A Simple Mideast Plan With Huge Implications

The Arab summit convening today in Beirut comes at a critical juncture. Either a new path to peace will be found that will stabilize the state system that has been in place for the past half a century or a serious military escalation on the Palestinian-Israeli front will throw the region into new turmoil.

On the summit agenda is a seemingly simple plan: Arab endorsement of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s proposal to offer normal relations between Israel and other Arab states in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the territories it seized in the 1967 Middle East War, including the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights.

While the plan had the support of most Arab governments even before the summit convened, the people of the region remain highly suspicious. Local commentators and opposition leaders have called Abdullah’s proposal—and the American support for it—a conspiracy to kill the Palestinian intifada, which some believe is the Palestinians’ only hope to compel Israeli withdrawal.

Adding fuel to the simmering public sentiment has been the way Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dealt with the issue of whether to allow Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to attend the summit.

Although Arafat on Tuesday declined to attend, Arab commentators fumed that keeping Arab leaders waiting for an Israeli decision on Arafat was humiliating.

Still, many in the region, especially governments and the elites around them, view the Saudi plan as an opportunity to show the world and the Israeli public that the Arabs are ready to accept Israel and live in peace—if Israel withdraws from Arab territory.

The signal of acceptance from an important Muslim state came at a time when many Israelis are suspicious of Arab intentions. For the U.S., the Saudi initiative opened up a new avenue for diplomacy when the Bush administration seemed to have no answer for halting the escalating violence.

But U.S. encouragement of Arab support for the Saudi initiative—and the Arab public’s interpretation that the summit reflects “American pressure”—has its own risks.

Any summit resolution roughly endorsing the Saudi initiative would not constitute a plan that would allow immediate return to the negotiating table. The Arab public, however, would interpret such a resolution as a major gesture of peace when, instead, many want to see support for the intifada.

Israelis are likely to reject the notion of full withdrawal. And the conflict is likely to breed more violence even if U.S. special envoy Anthony C. Zinni succeeds in achieving a cease-fire for a short while. The parties in the region will inevitably conclude that the ball will be in the American court, and expectations will be high.

The Bush administration would then have to make a critical decision: It would have to put forth its own peace plan and elevate its level of involvement in the region beyond what it has been inclined to do, or it would have to risk losing much Arab cooperation.

If the aim of recent American diplomacy, including the mission of Zinni and the tour by Vice President Dick Cheney, is to lay the ground for future Arab cooperation in a possible confrontation with Iraq, then such cooperation will become less likely if the administration fails to deliver on the Arab-Israeli peace front.

Yet it is a risk worth taking. What happens on the Palestinian-Israeli front is likely to affect the future of regional politics beyond the issue of Iraq. The Beirut summit brings to mind another important Arab summit that was held in Rabat, Morocco, in 1974. The issue at the time was also Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization.

For years many Arab leaders, including Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Jordan’s King Hussein, claimed to represent the Palestinians.

It was Saudi Arabian King Faisal whose speech at the Rabat summit ended the debate. The PLO was accepted as the “sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”

That resolution was not simply a victory for Arafat; it signaled an end to pan-Arabism as well as the normalization of the state system in the Middle East.

As the Palestinians were seen to represent themselves in a drive to establish their own state, other Arab states were freed to pursue their own independent policies. This has been the logic of the Arab system ever since.

Today, the possible unraveling of the Palestinian-Israeli peace project—and with it Arafat and the Palestinian Authority—could have significant ramifications for states across the Mideast.