By Farooq Mitha
Special to The Sun
Published: Sunday, August 16, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
As the Obama administration pressures the Arabs and Israelis to return to the negotiating table, I recall a recent conference I attended of Israeli personalities and their counterparts from several Arab states, including states that do not have formal relations with Israel.
The purpose was to discuss specific steps that can be taken to achieve peace and to pave the way towards normalization. While official negotiations are at a standstill due to roadblocks on both sides, this was an example of unofficial efforts to keep the peace process moving forward.
Thus far Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected freezing “natural growth” of Israeli settlements. In addition, the Saudi Foreign Minister said his country refuses to take small steps towards normalizing relations with Israel, which are said to include the opening of commercial offices, allowing flights going in and out of Israel to fly over Arab airspace, and Israeli media visits.
The Saudis and Jordanians have criticized the value of incremental steps and prefer a comprehensive solution that goes directly into discussion of final status issues.
In reality, final status discussions and confidence building measures can take place concurrently, but will require regional players to take dramatic steps. Reports have indicated that Israel is considering a temporary freeze on settlement construction, including natural growth construction, for some number of months.
This would be a great start and a sign of good faith, but is something that Israel should be doing anyway to honor its previous commitments.
Also, things take time to develop in the Middle East, so any temporary freeze should be for a minimum of six months with room for extensions as other steps progress.
The Obama administration may be looking for too much from the Arab states before both sides are even at the negotiating table, especially concerning commercial offices. There is extremely negative sentiment on the Arab street about normalizing relations with Israel before the Palestinian situation is resolved. Moreover, Arab countries feel that normalization is their only card to play and once they give that up, they will lose any leverage over the Israelis.
Keeping all of this in mind, efforts at this stage should focus encouraging people to people contact between Arabs and Israelis. This is an incremental step that can be quickly implemented in a country like Jordan, which is at peace with Israel and where such work is already being done.
The Amman Center for Peace and Development is an organization that runs several projects working to bring Jordanians and Israelis together. I attended a workshop it organized, which brought together Jordanian and Israeli teachers to improve their occupational skills and learn about each other. Professionals and civic leaders from other Arab countries could participate in such activities and most of it could happen out of the spotlight as a precursor to further normalization.
Jordan may be reluctant to be the hub for such projects for fear of its perception in the region, but it must play a central role because of its normalized relations with Israel. In fact, only months ago King Abdullah was promoting the fifty-seven state solution with the Muslim world.
This leads to the issue of the Arab Initiative. While Netanyahu recently made positive comments about the Initiative it is important for Israel to have some type of response or counter proposal that will help spark a dialogue over final status issues.
In tandem, Arab leaders should allow Israeli media visits and grant interviews to them in order to reach out directly to the Israeli public and push the peace agenda.
The Hamas factor should also be addressed because it will have influence over Palestinian acceptance of any peace deal. Its leader, Khaled Meshaal, recently stated that Hamas would, “cooperate with any American, international or regional effort to find a just solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict…”
Hamas needs to be put to the test, if only through indirect channels, to see if it is willing to match words with actions.
Taking these steps calls for compromise and will require leaders to advance ideas in public that are agreed to behind closed doors. These issues are being discussed at all levels including gatherings focused on people to people contact like the ones I attended. Such initiatives can play a critical role building the confidence that each side needs to move forward.
The Obama administration would be wise revisit some of the steps it may be suggesting while encouraging and perhaps even sponsoring smaller scale initiatives in its push for comprehensive peace.
Farooq Mitha is an international policy specialist and is currently a Fulbright Fellow in Amman, Jordan from the University of Florida.