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The Cards are in the Hands of the Arabs - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Late Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat used to say that 99 percent of the cards in the Middle East are in the hands of the United States. On the eve of US President George Bush’s visit to the Arab region, I say that 99 percent of the cards and the solution in the Middle East today are in the hands of the Arabs.

First, we should not put to much emphasis on President Bush’s visit to the region. Visits by presidents often produced nothing, but they do provide media and political momentum.

This momentum might continue to achieve solutions to pending issues or might not continue and what is pending would remain pending. Can the Arabs take advantage of Bush’s visit to turn the table upside down? In other words, can the Arabs undertake a dramatic move to throw the responsibility in the American and Israeli courts? Such a position will demand a large degree of courage, which could reach the point of considering what we regard as prohibitions in the Arab lexicon.

In fact, there is a serious Arab initiative for peace. However, the credibility of this initiative for the West and Israel is limited. In other words, the manifestations of Arab intentions for peace have not reached the West, particularly the United States and Israel.

They still do not believe the peace intentions of the Arabs. Many of them are suspicious. The Israeli story has been dominant. The Israelis tell the Americans and the West: we established peace with two Arab states–Egypt and Jordan–and experience has proven its failure, because hatred of Israel still exists in the two states.

The strong question the Israelis are posing to the West, which is definitely finding attentive ears:

What is the strategic benefit to Israel in achieving peace with the Arabs following the failure of the experiment with Egypt and Jordan?

The remarks made by Israel’s friends in the West could be summed up in the following: the Arabs want a state of “no marriage and no divorce” with Israel–that is, they want to keep matters pending. So, how can the Arabs use the visit of the American president to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and Egypt to change this picture and win the support of public opinion in the United States and the West? Bush’s statements are clear regarding his vision about the establishment of a Palestinian state existing side-by-side with Israel and about containing Iran to ensure stability in the Gulf and change the impression gained in the region from the recent American intelligence report regarding the danger posed by the Iranian nuclear program.

It is no secret that the solution to the issues of Iraq and Palestine depends on Iran and Syria.

If President Bush wants to isolate Iran, the Arab key to such isolation is to break up the close ties between Syria and Iran by returning Syria back to the Arab fold. This means including Syria in the equation and in the search for a solution, particularly as the principles of the solution on the Syrian-Israeli track are known. Since the Geneva meeting with the Americans in 1999, the Syrians have known what the Israelis want and the Israelis have also known what the Syrians want. The Syrians want access to the waters of the Tiberias Lake. With regard to the Syrian-Israeli track, international agreements went back to the international borders with the British mandate in Palestine in 1923.

The late Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad insisted in Geneva on the need to return to thepre-4 June 1967 borders. Al-Assad wanted Syria to have access to the Tiberias Lake. However, his negotiators told him then that according to the 1923 borders, 10 meters separate between Syria and the Lake. Al-Assad responded then, according to the minutes of the meeting, “But there were no Jews separating between Syria and the Lake.” What is important in all this and according to recent Israeli signals, the solution is possible and easy between Syria and Israel. How nice it would be if one or more Arab leaders, with whom US President George Bush will meet during his forthcoming tour in the region, make quick arrangements now to invite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to meet with them in the presence of President Bush in Egypt or Abu Dhabi, for example.

This dramatic move could change public opinion in the West, the United States, and Israel about the seriousness of the Arabs for peace and could change the entire dialogue. The American presidential elections are shaping American public opinion, and such an event will impose itself on the presidential debates and convince the American people of the seriousness of the Arab desire for peace. The same thing could happen in Israel and encourage Ehud Baraq, the current defense minister, who originally called for early elections in his country. This is what is meant by saying that 99 percent of the cards are in the hands of the Arabs. Such political initiatives create popular pressure in democratic states. Al-Sadat understood this and exploited it well. I know that there are many among us who hate Al-Sadat, and contemplating doing what Al-Sadat did could be a sufficient enough reason for some Arab leaders not to take the same course. This is not because Al-Sadat was bad, but because some parties have succeeded in making Al-Sadat a traitor in the Arab conscience, and therefore, treason has become a restriction preventing us from undertaking any bold steps.

Those who are familiar with the secrets of Bush’s visit to the region say that the main purpose of his tour is to visit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia because of its importance in the Arab and Islamic Worlds and because of its significance in the world at a time when the oil price has touched $100 per barrel. This is in addition to the special relationship between President Bush and King Abdullah. President Bush has constantly praised King Abdullah as a man who honors his word and as a highly credible leader. If this is so, why the Arabs cannot exploit this relationship, which is based on mutual confidence between King Abdullah and President Bush, to promote their interests? What is needed is Arab coordination with Saudi Arabia and Syria to take advantage of this meeting to serve as the basis for solving the pending Arab issues.

Bush’s visits to the other Arab states are based on the bilateral relations between the United States and these states. On the Palestinian level, what is needed is for the Palestinians to unite under the banner of the Saudi king as the sponsor of the Mecca agreement. Instead of using Jordan’s umbrella, as they did in the past, the Palestinians should try the Saudi umbrella this time. Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas’s recent visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was in the right direction. It makes no sense for the Palestinians to ruin their chances through their division when the world has begun to accept the justness of the Palestinian cause.

Perhaps the time has come for the Arabs, particularly the Palestinians, to take a serious view of Israel’s strategic fears. The Israeli question about the nature of the Palestinian state is logical and legitimate. Will this state add to stability or instability in the region? The Gaza example says that this state would not contribute to stability in the region, while the West Bank example suggests that the new state would improve stability in the region.

On the Syrian track, there will be no embarrassment at this historical juncture to arrange for a visit by President Al-Assad to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or the UAE to coordinate positions about the Golan, Lebanon, and Iraq. The meeting of the Saudi foreign minister with his Syrian counterpart in Cairo recently could be understood as part of this coordination. Perhaps there was a deal for accepting a Syrian strategic role in Lebanon in return for the Golan and in return for Syria’s disengagement from Iran that could lead to stability in Iraq and Lebanon. This is as far as the Arabs are concerned.

As far as President Bush is concerned, it is important for him not to try to meet with those who call themselves advocates of democracy in the region. The advocates of democracy in the Arab World today, particularly in Egypt, are like the advocates of socialism in the past. They are the wealthy people who do not have as much support on the banks of the Nile (or even on the banks of the Euphrates) as they do have on the banks of the Potomac (the American river that separates between the Capital Washington from the State of Virginia). Our peoples have been disorganized until now. They have no real parties to represent them. Their dream in the period of chaos in Iraq is security and stability. I know that my words could cost me a lot, but the truth must be said.

As I said earlier, presidents’ visits do not achieve immediate results. However, George Bush is a practical person who was able to impose the Annapolis document on the Palestinians and the Israelis, although the two sides stated before the conference that they had not reached an agreement. The Arabs can make Bush’s visit a historic one by focusing on dealing with the pragmatic side of the personality of the visiting President instead of the old Arab way of wasting the time of meetings talking about the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and complaining about “double-standards.” The cards are in the hands of the Arabs today. Will they exploit them well?

This is the question.