First Published: 2013-01-08

 

Arabs Can Act for Syria and Palestine—Before it’s Too Late

 

Instead of acting as spectators, enablers, or waiting for the United Nations or the United States to provide solutions, there are practical steps through collective Arab action that might make a real difference, stresses James Zogby.

 

Middle East Online

During the next few months, the Arab World will have its hands full with problems requiring urgent attention. Chief among them are the ongoing crises in Syria and Palestine, both of which are fast approaching their respective "points of no return". Instead of acting as spectators, enablers, or waiting for the United Nations or the United States to provide solutions, there are practical steps through collective Arab action that might make a real difference.

The continuing tragedy of Syria will be front and center for months to come, with both regime and opposition appearing determined to continue their "dance until death". UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's dire warnings should be heeded. If no political solution is found, the situation will only worsen. With the regime increasingly desperate and brutal, and the opposition better armed but lacking control of some of its elements, the future promises only an accelerated casualty rate and a deepening of sectarian animosity.

Brahimi has tabled a plan that proposes a political process that transitions the government away from single party domination. The Russians have been given the responsibility for bringing the regime to the table. Key Arab states should assume the parallel responsibility of pressing the opposition to agree to a peaceful transition.

To date, opposition leaders have refused to consider any form of negotiations or compromise with the regime. While their anger at, and distrust of, the Assad government is understandable, holding out for a decisive win is neither responsible nor is it a politically sound strategy. Given the reality of a divided Syrian polity, compromise and a transitional approach to change appears to be the wisest path forward.

The solution envisioned by Brahimi won't provide a clear-cut victory for any side, but it will end the blood-letting and pave the way for a political solution that can bring real change and an end to authoritarian rule by the Assad family. Arab states have leverage here since they are funding, arming, and supporting the opposition. Instead of merely enabling more conflict, Arab states should use the leverage they have with their allies in Syria to take the lead in ending the killing and destruction, before the country collapses, fragments, and/or the violence spills across the border destabilizing an already fragile region.

This will not be easy—compromise never is and success cannot be guaranteed. But it is the least horrible outcome to a terrible two year long war that with time can only get worse and most certainly will not get better. Compromise will require leadership that, at this time, only Arabs can provide.

Another area where the region’s leadership must play an active and supportive role is in the effort to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The Palestinian situation was near tragic four years ago and has not improved since then. The Palestinian house remains in disarray, with leaderships in the West Bank and Gaza both physically and ideologically divided. Gaza, under the control of Hamas, continues to be strangled by an oppressive embargo. The West Bank itself is being slowly strangled by never-ending settlement growth, hundreds of intrusive and humiliating checkpoints, and an oppressive wall/barrier snaking in and out of Palestinian lands.

The failed paths chosen by Palestine's two leaderships, though contradictory, are both flawed. Hamas has made a religion of “resistance” which has won nothing but death and hardship for Palestinians, insecurity in Israel and reinforcement for hard-line Israeli policies. Meanwhile the Palestinian Authority’s commitment to diplomacy and negotiations, while commendable, has become pointless, since negotiating without leverage (and without control over the constituency for which they are negotiating) becomes an empty exercise.

Meanwhile, the hard-line Israeli government, hell-bent on conquest, continues to act with impunity—expanding settlements and tormenting Palestinians under their control. The far-right in Israel has come to define Israeli politics, while the "peace camp" has floundered.

If this dynamic remains unchecked, in short order, one of two outcomes may occur: either Israel will complete its plan for the physical domination of the West Bank and the total transformation of Jerusalem—making separation into two states impossible; or there will be renewed violence with devastating consequences for the Palestinian people.

Our recent polling in Israel and among Palestinians both in the occupied lands and refugees in Jordan and Lebanon establishes that peace remains possible. The two publics, though divided on many issues, show important points convergence. What is required is a vision that can move opinion and leadership. These will not come from the U.S. or Israel, and cannot come from the Palestinians. But leading Arab states can provide leadership that could alter the dynamic and change opinion.

The first priority must be to achieve Palestinian reconciliation, and the establishment of an effective and unified Palestinian government that can command both popular support and the respect of the international community. This will require more than a redux of the Mecca Accords. Up until now, Arab reconciliation efforts have focused exclusively on political matters, with hollow threats of sanctions for the party that interfered with implementation. Instead of threats, the Arab leadership ought to create incentives for acceptance.

Clearly what both the West Bank and Gaza desperately need are job creation, infrastructure and capacity-building projects, as well as immediate relief. The Arabs already participate in international efforts to subsidize the Palestinian Authority budget and individual Arab states finance projects in both Palestinian territories. But these funds given this way merely serve to underwrite the two divided Palestinian leaderships maintaining the unacceptable status quo. To move the reconciliation process forward, I would propose the creation of a massive multi-billion dollar “Peace and Reconciliation Incentive Fund” that would provide immediate relief and job-creating investment once the parties have agreed to and taken steps to implement a unity plan. The bottom line purpose of the fund would be to support the Palestinian people and to create the incentive and pressure for their divided leaderships to agree on a new government which, with Arab backing, is ready and able to make peace.

In addition, the Arab League, instead of merely reaffirming their 2002 and 2007 peace plan, would do well to enlarge upon it by putting, as it were, “meat on the bone”. They could, for example, spell out in greater detail for Israelis the types of investment and/or trade incentives that would accompany final peace and/or normalization. And they could even create a staged sequencing (for example, with the signing of an Israeli-Palestinian framework, stage one will occur; with removal settlements and checkpoints in compliance with agreement, stage two will occur, etc.). Our polling shows that the Arab Peace Initiative has strong support among Palestinians and has the potential to positively change Israeli opinion. Spelling out, therefore, the benefits and vision that accompany final peace could be of benefit. If Arab leaders were then to "go on the road" selling their plan to world public opinion, it would have a tremendous impact in advancing peace and transforming views of Arabs.

Promoting a peaceful transition in Syria, Palestinian reconciliation, and a comprehensive Middle East peace will not be easy. Demonstrating leadership, making a difference, and changing the trajectory of history, never is.

Washington Watchis a weekly column written by AAI President James Zogby, author of Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters, a book that brings into stark relief the myths, assumptions, and biases that hold us back from understanding the people of the Arab world.

The views expressed within this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Arab American Institute. We invite you to share your views on the topics addressed within Dr. Zogby's weeklyWashington Watchby emailing jzogby@aaiusa.org.

 

Iraqi forces seize Kirkuk governor's office

New UN envoy in Rabat to restart talks on WSahara

Last days of Raqa battles ‘toughest fighting yet’

Mogadishu twin bomb death toll at 276

Lebanon promotes ‘back to public school’ drive

Divided Iraq tests limited US influence

Iraqi forces seize airport, oil field from Kurds

Saudi Arabia sets conditions to role in Syria reconstruction

In tougher approach, US offers multimillion-dollar reward for Hezbollah operatives

EU ministers join forces in support of Iran deal

Batteries, tape to thank for defeating jihadists in Raqa

Palestinian Authority top official visits Gaza

Israel strikes Syrian anti-aircraft battery in response to shots

Qatar starts to feel pinch from sanctions

Omani role has helped Iran but may not do much in crisis with US

Head of IS in Southeast Asia dead

Gazans hope Palestinian reconciliation ends their woes

US-backed forces announce ‘final phase’ of Raqa recapture

Suspicion of football corruption shows limits of Qatar’s ‘soft power’

Schools closed on first day of term in rebel-held Yemen

Iraqi forces in standoff with Kurds in oil-rich Kirkuk

Protests in southern Morocco over water shortages

Iran’s Zarif says Trump speech in violation of nuclear deal

In Egypt, illiteracy rates down but problem remains

ISIS regroups in Libya amid jihadist infighting

Egypt’s Nation’s Future Party seeks to build on youth vote

Qatar freezes assets of royal member over Gulf crisis

Morocco dismantles IS-linked terror cell

Syrian troops recapture city of Mayadeen from IS

Gulf countries voice support for Trump’s tough stance on Iran

Princess named to head Saudi sports federation

IS fighters surrender as defeat in Raqa nears

Former French culture minister picked to head UNESCO

Baghdad issues ultimatum to Kurds on Kirkuk

Trump tears into Iran, leaves nuclear deal hanging

Iranians respond with anger, mockery to Trump speech

Somalia's defense minister, army chief resign

EU says it must watch IS in North Africa 'very carefully'

NATO chief urges US, Turkey to 'find solutions' to row

Turkey deploys troops to Syria's rebel-held Idlib

Four jihadists killed in Mali

Hamas dilemma in Palestinian reconciliation

Baghdad launches Kirkuk operation amid bitter row with Kurds

Talks on Raqa civilian exit halted

Qatar, Egypt set for UNESCO standoff