A striking similarity in circumstances is evident when comparing the events surrounding the US-led strikes on Iraq, over ten years ago, and the events of today, in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against New York and Washington. In its attempts then to drum up support among Arab and Muslim countries for a strike against Iraq, and to at least appear evenhanded in its policies towards the Middle East, the US administration realised the need to address a key issue of concern to Arabs and Muslims: the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Soon after the attack on Iraq in 1991, the US led an international effort to bring the Arabs and Israelis together, leading to the Madrid Middle East peace process. Today, in the aftermath of the terrorist strikes against the US, the American administration is talking about a “vision” of a Palestinian state.
In parallel to the present, ten years ago the Palestinians and Israelis were embroiled in the first Intifada. Israel was ruled by a right-wing government and a hawkish prime minister refusing to discuss peace with the Palestinians, and the US was at the height of its unpopularity in the Arab world for its lopsided support for Israel and its heavyhanded approach towards an Arab and Muslim nation.
Much to the distaste of Israel’s then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Israel was pushed to the negotiating table soon after the end of the Gulf War. Today, unmistakable signs are emanating from the US that the Palestinians and Israelis will have to discuss peace seriously very soon. Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is already showing anger at the path recently taken by the US, with the American administration showing, uncharacteristically, little patience for the Israeli premier’s antics and rhetoric.
The recent statements from the American administration indicating that a Palestinian state has always been part of a US “vision” for the Middle East are indeed encouraging. While the statements from US President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell as well as other American officials over the past week may very well prove to be mere calculated and timely declarations, they are still worth taking seriously.
The US is keen to shore up support among Muslim and Arab countries, to extend it beyond its traditional allies in the region, in an apparent bid to avoid being viewed as leading a Western “crusade” against Islam (despite the American president’s statements to the contrary). More importantly, the US needs the logistical and moral support and cooperation of several key Arab and Muslim states in its fight against Osama Ben Laden and others it deems responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
This need by the US provides the Arab and Muslim world with a significant opportunity. The American administration seems aware that it must at least be seen to give something to the Arabs and Muslims in return for their cooperation. How much it gives, and the extent to which Arabs and Muslims will benefit, hinges on Arab leaders and their negotiating power with the Bush administration. In particular, the US seems to have publicly acknowledged the centrality of the Palestinian issue to the Arab and Muslim world. And it is this card that can be used to the maximum if Arab leaders are able to negotiate cleverly from a strategic and unified position.
What is called for now is a realisation by the Arab world of this opportunity and the need to draw up a comprehensive and unified strategy on all the final status issues. Clear, specific and consistent messages must be given to both Israel and the US as to what is acceptable to the Palestinians and the Arab world and what is not, as well as what can be negotiated and what cannot. Armed with the experience of the past 10 years of Israel “talking peace” with the Palestinians, coupled with America’s momentary need, Arab leaders must use this opportunity to its maximum and gain concrete assurances that the Palestinians will get nothing short of a national state, on their own soil, within clearly defined, contiguous and secure borders governed by themselves.
Also of significance should be a return to the land-for-peace formula, which was publicly recognised by the US and Russia – the two sponsors of the Madrid peace process – a decade ago and accepted as a premise of Middle East peace. Somewhere along the way, with the successive changes in Israeli governments over the past 10 years and the redrawing of the peace agreements according to the whims of each of these new governments, this premise has been forgotten.
Here is the Palestinians’ chance to remind the world and Israel of this central principle, of the plight of the refugees, the focal status of Jerusalem, as well as other thorny final status issues.
Ten years ago, the then US President Bush was at the end of his presidential term, affording him the luxury to push Middle East peace on the Shamir government. Today’s Bush, who is at the very beginning of his tenure and has shown, early on, an aversion to having a hands-on approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, may not be as willing to prod the Israeli government to seal a peace deal with the Palestinians, once the dust settles and the American mission in the region has been accomplished.
The opportunity that the Palestinians and the Arab world at large are presented with now is surely worth capitalising upon. While there is no doubt that the historic “special relationship” between the US and Israel is as strong as ever and will continue to be so in the future, a window of opportunity for the Arab world and the Palestinians in particular does exist. Arab nations must show unity and consistency in policy towards the Palestinian issue and firmness in negotiations with the Americans, as they must present a unified and strategic plan for a new peace deal between the Palestinians and Israelis. Otherwise, the Arab and Muslim world will look back on this as another missed opportunity in the history of Palestine.
The writer is a media consultant and freelance journalist. She contributed this article to the Jordan Times.