The Middle East Channel

Why the recent Arab League summit matters

Asked recently what they expected ahead of the Arab League summit in Sirte, Libya, most of Al-Jazeera’s random interviewees answered: nothing. They are not alone in their disillusionment–the insignificance of Arab summits has become conventional wisdom worldwide. Yet, the nothingness that usually comes out of these summits is only part of the story. These seemingly ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Asked recently what they expected ahead of the Arab League summit in Sirte, Libya, most of Al-Jazeera’s random interviewees answered: nothing. They are not alone in their disillusionment–the insignificance of Arab summits has become conventional wisdom worldwide. Yet, the nothingness that usually comes out of these summits is only part of the story. These seemingly boring meetings are the place where the impact of rising radicalism on regional politics is negotiated among Arabs. As such, they offer a good indicator of what lies ahead for the region and the world. Those who ignore them do so at their peril.

On the face of it, the Sirte summit was just another sterile meeting. In the absence of eight Arab leaders, including the Egyptian president and the Saudi king, the meeting was cut short and deserted by many before the concluding session. The summit adopted customary resolutions on the ‘routine issues’ such as the situation in Iraq, Somalia (which technically remains a state) and Sudan (which distinguishes itself by two fledgling peace processes and an ICC-indicted president). But on ‘new issues’ such as integrating neighbors (including Iran) and the transformation of the Arab League into a union, the summit failed to engage in a serious discussion, let alone reach a decision. All in all, the Sirte meeting lived up to the established reputation of Arab summits.

Yet the summit witnessed a particularly alarming development in relation to Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. On this issue, Arab leaders are often caught between a rock and a hard place: they are unwilling to heed popular calls for armed resistance, unable to push a reluctant Israel to a peace agreement, and practically ignored by their American and European partners. In this context, every summit becomes a negotiation between three parties: moderate and radical regimes as well as an increasingly belligerent Arab public opinion.

In the last ten summits, moderate regimes managed to negotiate a precarious balance. Determined to convince Israel and the United States that they mean business while simultaneously careful not to lose their own publics, moderates had started–since 2002–to insert pragmatic proposals in the midst of radical rhetoric. While rhetoric is served to the public, the operative paragraphs become the basis for policy proposals made to Israel and the United States (skeptics read those resolutions in the opposite sense, focusing on the radical rhetoric and ignoring the moderate operative parts). The 2002 ‘Arab Peace Initiative’ summit is a case in point.

In every summit since 2002, moderate Arab states managed to wrestle similar resolutions from their radical competitors, despite unfavorable regional and international contexts. They took considerable risk in order to keep the Arab hand for peace extended. But as Israel stalls and their populations call for blood, their position becomes less and less tenable. If they heed the popular sentiment they strengthen their radical competitors, but if they continue to ignore it they also strengthen them. Their only hope lies in a decisive American intervention, which is a very thin hope.

The latest episode with the Netanyahu government trimmed their hope further. The foreign ministers who endorsed a resumption of Palestinian-Israeli talks were rewarded by an Israeli provocation (that they shared with the accidental victim, Joe Biden). In Sirte, the ‘resistance camp’ was emboldened: it prevented any reference by the summit to resuming these negotiations, even if they were indirect or otherwise conditional on a settlement freeze. Libya tried on their behalf to push for withdrawing the Arab Peace Initiative altogether, and Syria urged the Palestinians to abandon negotiation and embrace armed resistance. And while they ultimately failed to impose their choices this time, the moderates also failed to win the day with their own vision; the result was a stalemate. The protagonists agreed to take the matter up again in another round ‘later this year’. But the talk back on Arabic websites is predominantly in favor of the ‘radicals’.

Unless the unexpected happens and an external party steps in to create a genuine option for peace, we should brace ourselves for the closing of the window that Arab moderates have kept open for the last decade–and at great political cost. A radical takeover of common Arab positions would obviously benefit the diehard rightists, in Likud as well as its far-right partners in Hamas. But the price might be a little bit too high for everyone else.

Ezzedine Choukri Fishere is professor of international politics at the American University in Cairo and a former advisor to the Egyptian foreign minister and also to the United Nations Middle East envoy in Jerusalem.

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