind of peace would ensue? Would an agreement even be worth the paper it was written on if there was no genuine trust built up between the parties, or if a future Palestinian state had no real economic foundation, or if Arab children were still taught that Jews were usurpers and Israel a colonial project alien to the Middle East? The answer, clearly, is no.

In terms of security, moreover, Israel can not simply be expected to withdraw into a vacuum. What happened in the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon after Israel's unilateral withdrawals, absent any kind of dialogue regarding how these territories would be secured and administered, is simply not an option for the West Bank and the Golan Heights. Even a casual observer of the region understands that, for Israel, these are legitimate concerns that need to be addressed prior to any peace deal.

As a result, a process which builds trust between Israel and the Arab world is required. Such a process is exactly what US Middle East envoy George Mitchell has been attempting to restart. According to reports, steps would include small gestures by the Arab states towards normalization in return for an Israeli halt to settlement construction.

This is what the Arab world needs to be focused on, not retrograde pronouncements in Western editorial pages. After decades of using the plight of the Palestinians as a useful stick with which to beat the West and as an excuse for their own domestic illegitimacies, Arab leaders finally need to be held to account. Only an honest dialogue with Israel, through American mediation, will bring about the peace which they claim they so desperately want.

***A more in-depth exploration of what is necessary for peace, including the issues highlighted here, will be forthcoming in this space over the next several weeks.