RAMALLAH // The 22nd Arab League Summit opened yesterday with a stark warning from Amr Moussa, the league's secretary general, that Arab countries need to prepare for the eventuality that the peace process between Palestinians and Israel will end in failure. Mr Moussa delivered his warning at the opening session of the summit, which as expected was dominated by criticism of Israel, in Sirte, a coastal town in Libya.
Israel has in recent weeks made absolutely clear that it does not intend to end settlement construction in occupied East Jerusalem, even after being rebuked by the US, its closest ally, for announcing the construction of 1,600 new settlement homes in the city during a March visit by Joe Biden, the US vice president. The Palestinians had only just reluctantly agreed to resume negotiations with Israel, if only through US mediation, after seeking and receiving Arab blessing, with the Arab League giving four months for the so-called proximity talks to show progress.
Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, yesterday ruled out any negotiations with Israel while settlement construction continued. "We cannot resume indirect negotiations as long as Israel maintains its settlement policy and the status quo," he said in his speech at the summit. Mr Moussa, meanwhile, said it was time for Arab states to stand up to Israel. "We have to study the possibility that the peace process will be a complete failure. It's time to face Israel. We have to have alternative plans because the situation has reached a turning point," he said.
"The peace process has entered a new stage, perhaps the last stage. We have accepted the efforts of mediators. We have accepted an open-ended peace process but that resulted in a loss of time and we did not achieve anything and allowed Israel to practise its policy for 20 years." Mr Moussa also called on Arab states to improve relations with Iran and to form a new regional grouping that would include Turkey, whose traditionally close ties with Israel have become increasingly strained over the past years.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, who was invited to speak at the opening ceremony, echoed Mr Moussa's criticism of Israel and called Israel's policy of considering Jerusalem as its united capital "madness". Also speaking was Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, who reiterated that Israel's settlements were illegal under international law, and called for Jerusalem to be part of peace negotiations.
"Jerusalem's significance to all must be respected, and it should emerge from negotiations as the capital of two states," he said. Mr Ban nevertheless called on Arab leaders to support US-led efforts to facilitate indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians, an appeal that seemed to fall on deaf ears as leader after leader rose to denounce Israeli settlement construction. Condemnation of Israel at Arab league summits is nothing new, however, and there is widespread scepticism among Palestinians that the summit will cause any tangible change on the ground, as anticipated by Muammer Qadafi, the Libyan president and the current head of the League, in his speech.
Mr Qadafi, who opened the summit with a plea for Arab unity, said Arabs were "waiting for actions, not words and speeches". But what such action should be is not at all clear. Arab countries have long since rejected the possibility of another war with Israel. However, the lure of formal peace, as offered in the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, has also not budged Israel from its settlement policy. While there is a suggestion that the initiative may be withdrawn at this summit, it would largely be an empty gesture.
"To withdraw the Arab Peace Initiative will have no meaning unless you come with a counter initiative," said Ziad Abu Zayyad, co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal and a former Palestinian Legislative Council member. "If you talk peace and no one listens, then you have to talk war. As long as you don't have that option, then it makes no difference." Abu Zayyad suggested that Arab countries begin collectively to use their influence in the West to ensure that real pressure be exerted on Israel to end its settlement construction. He also said the Arab world could help Palestinians financially.
The summit is expected to allocate some US$500 million (Dh1.8bn) to Palestinians in Jerusalem. However, Arab countries have pledged millions to Palestinians before - both in the context of the Arab League and in other international efforts such as for the reconstruction of Gaza after Israel's devastating onslaught there in 2008-09 - and it is not unusual for such pledges to go unfulfilled. "The summit comes at a critical moment [for the peace process] and the question is whether [Arab leaders] will be up to the challenge," Abu Zayyad said. His own expectations, he said, were not high.