If the events of the last three years in the Middle East served to prove anything, it is the ineffectiveness, if not dismal failure, of Arab diplomacy in regional politics. The two major crises that hit the region in Israel/Palestine and in Iraq were allowed to escalate dramatically–one leading to a vicious cycle of violence and the other to a full-scale war–with Arab states doing little more than admonishing the parties in conflict to avoid violence and resort to negotiations.
On the conflict in Palestine, the role of Arab diplomacy has been reduced to that of a helpless observer, with no real effect on the overall turn of events. As a result, a historic opportunity for a permanent settlement was missed at Camp David nearly three years ago, resulting in the escalation of violence and the rise of hardliners and extremists on both sides of the conflict. At a time when the region needed statesmen with vision–leaders such as the late Rabin of Israel and Hussein of Jordan–it found itself sinking more and more into destruction at the hands of leaders who thought more of their own political survival than of the future of their own people.
Apart from it being a failure of current Israeli and Palestinian leaders, it is also a failure of diplomacy by the US, Israel’s strategic partner, and a failure of concerned Arab states, the presumed strategic partners of the Palestinians. An entire generation of Israelis and Palestinians, and beyond, have all but lost faith in a peaceful settlement. The daily scenes of bloodshed, broadcast live into living rooms in Israeli and Arab homes, have made it much more difficult to convince people on both sides of the possibility of peace. But is there nothing that can be done to restore people’s faith in peace?
It took a lot of bloodshed before Arab diplomacy acted to produce the initiative adopted at the Arab summit meeting in Beirut. A lot of blood had to be spilled before the Bush administration abandoned its hands off approach and decide to get fully engaged in an attempt to halt the festival of death. We now have the “roadmap” and a commitment from Washington to the security of Israel and the establishment of a Palestinian state in 2005. The latest peace initiative is based on a series of earlier aborted initiatives, including the one adopted by the Arab summit and actively pursued by Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But can the latest plan be implemented by an Israeli government that came to power on the back of a promise to kill all peace initiatives and impose one of its own on the Palestinians and the world? Is it possible to expect that an Israeli government, which helped destroy almost everything achieved since the 1991 Madrid peace conference, will go along with a plan that seeks to restore what was destroyed? Can a Palestinian leadership, with a sidelined elected president and an appointed prime minister, do its part so that the failure of Camp David is not repeated?
Hopes are pinned on the current US administration to fulfill its commitments towards both sides of the divide. There are also hopes, with the recent announcement of a truce, that the Palestinians, with the help and backing from Arab states, will deliver their side of the deal. But most importantly, the whole process will depend, more than anything else, on the Israeli government realizing that a military solution is no solution, that a violent occupation breeds a violent resistance, that peace cannot be achieved without justice.
Over two hundred years ago, the Arab philosopher Abdul Rahman al Kawakibi wrote that “what an oppressor fears the most is people coming to realize that freedom is more important than life.” The Palestinians have already reached that point where they would sacrifice their lives for the sake of freedom. It is time that Israel let them have their freedom and their lives, so that the Israelis will have theirs.