Amman workshop on the Palestinian Peace Process

On 30 May-1 June 2003, Pugwash Meeting no. 285 was held on the Palestinian Peace Process.

9th Pugwash Workshop on the Middle East: The Arab (Saudi) Plan and the Third Party Role in the Palestinian Peace Process

Report by Isabel Kershner with Juliette Abu Iyun and Paolo Cotta-Ramusino 

The 9th Pugwash Workshop on the Middle East convened in Amman, Jordan, from 30 May-1 June 2003. The main agenda was to discuss the Arab (Saudi) proposal for a comprehensive Middle East peace, the Road Map for a permanent settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and ways of connecting the two. Some thirty participants from around the Middle East and several European Pugwash members gathered in the Jordanian capital at what proved — by luck as much as design — to be a most opportune moment. Delayed from its original date of April 2003 because of the war in Iraq, the Pugwash meeting finally took place during a period of renewed expectations for change in the dynamics of the Middle East, and just days before U.S. President George Bush arrived in the region for the June 3rd Sharm el-Sheikh summit and the June 4th Aqaba Summit. In Aqaba, in the presence of President Bush and his host, Jordan’s King Abdullah, the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas pledged their commitment to the internationally-sponsored Road Map.

The Saudi Initiative / Arab Plan

In February 2002, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman published an article revealing an initiative by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah, offering full Arab normalization with Israel in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied in 1967. In late March, at an Arab League summit in Beirut, all 22 member states of the Arab League endorsed the initiative — now to be known as the Arab Proposal. The Arab Proposal elaborated somewhat on the original simplicity of the Saudi formula, among other things including a clause on the need to find a just and agreed solution to the Palestinian refugee problem based on U.N. Resolution 194. (Passed in 1948, 194 stipulates that refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace should be permitted to do so at the earliest opportunity.)

There was little doubt among the participants that the Arab plan represents an historical breakthrough. Simply the idea of bringing 22 Arab countries together with the prospect of offering a final peace settlement in the Middle East, where Arab Countries could live together with Israel, is a radical departure from the past. It was also pointed out that the Arab plan’s lack of details represents at the same time a weakness, since its implementation has yet to be defined, and a strength, since, as a general idea, it may survive setbacks and dark periods.

In the words of the participant who first presented the initiative at the Amman workshop, it essentially means “the Arabs abandoning their claims of 1948”, and offers Israel peace, security, full recognition and normalization. Yet it has been noted by several participants that despite the historic value of the Arab Proposal, it was somehow met with indifference and possibly rejection on the Israeli side, even in the peace camp and at the unofficial academic level. Participants expressed their surprise and disappointment at what they saw as a confounding Israeli reaction, or non-reaction. It was also noted that the US did not pay particular attention to the Arab plan, and did not make serious efforts to include it effectively in the Road Map.

Other participants noted that the Saudi initiative had actually garnered wide support in Israeli public opinion polls, but that the Beirut Summit and Arab Proposal had simply been overwhelmed by events. The Beirut summit coincided with the Park Hotel Passover Eve suicide bombing in Netanya, which killed 29 and served as the catalyst for Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield, a military reinvasion of the Palestinian cities of the West Bank.

Some participants pointed to the general Israeli skepticism about peace plans at the time. The Israeli peace camp, the “wounded soldiers of peace” in one participant’s words, had been on the defensive since the collapse of the Camp David process in 2000. One participant pointed to Saudi and Arab reluctance to launch the plan with a grand gesture. One participant said that if Arab leaders had emulated Anwar Sadat, and presented the plan in the Israeli parliament, this might have led to a stronger psychological breakthrough on the Israeli side, but that “staying in Riyadh” won’t do. Others noted that when public Arab diplomacy was most needed, during the Camp David summit of 2000, it wasn’t forthcoming, and when it came it was not so needed. Furthermore, the reference to the refugee issue and U.N. Resolution 194 signals to most Israelis, rightly or wrongly, the demand for 4 million Palestinian refugees to have the right to return to Israel, effectively threatening the Jewish nature of the state in the future and canceling out the point of a two-state solution. (One participant noted that a subsequent resolution at the Beirut summit reaffirmed the refugees’ right of return which is rejected almost across the board in Israel). Moreover, it was noted that the violence of the past two and a half years had not only weakened the peace camp in Israel, by reinforcing the Sharon government line, but had brought Israel back to dealing with existential questions and questions about its legitimacy.

Other participants stressed that, for the first time, the Arab Proposal, endorsed by all 22 Arab League states, had called for an “agreed” solution to the refugee question, meaning agreed by Israel too. This, they said, was a tremendously significant change signaling a pragmatic approach to solving the problem. Others posited that while the right of return issue is currently exploited by interested parties, it is possible to reach an agreed solution to the refugee issue that can satisfy both sides. It was also pointed out that no counteroffer to the Arab plan has yet been made by Israel; Israel has not made an effort so far to address the Arab world.

There was a feeling that the historic significance of the Arab Proposal, and of all 22 Arab states “opening the door”, had been, for the time being, missed, but there was a general consensus that a positive future evolution was not at all to be ruled out. One participant stressed the importance of the fact that despite all the difficulties of the past year, not one Arab state had asked to have its signature withdrawn from the proposal.

Some participants noted that after years of Israelis and Palestinians getting bogged down in process, and not reaching peace, the Arab Proposal offers the advantage of laying out the end game, giving an incentive for both sides to take whatever steps necessary. There is of course a distinct benefit in the idea of jumping straight to the end state, and telescoping the interim stages or eliminating them altogether. It was also pointed out, however, that the process is important: the Arab Proposal leaves the process of getting to the end state unexplained. There is a need to connect the Arab plan more effectively with the ongoing peace process, so as to maximise the Arab countries contributions to the process.

Asked how the Saudi initiative was received by Saudi public opinion, a participant responded that the Arab public is as untrusting of Israel’s intentions as Israel is of Arab intentions. “People want to know what they will get in return for recognizing Israel,” he said. He noted, however, that the people would support a just, comprehensive settlement. Nobody now speaks about eliminating Israel, he said, but about the need for a Palestinian state.

The workshop participants were asked to propose ways of re-launching and presenting the Arab Proposal to public opinion in an effective way. Perhaps, with the war in Iraq over, there could be an opportunity to breathe new energy into it. There were suggestions to use the media and one participant proposed that perhaps others might consider Israel attending some events at the Arab League as observers if not participants.

One participant stressed that it is not only Israeli public opinion that matters, and that the daily killing of Palestinians broadcast on Arab TV screens only heightens the anti-Israel sentiment in Arab countries. Others cited the occupation itself, the building of settlements in the 1967 territory, and the lack of freedom of movement for Palestinians, as factors that underline these sentiments and undermine the possibility of making further gestures to Israel. Under these circumstances, one noted, it is hard to get Arab civil society to engage.
One participant warned that given the demographics in the region — by 2010, according to demographers’ projections, the Palestinian population will equal the Jewish population in the area of Mandatory Palestine — and given the proliferation of Israeli settlement building in the 1967 territories, the “clock is ticking” on the two-state solution.

As for what to do to move beyond statements against settlement expansion and the occupation, one participant suggested enlarging the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Coalition, a local initiative that issues joint statements and advertisements in the Israeli and Palestinian press. It was suggested that like-minded people from the Arab states could be brought into the coalition. One participant agreed in principle but noted that the current circumstances could make extending the peace coalition “a little premature.”

On the other side there was a large consensus in the group on the need for extending dialogue to all countries in the region, and for enlarging the network, particularly on security issues. The idea of providing a regional forum where people from all countries could participate and discuss security problems and ways to improve the perspectives of peaceful coexistence is very much an idea to which Pugwash could contribute.

It was generally clear that in order to terminate what one participant called the “war process”, namely to end the occupation and the hostilities of various extremist groups, better communication between the Arab and Israeli governments and public is needed. An emphasis was put on the need to tone down the harsh rhetoric and the general tone of hostility in the media as well as in public statements.

The Road Map

The Road Map toward a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, sponsored by the “Quartet” of the U.S, the U.N., the E.U. and Russia, was drafted in 2002 but only presented to the Israeli and Palestinian sides more recently. It was formally launched in Aqaba on June 4, 2003. The Road Map envisages a three-phased process that can be summed up as follows. In the first phase, there would be a Palestinian declaration and measures taken for a cessation of violence and the two sides would take steps to keep calm on the ground and get back to the situation prior to the outbreak of the Intifada in September 2000. The Palestinians would carry out internal reforms, while Israel would desist from actions that might undermine the stabilization process, remove illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank and implement a settlement freeze. An international monitoring mechanism would be set up to observe implementation. The second interim phase envisages a provisional Palestinian state within temporary borders, and the third phase envisages a final negotiated settlement ending with a permanent Palestinian state and resolving all the outstanding issues, including the Palestinian refugee problem, by 2005. The Saudi-Arab Proposal is cited as one of the bases, along with U.N. Resolutions 242, 338 and 1397, of the plan.

Participants listed some new conditions that might bode well for the Road Map. Among them, the new environment in the region after the war in Iraq, and the fact that the U.S. is becoming “part” of the Middle East (one participant noted that there are as many U.S. soldiers in the region as there are people in Qatar); the need for the U.S. to close the “legitimacy gap” with the U.N. Security Council in the wake of the war; and also the now-proven ability of the Egyptian and Jordanian peace treaties with Israel to survive even in adverse circumstances.

Others underlined the fragility of the process and the ever-present threat of it being derailed by even one particularly deadly terror attack. If the security situation cannot be stabilized on the ground, according to Phase One of the map, then there will be no Phase Two or Three, it was noted. It was also noted that the Road Map document is full of contradictory points and at times ambiguous statements, leaving open the possibility of both confusion and flexibility.

One of the innovations — and perhaps the main innovation of the first phase of the Road Map — is the inclusion of an international monitoring mechanism. It was noted, however, that this crucial aspect is left vague, with only a brief mention in the Road Map document, and needs to be clarified urgently.

A discussion about monitoring followed, where ideas were discussed concerning joint Israeli-Palestinian and third-party monitoring. A possible role of Arab countries in the monitoring process has been mentioned; but the concerns from all sides were somehow stronger than the motivations to support such an idea.

A debate ensued about the disadvantages and possible advantages of the interim Phase Two of the map. There is clearly a danger that the process will get bogged down in a long set of negotiations for a temporary state in only some 42-52 percent of the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, and a danger that it will never move beyond the interim phase. Some participants argued in favor of trying to eliminate Phase Two, while others argued that it is only this interim phase, which apparently dovetails with Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s presumed territorial vision, that has allowed the present Israeli government to accept and adopt the Road Map.

Among the ideas of how to avoid the Road Map ending in Phase Two was a suggestion that most of Phase Three should be negotiated by the time of Phase Two’s implementation. It was noted that the Arab world could play a major role in the context of an international conference, also stipulated in the Road Map, to minimize the “dangers” of Phase Two, and there could be “interlock” — U.S. memorandums by Phase Two relating to the next stage ahead. As one participant noted, if there is no Phase Two, there is no Sharon; and if no Phase Three, no Palestinians. Therefore, participants argued, there is a need to provide sufficient incentives and sanctions to ensure that the scope of Phase Two will be limited in time, if it can’t be eliminated altogether.

Risks to the process come in the form of the possibly limited window of opportunity regarding U.S. engagement, with the U.S. election campaign due to start in a few months time; the “war process” of extremists on both sides; and the need to prevent a quick Israeli reaction to possible terror attacks.

Keys to success come in the form of the degree to which Mahmoud Abbas’s government manages to stabilize the security situation on the Palestinian side; of capacity building and unifying the Palestinian security forces under one central command; and of Israel allowing the Palestinian side “space for mistakes” even if Mahmoud Abbas manages to reach a ceasefire with the Hamas opposition and other radical groups.

A participant stated that there is a need to define violence; that for Israelis, it means suicide bombings, while for Palestinians, the occupation, settlement building and Israel’s construction of a separation wall are equally violent acts.

The issue of Israel’s unilateral planning and construction of a separation wall between the West Bank and Israel was raised, even though it is not referred to in the Road Map. The wall, or fence, was first proposed, and gained great popularity in Israel, as an answer to keeping out suicide bombers. It is vehemently opposed by the Palestinians who fear being fenced into enclaves under Israeli control. But what was first designed by Israeli strategists as a security measure has since been “hijacked by the right” in Israel, according to one participant, and now seems designed to mark political borders along the lines of 42 percent of the West Bank envisioned in Sharon’s supposed map. Ideas were raised to try to incorporate the wall issue into the Road Map and create some kind of linkage between the building of the wall and an improvement in security, according to a formula of no bombers, no wall. One participant said there should be a fence, but that the fence should be built along the 1967 lines, rather than inside the West Bank; another suggested that if the parties proceed along the Road Map, the wall might become redundant.

The need to end violence was stressed many times during the meeting. A point was made that if the Palestinian Authority has to take the responsibility of ending violence on the Palestinian side, it should possess the instruments to enforce the law. It was stressed that during the last two and half years the structure and the equipment of the Palestinian law enforcement institutions have been de facto disbanded.

The role of the U.S. and other parties

It was agreed that it is crucial to keep the U.S. engaged in the Road Map process if it is to have any chance of success. There were suggestions to hold the next Pugwash meeting in Washington. Washington, participants said, needs to hear more from the peace camp in the Middle East. The suggestion, though, has been considered impractical for a number of reasons (financial, organizational, visa problems).

The importance of the European role, as a facilitator in Track Two and back-channel talks, was also noted. But it was also pointed out that the U.S. role in the Road map tends to be dominant, putting the other three partners in a more shady region.

Questions were raised about reform in the Arab world, and what effect U.S. policies in the region and the Middle East peace process might have on Arab reform movements. One participant noted that while internal pressures lead to real domestic reform in the region, outside pressure leads to cosmetic reform only. Internal reform is subject to different factors in different countries. “To say that Turkey, Israel and Djibouti are the same is a mistake,” stated one participant. As for whether Israeli-Palestinian peace would help reform and reduce radicalism in the Arab world, it was noted that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one important factor encouraging radicalization but that the factors vary from country to country. In the case of Egypt, one participant noted, “Did it become more democratic after peace with Israel than before, when it was engaged in an existential conflict? Yes, in terms of political parties, an independent judiciary, the press and so on. Did it become democratic in a Western sense? No.”

A participant suggested that the Arab League should become more open to working with civil society and NGOs, to allow them to interact with Arab governments. There were also suggestions that the Arab League could become more of a forum for inter-Arab dialogue, or Arab-U.S. and Arab-European dialogue, on broad issues such as the clash of civilizations. It was suggested that the Arab League should consider holding parallel unofficial NGO summits, like the one at Durban that was deemed by many participants to have been more effective than the official U.N. conference. It was noted that reform is already underway in the Arab League, and that it will certainly allow for more interaction with civil society in the future.

The question was posed whether U.S. intervention in the region helps de-radicalization or has the opposite effect. Some participants noted that the U.S. is viewed as using military intervention and caring less about what happens next. It was posited that Afghanistan has not seen freedom or democracy since the U.S. campaign there, and is arguably worse off now than it was under the Taliban. “The U.S. is good at intervening militarily but not at managing conflict,” one participant concluded.

Another gave a detailed overview of Iraq since the war, arguing among other things that U.S. strategy is to bring down the price of oil, thereby cutting billions of dollars from the U.S. state budget. Participants noted that the recent decision to disband the 400,000 members of the Iraqi army, and to fire the staff of numerous ministries in Iraq, will only add to local resentment against the Americans. While the U.S. invaded Iraq under the banner of combating terrorism, one noted, it could have just the opposite effect.

A Nuclear Free Zone in the Middle East?

One participant suggested that if the subject at hand is comprehensive peace, there should be room to talk about a nuclear free zone in the Middle East, especially in the aftermath of the war in Iraq and the changed strategic environment for Israel.

It was noted that Israel’s official policy since 1983 has been that the parties will work towards a Nuclear-Free Zone in the Middle East, the end game being full peace including mutual verification. Several participants noted that what appears to be a selective approach to WMD by the United States is a cause of resentment in the Middle East. They said they would prefer to see a regional approach.

Others stated that Israel still has a high threat perception, and that its fears and existential concerns about a nuclear Iran, Al-Qaeda and North Korea as an exporter should be considered. One participant asserted that this is not the right time to deal with the issue. “Just when Israel is being asked to take risks in the peace process, you can’t ask it at the same time to give up what it considers to be its insurance policy,” he said. Those who are interested in Israel becoming nuclear-free, said another, should support the U.S. in its campaigns against “rogue states.”

One participant responded that he found what he was hearing “not comforting” and that he was perplexed by “Israeli exceptionalism” as a country that has both superpower guarantees and a secret stock of WMD. Several participants pointed out that Iraq had been invaded by the United States on the mere suspicion of possessing WMD, as opposed to other countries, such as Israel, that are known to possess WMD. Regarding the renewed U.S. attentions directed at Iran and its nuclear program, it was stated that U.S. pressure on Iran might push the reformists and the conservatives there together in a “national preservation effort.” Iran, participants stressed, is not Iraq, but is a much larger and more complex country with a much higher degree of democracy and debate, and with its own internal dynamics and debate on national policies.

Environmental cooperation

One participant gave a presentation based on the negative results of the U.N. Environmental Project: Occupied Palestinian Territories and the need for cooperation in rehabilitating the Palestinian infrastructure. Some environmental issues, such as water and wastewater, require a high level of cooperation. There is an initiative underway to set up joint expert teams to deal urgently with these issues.

Workshop recommendations 

In summing up the workshop, participants supported the idea of creating a network of people around the region interested in security affairs in the Middle East. It was suggested that Pugwash could serve as an incubator to enlarge the Israeli-Palestinian peace coalition; to exchange information; and to host dialogue that may clarify what can, and cannot, be realistically done in various countries to promote peace, and to lay out honestly, behind closed doors, what the limitations are. It has been pointed out that Pugwash activities can help not only in the development of the Palestinian – Israeli dialogue or the Arab – Israeli dialogue, but also in the area of inter-Arab dialogue and communication.

It will be important to work also in the direction of crisis prevention and to suggest ways of establishing multinational teams to deal with the risk of insurgency and ways to wind it down before it reaches a critical stage. Some participants suggested for the next meeting a more detailed and organized agenda. More frequent meetings were also recommended.

Participant List