Long, bumpy road ahead for Arab peace initiative

DubaI, Mar 30 | Updated: Mar 31 2007, 05:30am hrs
The United States has welcomed the Arab peace plan, and Israel has hailed a revolutionary change in the Arab position, but it is still hard to find anyone who believe peace is about to break out in the conflict at the heart of the violent instability of the Middle East.

Arabs revived at an Arab summit on Thursday their 2002 offer to the Jewish state of normal ties with Arab countries in return for full withdrawal from land it occupied in 1967, a just solution for Palestinian refugees and a Palestinian state.

Israel rejected the plan in 2002 but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the Riyadh summit was serious and he was ready to talk peace with Saudi Arabia and other US allies. The UN chief showed up to back the plan, and Washington, which is trying to revive the peace process, said it was very positive.

Analysts said it was a good step, when measured against the usual Arab inaction, but there was a long way to go and a lot of creative diplomacy needed to bring about historic compromises that have eluded generations of statesmen and peace brokers.

I think there will be a concerted effort to make this work ... but it will come up against the same obstacles as previous efforts, namely whether Israel is willing to withdraw to 1967 boundaries or not, said Mouin Rabbani, Amman-based senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.

At present, I dont think there is any real evidence this US administration is one that will enforce the principle of full peace for full withdrawal.

Analysts also cast doubt on Olmerts ability to muster public support for any dramatic peace moves, given that backing for his government has plummetted since last years inconclusive Lebanon war. The US administration has shown little interest in advancing Middle East peace through much of George W Bushs presidency, but has recently made renewed efforts.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has regularly toured the Middle East, and recently secured agreement on regular meetings between Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Washington says the Arabs should use the opportunity to engage Israel.

This time, however, Arabs are trying to make their own opportunities. Whereas in 2002, the Arabs did little to market their plan, this time, they have set up a committee led by US-ally Saudi Arabia to follow it up, possibly paving the way for Arab states that have no ties to Israel to open up channels.

Israel has acknowledged the potential for talks with Saudi Arabia, but analysts and diplomats say the kingdom, home to Islams holiest shrines and already under attack from al Qaeda for its pro-Western policies, will have to tread carefully. Direct meetings with Israel are unlikely soon.

While Israel has long called for talks on the terms of peace, for Arab League countries, only three of which have full diplomatic ties with Israel, just talking comes with a price.

Israel has objections to most of the key elements of the Arab plan, including the proposed return to de facto frontiers that existed before the 1967 war, the right of return for Palestinians displaced with the creation of Israel in 1948 and the fate of Arab East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel in 1967. Those are issues Sunni-led Arab states feel they cannot give up. But US failure to pacify Iraq and the spread of Shiite Muslim Irans influence in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories has damaged American prestige in the Arab world.