By Bilal Al-Hassan
The Arab kings and presidents whose latest summit was in Sirte had a very complex political situation on the agenda, requiring political decisions of a particularly complex kind. Given the nature of the issue in question, it is pertinent to ask if the rulers were prepared for such decisions.
For nearly twenty years since the Madrid Conference in late 1991, leaders in the Arab world have taken political decisions relating to negotiations with Israel, considering peace as the preferred strategic option. As such, the agenda of all Arab summits was agreed in advance, regardless of the inter-Arab differences raised; it was possible to guess the direction of summit outcomes. However, the current political situation suggests that a new political era has dawned, one that calls for political decisions following a different set of ground-rules. Israel now insists on entering into negotiations without any terms of reference whatsoever; on borders, for example, it refuses to consider the 1967 "Green Line" as a basis for discussions; it refuses to halt settlement activity and it looks at the city of Jerusalem with Judaisation in mind. This has flummoxed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who had insisted that he would never participate in direct negotiations unless Israel took the decision to halt settlement activity.
If President Abbas, who is well known for his enthusiasm for negotiations, has reached this conclusion, then it is certain that the Arab leaders at the summit, presidents, kings and foreign ministers alike, would also be capable of reaching the logical conclusion of this situation: We have tried negotiation and peace, and it has become clear that Israel wants neither negotiations nor peace. This can be deduced not only from the way Israel is dealing with the Palestinian leadership, but also from the way it's treating the Arab peace initiative.
Such a conclusion actually settles the issue of negotiation and compromise and places certain core tasks before the Palestinians and the Arabs. The latter must move from dialogue to a more robust, confrontational style, putting pressure on their supposed allies, the foremost of which is the United States, followed by Britain, France, Germany and Italy; all countries with economic and political ties to the Arab world must be pushed to choose between these links and ongoing unconditional indulgence of Israeli belligerence and intransigence.
Of course, in the Middle East with its labyrinthine political make-up, it is a wise move for preparations also to be made for a possible military confrontation; Israel's nuclear arsenal sends a very clear message; do as we say, or else… War is, apparently, negotiation's bottom line. The question is, are the Arab leaders ready for this and feeling strong enough to call Israel's bluff? They must at least consider their response in such circumstances as Israeli policies are driving them away from the negotiating table. Preparing for military confrontation is not an extremist or aggressive position to take; it is being realistic about the consequences of failure and using political logic to be prepared for those consequences. Experience shows that it is not just the Palestinian leadership which has to make such decisions; the wider Arab world knows too well the tendency of the Israelis to hit out indiscriminately and must prepare accordingly.
A close analysis of Israeli rhetoric over the past year or so shows that the Zionist state is preparing for another war with the Arab world, not just this Palestinian faction or that national movement. The Israel Defence Forces Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, has told members of the Knesset (Parliament) Committee on Foreign Affairs and Security about what he considers to be the threats to Israel. Although the media could only report snippets of the discussion due to the seriousness of the subject matter, they were enough to suggest that the leadership in Israel believes the end result of the current developments will be war.
According to General Ashkenazi, what is happening around Israel is like the movements that take place deep underground and lead to earthquakes. He identified the threats facing Israel, including the following:
1. Iran's nuclear programme.
2. The US withdrawal from Iraq and its implications.
3. The regional situation created by the growing capabilities of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
4. The growing military capacity and capability of Hamas in Gaza.
5. The shift in Turkish foreign policy.
6. The latest tension inside Lebanon and the outcome of the international tribunal and possible indictments resulting therefrom.
7. The implications of the failure of direct negotiations with the Palestinians, including a new uprising (intifada) in the West Bank.
While this was obviously a military leader speaking on a strategic level, newspaper reports in Israel claim that the Israel Defence Forces are training in scenarios as close as possible to those anticipated in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon. Haaretz newspaper quotes a senior Israeli officer who said, "In exercises like this, the army takes into account the likelihood of being attacked by Syria." Observers, says Haaretz, believe that war will flare up soon, but "the IDF has been preparing for it for a long time".
Although the armed forces of most countries carry out such theatre-specific training based on current and anticipated trouble spots, the context in which the Israel Defence Forces are doing this is very different. The suggestion is, very clearly, that war is an option for the Israeli leadership in the likelihood that negotiations will fail; those who reject peace have to consider war. In the light of such evidence, it would be negligent of the Arab leadership not to prepare likewise. President Mahmoud Abbas and his negotiators must think well outside the box; as Israel prepares for war, it is absurd to limit the debate to involvement in direct negotiations only if settlement activity stops. A regional strategy to deal with an Israeli military response must be considered. This is the duty of real leaders; a core of real leadership, before, during and after the Arab summit.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.