President Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, George J. Mitchell, told the New York Times that reports “the Obama’s administration’s pressure is alienating Israelis even while it is failing to sway Arabs,” is largely incorrect. “One of the public misimpressions,” Mitchell said, “is that it’s all been about settlements” and that “‘We’re only asking the Israelis to do things.We are asking everybody to do things.’” The second misimpression, Mitchell said, “was that Arab countries had rebuffed Mr. Obama’s request to make moves toward a more normal relationship with Israel.” This perception, reporter Mark Landler’s article stated, was “fueled by a Saudi official’s blunt public rejection of such incremental steps.”
That might be the understatement of the week. As Glenn Kessler’s story in The Washington Post stated bluntly in its headline, “No Incremental Steps to Peace, Saudi Says.” And the AP story by Matthew Lee put it, “Saudi Rebuffs US on Improving Ties with Israel.” Whatever report you choose to read, the news is the same: The Saudis are rejecting incrementalism and a step-by-step approach. Obama privately asks the Arabs for confidence building measures; the Arabs come back with a blunt “no way!”
Instead, the Saudis insist that Israel begin any negotiations with prior acceptance of the old Saudi so-called peace proposal. As Rick Richman points out in Commentary’s Contentions blogsite, Saudi Prince Saud al-Faisal “delivered in public his frank and honest message: no confidence-building steps for Israel, no endorsement of any step-by-step peace process, and no compromise on the uncompromising Saudi plan…Under the Saudi plan, Israel must agree to forgo defensible borders, hand over the Old City of Jerusalem, and recognize a right of return — and negotiations start after that. After it all gets implemented, there would then be (in the prince’s words) “complete peace and normal relations.”
In other words, agree to destroy Israel as a Jewish state, and then everything will be on the table. One should contrast the Saudi rejection with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks at the start of his Cabinet meeting. Netanyahu said:
Peace will go back to being based on reciprocity, not unilateralism. In the framework of the peace agreements, Israel expects that the Palestinians will recognize the State of Israel as the national state of the Jewish People, that the problem of the refugees will be resolved outside Israel’s borders, that there will be effective security arrangements and demilitarization, with international recognition and guarantees. These are not pre-conditions for the start of a peace process but the basic conditions for establishing a lasting and stable peace. Palestinian moderates should internalize this.
He went on to note that Israel “is willing to open peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, with Syria and any other Arab country without pre-conditions.” And without mentioning the Saudis’ rejection, he made clear that “whoever sets pre-conditions for opening negotiations delays the peace process.” Endorsing Obama’s initiative, Netanyahu noted that “The Arab countries, especially the main Arab states, must contribute with normalization steps towards Israel.”
So George Mitchell’s problem, and our President’s, is the one former ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk pointed out to the Times: “There are only so many visits George Mitchell can make.” Without a positive response from the Arab side or the Palestinians, the would-be peace process is dead as a doornail. As the Times reporter Landler wrote: “In the Arab world, there is little evidence of a change of heart toward Israel.” How long must one trust Mitchell’s spin, that he knows the Saudis and the other Arab states “want a peace agreement?”
Netanyahu is willing to sit down with Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. But at the forthcoming Fatah congress, it has been reported, Abbas and company “will reaffirm its refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.” 2000 delegates are set to attend the first Fatah congress in 20 years. Yet it is also set to reaffirm without qualifications the so-called “right of return,” which in effect means no negotiations that will lead anywhere.
So we are down to square one. The Israelis are willing to negotiate and make compromises for peace; the Arabs, despite the Obama administration’s pressure on Israel to freeze settlements- are coming forth with nothing. Doesn’t this indicate, if you are a policy-maker in the White House, that it is time to come up with a new strategy?