External interests and heavy Iranian interference makes finding a solution to the Yemen conflict extremely difficult, says Secretary-General of the League of Arab States Ahmed Aboul Gheit.
Speaking to The National on Sunday from the sidelines of the Manama Dialogue, a major regional security conference in the Bahraini capital, the Arab League head says that "fierce Iranian interference in Yemen" makes negotiations challenging as it "has emboldened the Houthis in rejecting any diplomatic initiative or any political solution".
Mr Aboul Gheit says he sees two viable routes to resolve the protracted conflict.
Getting the Houthis to the negotiating table “could possibly be through recognising their presence, not as a militant group [but] rather as a component in the Yemeni make up”.
The second option would be “to use all out force to defeat them for good.”
But, he points out, the second option has clear drawbacks. “This would be a dangerous option as it would be harsh on the Yemeni people”, he says.
Mr Aboul Gheit indicates that a mix of both measures may be necessary to break the current impasse. This involves telling the Houthis that “they should accept being a non-militant group or they will be defeated, that is a recognition of their presence based on an agreement under military pressure”.
Ultimately, the Arab league head says he believes the Yemeni people must decide their future governance structures but suggests that a “national conference for all the components of the people could lead to a national charter and a final constitution that all sides abide by, to get out of this dilemma and to build a new Yemen”.
This kind of solution is becoming an imperative, he says, given looming problems. “They must realise the danger of the future situation, for example, water scarcity is approaching very quickly and all sides must be aware of the need to put all of Yemen’s resources [towards] mitigating this fast-approaching danger”, he says. “We need to think where will Yemen be in 2050? Ideologies will not help the Yemenis, rather securing food, medicine and jobs is fundamental”.
While he advocates for a negotiated settlement, he rules out a “grand bargain” with Iran that encompasses all regional issues, an idea that has been floated to deal with the troubles from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen in which Iran has a role. Mr Aboul Gheit said such a deal would not be possible and, given the current climate, any such agreement would likely enable Iran rather than limit its interference.
“The Arab situation is complex at the moment, in some elements it is weak, which would not enable the Arabs to be strong in any such negotiation”, he says.
On the other major regional conflict, Syria, Mr Aboul Gheit says that the lack of an Arab seat at the negotiation table is a major problem. Over the weekend, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted a meeting with the leaders of France, Germany and Russia to discuss the conflict - demonstrating once more the missing Arab voice on the issue.
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“The lack of an Arab consensus is the main issue,” says Mr Aboul Gheit, but pointed out that some of this is due to a lack of unity. “Arabs have to agree on an approach towards Syria. Until this moment, the Arab [nations] have not agreed. Some Arabs want Syria to be reinstated to the Arab League, others do not agree on taking that step until the government [in Damascus] adheres to specific conditions”.
The secretary-general says that the conditional re-entry for Syria is the most likely. “The government and opposition, the elements which are not terrorists, must agree on a new course in Syria [that is] based on a new constitution and new understanding of governance. In this instance, I do not think there would be any Arab objection to Syria taking its seat at the Arab League”.
On the issue of Palestine, Mr Aboul Gheit says there remains a single, clear regional voice that supports the Arab-Israeli peace initiative under the terms agreed at the 2002 Arab League meeting in Beirut, despite the rare meeting between Oman and Israel over the weekend. This visit, he says, is not a sign of division as each country has the right to undertake its own initiatives to support the peace plan.
He says that Oman has not briefed the Arab League on the outcome of the meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said on Friday – a move described by Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi as a bid to “resuscitate” peace talks in the Middle East.
“Every country has the right to take up its own independent initiatives”, Mr Aboul Gheit says. “If the issue was limited to Palestine, the Palestinians would have been informed. In all cases, we are awaiting the visit of the Omani envoy to Palestine.”
He also pointed out that he was in favour of any action that furthered the peace process, regardless of where it came from in the region.
“Any side that thinks it can exert efforts to change the situation [will be] a good thing. I accept any Arab effort to help the situation, from Egypt or Oman or any country, because the Palestinian issue is seeing a very difficult time and efforts for a peaceful settlement have become stagnant while Israel is acting as if all the lands belong to it without any restrictions,” he says. “So if this action [from Oman] helps to limit Israel’s behaviour, it would be a positive one.”
The surprise move by the sultanate comes just weeks after US President Donald Trump announced that his long-awaited peace plan would be made public in the coming months. Mr Aboul Ghait suggested that the new US leader’s hard line on Palestine during his first two years in office - recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and opened an embassy, cutting funding to UNRWA and expelling Palestinian diplomats from Washington – meant Ramallah was sceptical of the American proposal.
“The Palestinians are not at ease about America’s deal and I understand their grievances and defend their position,” he says. The decision to give Jerusalem to Israel and punish the Palestinians by cutting funds to United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians “represents certain intentions” he says, adding “you cannot hit the Palestinians from one side and then tell, ‘come and listen to my solution.’ It would then be a distorted solution”.
In short, the Arab League head said that without a major shift in US policy towards Palestine, any deal that was not “unprecedented in being favourable to the Palestinians … won’t succeed.
“Washington listens only to Israel and this is a huge mistake in dealing with the Palestinian issue, they must listen to both sides and to give each side the opportunity to move closer to a solution, otherwise I don’t expect much to happen”.
While he says the Arab world is still wedded to the idea of a two-state solution on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, “we will get to a point where the world will realise that if it doesn’t move, the opportunity … would have passed”.
On this, he says “the window is closing fast”.