For all the theatrics and histrionics within the Arab League’s Cairo headquarters, Arab governments are unlikely to have any influence on Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
Like all regional organizations, the League of Arab States is inefficient as a collective body, and individual countries such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt wield more power than the 22-member league. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the Palestinian cause remains the most discussed topic in the League.
So inefficient is the Arab League that American and Israeli officials were taken aback months ago when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas insisted on getting the green light from his fellow Arab leaders before risking yet another round of talks, this time with a far right-wing Israeli government. Abbas knows, as does almost everyone, that such a green light means very little in practical terms.
For Abbas, the decision to go to Cairo and ask the League’s Follow-up Committee to endorse the US broker’s plan for indirect negotiations has at least one obvious goal. It contains any angry Palestinian and Arab popular opposition to the decision to restart talks with Israel without the latter enforcing a total settlement freeze.
In addition, and more importantly, the rationale for getting the Arab League on board has more to do with what happens at the end of the four-month period set aside for indirect talks than what will actually happen during the talks.
Palestinians and Arabs are not very optimistic that the government of PM Binyamin Netanyahu will provide a practical answer to the Palestinian border question that will be the focus of the proximity talks. If the talks fail, as Palestinians fully expect, and if the failure of the talks can be clearly pinned on the Israelis, the next step in the plan is to move toward a unilaterally declared state. Palestinians have already secured European support for such a move if talks fail. In fact, some European countries have agreed to recognize a declared Palestinian state no matter what happens in the talks.
With Europeans supporting a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood, the only obstacle remaining to Palestinian leaders are the Americans. When Palestinians asked George Mitchell, the US special envoy, for assurances that the US would support such a statehood declaration if talks failed, the American responded that such a commitment would make talks pointless. Perhaps. Nevertheless, once the four-month period is over and there is no breakthrough, it will be important to find a way to get America to join Europe in recognizing a unilaterally declared state.
Here is where the Arab states, especially the moderate states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, come in. Americans are unlikely to be responsive to pressures from these Arab states at the end of the four months if they have not first shown public support of the proximity talks.
The decades old traditions of the Arab League have always required that decisions be reached unanimously and not by majority vote. This tradition has often given single countries the power to scuttle important decisions, effectively exercising a veto over the desires of the majority.
For Palestinians, therefore, the fact that the Arab League member states agreed, albeit reluctantly, to give their blessings to indirect talks, makes opposition movements’ ability to scuttle the talks very ineffective. With such opposition largely out of the way, Palestinians will pursue Salam Fayyad’s plan for a de facto state within less than two years, followed by a unilaterally declared political state thereafter.
For such a plan, Palestinians need Arab political and public support.