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Time for the Arabs to Act PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Patrick Seale   
Tuesday, 15 December 2009 11:14

13 January 2005 article

Time for the Arabs to Act

By Patrick Seale

A great deal of nonsense has been written and spoken about Ariel Sharon since his stroke removed him from the political scene in Israel. The greatest nonsense has been to say that his departure has set back the cause of Middle East peace.

On the contrary, Sharon’s ‘political death’ is providential. It allows the possibility of a real peace process, but only if the opportunity is seized by Arabs and Israelis alike. Another four years of Sharon’s rule – and of shameful American tolerance for his policies -- might have created an irreversible situation on the ground, locking the parties into another century of bloody conflict.


Sharon was not a ‘man of peace’, as Bush unwisely called him. Indeed, he opposed every single peace agreement Israel negotiated with the Arabs – including the treaties with Egypt and Jordan and the Oslo accords with the Palestinians. He had no wish for negotiations with the Arabs, knowing full well that no Arab leader would accept the impossible terms he sought to impose. His twin objectives were always to destroy the Palestinian national movement and dominate the region by military – including nuclear -- means. He was the foulest Arab-killer of his generation.

Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza was not a step towards peace. He knew that Israel could not hold Gaza for ever, and got rid of it in order to tighten his grip on the West Bank, hemming a battered and besieged Palestinian population into separate enclaves on less than ten percent of historic Palestine.  

Israelis now have a choice between pursuing his unilateral policies -- seizing East Jerusalem, expanding the settlement blocs, completing the wall, retaining the Golan, slamming shut the door to peaceful co-existence with the Arabs – or making a fresh start towards peace on the basis of genuine negotiations.

Shimon Peres, 82, the veteran Labour politician who deserted his party to join Sharon’s new centre-right creation, Kadima,  now has an opportunity to change his image as an opportunist and turncoat.

His task should be to broker an alliance between the Labour Party, led by the former trade union boss Amir Peretz, and Kadima, headed in Sharon’s absence by Ehud Olmert, in order to create a genuine peace platform able to govern and to make the necessary concessions for a comprehensive settlement.

Peres, Olmert, Peretz and their supporters at the centre and on the left of the Israeli political spectrum have, between them, enough muscle to make a credible fresh start. Last week, Shimon Peres told CNN: ‘I don’t want to be Prime Minister. I want to work for peace.’ Now, at last, is his opportunity to crown his checkered career with a genuine achievement.

Do the Arabs want a Netanyahu government?

In discussing the prospects for the Middle East after Sharon, hardly any commentator has mentioned the Arabs. It is as if they did not exist, or were simply spectators of a political drama unfolding in Tel Aviv, London or Washington, and in which they had no part.

The virtual absence of the Arabs from the political debate is the result of their own extraordinary passivity and internal quarrels, but it is also the result of Sharon’s legacy. He persuaded the Israelis that the Arabs were not to be trusted, that no peace could be made with them, that there was ‘no Arab partner’. Hence, the only option, he argued, was for Israel to impose its terms unilaterally – a message of destructive propaganda.

Today, the crucial task for Arab leaders is to prove him wrong. The Arabs should not wait for the results of the Israeli elections of 28 March, but should pre-empt them – and influence their outcome – by an active diplomacy of their own.

The prime Arab objective should be to persuade the fearful and volatile Israeli electorate that they do indeed have a partner for peace, that the Arabs are to be trusted, that the state of war can be brought to an end, that Israel can find its peaceful place in the region if it renounces force and expansion, and instead adopts a policy of moderation and good-neighbourliness.

All the indications are that, after two intifidas and the prospect of a third, the Israelis are ready to hear such a message. They are as tired of war and violence as are their Arab neighbours.

At the Beirut summit of 2002, the entire Arab world endorsed the proposal of King (then Crown Prince) Abdallah of Saudi Arabia to offer Israel peace and normalisation if it returned to its 1967 borders. Sharon, however, rejected it. The offer now needs to be refined, expanded, made more concrete – and repeated.

In my view, the Arabs should seize the initiative by calling for a new international conference – ‘Madrid 2’ – under United Nations auspices, with the backing of the major powers, to resolve all the outstanding problems which now bedevil relations between Israel on the one hand and the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon on the other. This is a realistic, not a utopian, objective.  

The principal Arab states should send a strong ministerial delegation on a tour of world capitals – with special attention given to the permanent members of the Security Council -- to promote their peace plan. The message to the United States should be crystal clear: there will be no end to terrorism until the Arab-Israeli conflict is resolved on a basis of justice.

Regretably, the word from the U.S. in recent days has been pessimistic. Influential voices, like that of Richard Haass, president of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, have predicted that, with the loss of Sharon, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is ‘unikely to move significantly forward.’ Haass was reported as saying: ‘I’m not sure on either side now you have leadership that’s both able and willing.’

This is not realism but defeatism.

President George W Bush still has three years of his mandate to run. He needs to be told that endorsing Sharon’s policies – and turning a blind eye to his brutalities -- was a dangerous mistake that he must urgently correct.

Palestinian leaders now face their moment of truth. If order is not restored in the Gaza strip, if the territory collapses into civil war, if militants continue to fire ineffective rockets into Israel, then the Israeli electorate will veer to the Right and hope of a negotiated peace will evaporate.

Palestinians need to ask themselves whether or not they want Binyamin Netanyahu and his far-right Likud party to win the 28 March elections.

The Israelis, too – and their supporters in the West – need to take a closer look at Palestinian politics. If Palestinian parliamentary elections are held as scheduled on 25 January, they are likely to result in a strong showing by Hamas and by the younger Fatah generation, who are gradually displacing a discredited Old Guard. In the view of Alastair Crooke, founder of ‘Conflicts Forum’ and a close observer of Hamas, the elections may be a step towards a real Palestinian national ‘inclusiveness’ and to the grass-roots validation of Palestinian aspirations -- the only route, in his view, to the de-escalation of violence and to an enduring political settlement.

The Israelis should not be frightened of Hamas. Recently its spokesmen have raised the possibility of a complete cessation of violence for a full generation which, if reciprocated by Israel, could provide a chance to resolve all the outstanding issues by negotiation.

Ariel Sharon’s departure from the scene has created an opportunity for peace which should not be squandered.  end


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