President Obama’s newly appointed Middle East Envoy - George Mitchell - has been traipsing through the Middle East on a look and listen tour to learn the views of players in Cairo, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman on the present state of play in resolving the Arab-Jewish conflict that has raged unresolved for the last 130 years.
At the same time President Obama in his first televised interview - with Arab television station Al-Arabiya - has made his own views known to all those players which they should carefully listen to and heed.
Firstly on the issue of a new Arab state being created between Israel and Jordan President Obama stated his commitment to that eventuating but issued this note of warning:
” QUESTION: Will it still be possible to see a Palestinian state—and you know the contours of it—within the first Obama administration?
THE PRESIDENT: I think it is possible for us to see a Palestinian state—I’m not going to put a time frame on it—that is contiguous, that allows freedom of movement for its people, that allows for trade with other countries, that allows the creation of businesses and commerce so that people have a better life…
…But it is not going to be easy, and that’s why we’ve got George Mitchell going there. This is somebody with extraordinary patience as well as extraordinary skill, and that’s what’s going to be necessary.”
The notion that any such new state should be democratic - as President Bush’s Roadmap stipulated - - has now apparently disappeared from the new President’s vocabulary.
The idea that such a State was just around the corner - as the previous administration had been trumpeting for the last twelve months - was now not even being able to be predicted with confidence by President Obama to occur within the next four years.
Secondly President Obama declared that any such new state would have to be part of an overall resolution of other problems in the Middle East and neighbouring regions:
“I do think that it is impossible for us to think only in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not think in terms of what’s happening with Syria or Iran or Lebanon or Afghanistan and Pakistan.These things are interrelated.”
Thirdly President Obama negated the idea that the Saudi Peace Plan proposed in 2002-and offered to Israel on a “take it or leave it ” basis - would be the sought for regional solution that would be supported in its entirety by President Obama:
“QUESTION : Now there is an Arab peace plan, there is a regional aspect to it. And you’ve indicated that. Would there be any shift, a paradigm shift?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, here’s what I think is important. Look at the proposal that was put forth by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. I might not agree with every aspect of the proposal, but it took great courage to put forward something that is as significant as that.
I think that there are ideas across the region of how we might pursue peace.”
How President Obama gets the Saudis - and the Arab League which has adopted the proposal - to ameliorate their plan to meet President Obama’s apparent objections to it in its present form will prove to be one of the most fascinating diplomatic manoeuvres to observe in the coming months and years.
Given that the Saudi proposal contains the same intransigent demands that have characterised the Arabs negotiating stance for the last 42 years, the likelihood of any substantive changes to that proposal to meet President Obama’s declared reservation seems most unlikely to occur.
President Obama did not spell out what other ideas there are across the region in his compelling interview.
Clearly trilateral negotiations between Jordan, Israel and Egypt to divide sovereignty of the West Bank and Gaza between their respective States is one such idea that needs to be vigorously pursued by Mr Mitchell. It alone seems to offer the best chance of improving the lives of the West Bank’s Arab residents by offering them citizenship in an Arab State without requiring them to move from their present homes whilst allowing them once more to return to the Arab fold finally freed from Israel’s occupation or control - the position they last enjoyed between 1948-1967.
The PLO had already signalled its intentions to abandon the Roadmap - and focus on the Saudi Peace Plan as the only game in town - just a few days before President Obama’s appearance on Al-Arabiya.
Reuters had reported on 22 January:
“The Palestinian leadership are not ready to return to political negotiations with Israel unless there is a new basis for talks,” the PLO said, without elaborating. It said it wanted to conduct talks on the basis of the Arab peace initiative of 2002 which offers Israel peace and normal relations with all Arab countries in return for withdrawal from all territory captured in the 1967 war.”
This position had first been unveiled two months ago when the Palestinian Authority had taken out full page ads in the Israeli press calling on Israelis to endorse the Saudi plan. The money spent on those ads appears to have had no effect on Israel - or President Obama.
The current Palestinian leadership - itself the issue of much conjecture following the schism between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority - will not get to first base with President Obama if it insists on maintaining this stance.
There are three predictions that one can confidently make in this current uncertain climate whilst George Mitchell’s patience and skill is brought into play:
1. The existing Jewish residents of the West Bank - and the current Arab residents - will continue to copulate and populate. Any call for a “freeze” on natural increases in their respective populations - and the provision of housing and infrastructure to cope with such natural increases - is meaningless.
2. The creation of a 22nd Arab State between Egypt, Israel and Jordan will never eventuate unless the current Arab negotiating position is drastically revised by dropping their demands for sovereignty in all of the West Bank and Gaza and for millions of Arabs to be allowed to emigrate to Israel.
3. George Mitchell will be having lots of appointments, ongoing disappointments and very many more lunches in the region.
Let’s hope he doesn’t suffer from indigestion as he swallows what he is forced to hear.