Amr Moussa, former secretary general of the Arab League, has warned that any decision by US president Donald Trump to move the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem would “end the peace process”.
In an interview with The National, Mr Moussa called for peace talks within a specific timeline to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine, saying talks should be based on "either the two-state solution, or a one-state solution".
Until now, all efforts to end the Israeli occupation have rested on a two-state solution – Palestine and Israel. But Mr Moussa proposed that if this was not achieved within the time frame, “the alternative should be also discussed, that of one state” for Palestinians and Israelis as equal citizens. The Israelis have been opposed to both options.
Mr Moussa is one of the Arab world’s most well-known and respected statesmen. He has been an Egyptian ambassador, foreign minister and presidential candidate, so he understands the intricacies of the region like few others.
He spoke to The National after giving a talk at the headquarters of the Emirates Diplomatic Academy about the challenges and opportunities of diplomacy in the 21st century. He called on the academy to be among leading research centres to map out scenarios for the region's future and the possibility of a "new regional order".
“The time is now to study different options for a new regional order, deciding what are the main foundations for this new order within which geographic parameters,” Mr Moussa said.
He said countries such as Israel and Iran were part of the region but their policies would exclude them from such an order, and called for an assessment of what would be needed to have them or other countries included, in addition to addressing sectarianism, terrorism and other challenges in the region.
“We need to ask ourselves, what does a regional order look like and how do we fashion it to our interests?” Mr Moussa said.
The Arab world has gone through many changes and turbulent times since he was secretary general of the League between 2001 and 2011. Asked about the perception in the Arab world that a “strong” government is more important than liberal civil rights, Mr Moussa said: “It is vital to have a strong state but society must also be strong.
“A strong state means a strong government and regime, with a strong society, both interacting within the framework of the constitution and the rule of law. Civil society is often looked at with some distrust in the region and we must overcome this.”
Mr Moussa was clearly shaken by news of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s assassination from the day before. He said the assassination indicated that “we are facing another bloody chapter in the Yemen conflict, after we had hoped that we were witnessing a de-escalation”, as Saleh broke away from the Tehran-backed Houthis.
Mr Moussa interacted with Saleh over many years and described him as “a first rate risk-taker who changes his positions many times, describing his manoeuvres as dancing on the heads of snakes – until one of them bit him”.
He said Saleh’s murder “will lead to a vacuum. No one can deny that he had great influence among his supporters but he miscalculated and perhaps didn’t realise his strategic importance, which meant the Houthis would not allow him to break ranks”.
The killing “was an extremely negative message from the Houthis and their allies that they refuse any attempts at a resolution, unless it is based on their conditions, which won’t be acceptable”.
“Yemen and the surrounding area in the Arabian Gulf will continue to be tense. It appears that the party supporting the Houthis is preparing for further escalation, which could mean a worsening of the situation in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq,” Mr Moussa said.
That party is mainly Iran, which continues to support the Houthis. He urged a reassessment among the Arab world and globally to end the war in Yemen. But “accepting the Houthis’ imposed rule is not possible. It is disastrous for Yemen and the region” because of their militant approach.
As for Iran’s expansionist policies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and beyond, Mr Moussa said one of the main reasons for Iran’s position was “the disunity among Arab nations, which Tehran sees as an opportunity to take as much advantage of as possible”.
“This is not just Iran, but Turkey and Israel and others taking advantage of an Arab weakness, which can be treated” by greater unity.
Mr Moussa referred to the importance of having Arab states maintain their relationship with Iraq, after some years of disengagement with Baghdad. He said with a smile that “it takes two to tango”, meaning Iraq had to engage more proactively with the Arab world.
“It is an Arab country that has to play a prominent role in the region, and our brothers in Iraq have to feel that their strategic interest is with the Arab world of 500 million people.
“Iraqi officials are aware of this reality in this transitional period to safeguard Iraq’s Arab identity, without ignoring the legitimate rights of the Kurds and others in Iraq’s population.”
Mr Moussa warned that Syria risked being trapped in the same vicious cycle the Palestinian question faces – being a managed crisis on the international arena rather than having serious efforts to end the crisis.
“I worry that Syria has entered this vicious cycle. The regime is in one area, the opposition is in various areas. Turkey, Iran, Arab states and others all have their say and we keep managing the crisis in meetings in New York, London, Sochi, Geneva and so on without ending the crisis.”
He said that the Russians and Americans supported the proposal by the UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, to work on drafting the constitution and then holding elections and a transitional period. But he asked: “Can Syria wait for all this? We cannot fall into another scenario of managing the crisis rather than resolving it.”
Mr Moussa is a proponent of Arab unity and collective action, and says it is needed in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Lebanon and beyond. He acknowledges clear divisions among different Arab countries, but “when united they can have great impact”.
He urged that there be “a collective Arab front to take positions in the region, not necessarily unanimous but at least representing a significant bloc within the Arab world”.
Clearly, he sees Egypt as central to such a bloc. Mr Moussa said there was now a regional and international awareness of “the absence of Egypt” on the international stage, and that Cairo was returning stronger.
Egypt is now part of the Arab Quartet – with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain – that boycotted Qatar. He said this could form a nucleus for a stronger Arab alliance.
He is a dominant figure in Egypt and president of the committee to preserve the spirit of the country’s constitution. He also had aspirations to rule Egypt, announcing in February 2011 that he would run for president in a hotly contested race that led to the election of Mohammed Morsi.
As presidential elections are set for next year in Egypt, candidates are starting to announce their intention to run. Mr Moussa is not among them.
“Various considerations made me come to this decision. I want to be part of stabilising Egypt. We have to give the current policies a chance. We also have to give a chance to younger leaders in Egypt.”
Mina Al-Oraibi is Editor-in-Chief of The National