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Published: Thursday, 4/12/2007

Beirut offer poses dilemma for Israel

LONDON - Late last month the Arab League declared in Riyadh that all 22 Arab countries are still ready for peace with Israel if it withdraws from all the Arab lands that it seized in the 1967 war and agrees to a just solution for the Palestinian refugees.

It is a measure of their panic as they calculate the psychological impact of a forthcoming U.S. withdrawal from Iraq (which will emerge as the first Shia-ruled Arab country in eight centuries), and the likelihood that western Iraq will become a Sunni Arab rump state dominated by fanatical Islamists.

The Riyadh offer essentially repeats a proposal for a comprehensive peace settlement that the Arab League first made five years ago at a summit in Beirut. At that time it was completely ignored by Israel, as Ariel Sharon was the Israeli prime minister in 2002 and had no interest in trading land for peace. He is gone now, but it is still very unusual in the diplomatic world to make the same offer again at a later date. It looks too much like begging. Why did they do it?

This is not a particularly good time to talk about peace to Israel, for Mr. Sharon's successor, Ehud Olmert, is gravely weakened by corruption scandals and the perceived failure of his war against Lebanon last summer. He is in no position politically to propose returning to Israel's pre-1967 borders, i.e. giving the entire West Bank and East Jerusalem to the Palestinians and returning the Golan Heights to Syria, even if he were personally inclined to do so.

The Arab League's real reason for bringing up the Beirut offer again last month was that a number of key members are worried about the security of their own regimes after U.S. forces in Iraq give up and go home.

A few countries with large Shia populations worry a bit about their loyalty, but the big concern everywhere is that Sunni Islamist extremists have gained immensely in prestige and popular support across the Arab world because of their performance against the American occupation forces in Iraq.

In virtually every Arab state, the main opposition to the regime is Sunni Islamists, and in many of them the relationship is already one of suppressed civil war. The American invasion of Iraq utterly destabilized the region - as King Abdullah II of Jordan warned in July, 2002, "All of us are saying, 'Hey, United States, we don't think this is a very good idea'" - and U.S. defeat in Iraq is destabilizing it even further. In Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and some of the smaller gulf states, the countries nearest to the epicenter of the upheavals, and even in Egypt, there are grave concerns about Islamist coups, uprisings, or even full-scale revolutions.

So now would be a good time to win the regimes some credit by doing a peace deal with Israel that creates a proper Palestinian state in the Israeli-occupied territories and lets at least a few refugees go home while compensating the rest. However, the very vulnerability that now persuades Arab regimes to revive this proposal automatically makes it less attractive to Israelis. How can they be sure that the Arab regimes they make the deal with will actually survive long enough to make such a deal worthwhile?

Aluf Benn of the newspaper Ha'aretz put it plainly about a year ago: "Israel could always do business with Arab dictators; (they were) a barrier protecting it from the rage of the 'Arab street.' That was the basis of the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan (and with) Yasser Arafat and his heirs but those days are over. Henceforth Israel will have to factor into its foreign policy something it has always ignored - Arab public opinion."

Indeed, Israel may soon have to deal with more regimes that fully reflect the "rage of the Arab street," as it is already dealing with (or rather, failing to deal with) the Islamists of Hamas, freely elected in the Palestinian occupied territories more than a year ago. Such governments would not be interested in making new peace agreements with Israel, or even in maintaining existing ones.

So the quite genuine offer of the Arab League will be ignored, not just because the current Israeli government wants to hold onto most of the settlements, but because no Israeli government would accept the deal the Arab League is offering unless it could be sure that its key partners on the other side were capable of carrying out their part of the deal. It cannot be sure of that any more.

The repercussions of the Iraq fiasco are just beginning to unfold, and nobody knows what the Middle East will look like five years from now.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.

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