The Arab Role in Making Peace

This is the second article in a 5-part series on Middle East peace running this week. For yesterday's first article, on Obama's new style, click here.

President Barack Obama's new diplomacy in the Middle East, emphasizing dialogue and negotiation, requires that he and the rest of the international community look not only at Israel, nor even just at the Palestinians, but also at the wider Arab world. As the American President said at his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, "The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility."

At present, the world has to question not only why the Arab states are not fulfilling their responsibilities, but also whether their actions suggest they are playing a double game - calling for a Palestinian state while consistently taking steps to block it.

After all, at this time last year the United States called on Arab governments to assist in the relaunching of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations through their own small "normalization" gestures towards Israel. None of these actually took place, raising the question again: are the Arab states really committed to peace and reconciliation with Israel? And aren't they in fact troubled by the idea of a prosperous, secular, democratically-oriented and well-educated Palestinian state in their midst?

Saudi Arabia in particular might view such a state as a threat to its fundamentalist Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, and a Palestinian society with women as full partners too "liberal" and "decadent." Especially in an age of widespread media coverage through satellite television and the internet, such a prominent example of successful Arab moderation might simply cut too close to home.

Indeed, Palestinian refugees still languish in refugee camps or are, at best, second-class citizens in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and beyond. Hate for Israel and Jews generally is still being passed along to the next generation. Economic support from the rest of the Arab states to the fledgling Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is virtually non-existent. It seems, too, that the Saudis would rather buy agricultural land in sub-Saharan Africa than buy fruits and vegetables from the lush West Bank. As Thomas Friedman recently wrote, "For those Arabs who have fallen in love with the idea of Palestinians as permanent victims, forever engaged in heroic 'armed struggle' to recover Palestinian and Arab dignity, [Palestinian Prime Minister] Fayyad's methodical state-building is inauthentic. Some Arabs - shamefully - dump on it, and only the United Arab Emirates has offered real financial help."

All of this is especially disheartening given recent studies indicating support increasing among both Israelis and Palestinians for a two-state solution based on the "Clinton Parameters" put forward in 2000. The terms of such a resolution to the conflict aren't all that different from the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, except that the Arabs - primarily Saudi Arabia - keep insisting on a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 border lines before any negotiation can even begin.

The Saudis reiterated this ridiculous position again last year, which is obviously a non-starter for any Israeli government. Withdrawal from the West Bank can only occur as part of a negotiation and not as a precondition to negotiation. You simply cannot put the cart before the horse.

There is, however, still a need to bring the Arab states into the peace process, just as there is still a need for them to do their part in support of a more stable Middle East. A few positive indications have in fact surfaced recently.

After visiting the White House in early July, Saudi King Abdullah affirmed his support for comprehensive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, Syria, and Lebanon. Moreover, press reports earlier this summer speculated as to whether Saudi Arabia and Israel were cooperating on the Iranian nuclear issue, including Riyadh allowing Jerusalem over-flight rights in the event of an Israeli air strike. There are signs that the Arab states are beginning to realize that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat to the entire region, and not just to Israel. Put another way, a fundamentalist Shia theocracy with nuclear weapons is obviously more of a threat than Israel, who has presumably had nuclear weapons for 50 years and yet chose not to use them even during two full-scale wars.

As the United Arab Emirates' ambassador to Washington said publicly last month, "We cannot live with a nuclear Iran. I am willing to absorb what takes place [after the bombing of Iran's nuclear program] at the expense of the security of the U.A.E."

Taken together, it is my belief that these are encouraging signs - the Arab world and Israel should be able to separate their differences over the Palestinian issue from their mutual interest in stopping Iran from going nuclear. As is always the case, however, we can't know for sure whether the Saudis in particular are playing one game in public while they undermine regional stability in other, more private ways.

That is why a regional peace conference under American auspices, involving Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas, would be a useful exercise. There is no real substitute for diplomacy and face-to-face negotiations. At the very least it would permit the world to see the real Arab position on the Palestinian and Iranian issues, and force these Arab governments to take a public stand. A two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a region free of Iranian nukes are worthy goals that should be able to withstand public scrutiny in every Middle Eastern capital.

It is high time that the Arab world's professed desire for peace is matched by responsible action, and not more of the same equivocation.