CAIRO - Israel's rejection of the Arab peace initiative, which was reiterated at last month's Arab Summit, drew emphatic criticism from Egyptian commentators. Although Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert later called for peace talks with "moderate" Arab heads of state, most local political observers say Tel Aviv wants to have its cake and eat it too."Olmert's response was an attempt to normalise relations without responding to the initiative's demands," Mohamed Basyouni, former Egyptian ambassador to Israel and head of the committee for Arab affairs in the Shura Council (the upper consultative house of the Egyptian parliament) told IPS. "It was a totally unacceptable manoeuvre that puts the carriage before the horse."
The Saudi-backed peace plan, first tabled at the 2002 Arab Summit in Beirut, offers across-the-board Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for core Palestinian demands.
According to the proposal's terms, Arab capitals would extend full diplomatic relations to the Jewish state in exchange for total Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967. The plan seeks a "just solution" to the Palestinian refugee issue on the basis of UN resolutions, and the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Currently, Egypt, Jordan and Qatar are the only Arab countries that maintain overt diplomatic relations with Israel.
Although it was rejected five years ago by then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, the offer was put back on the table at last month's Arab Summit in Riyadh. According to a joint declaration issued at the summit's closing session on Mar. 29, Arab States "reconfirmed their adherence to the Arab peace initiative as it was offered at the 2002 Beirut summit along with all of its elements."
The statement went on to urge the Israeli government and citizens of Israel to accept the offer "and seize the opportunity to restart the negotiation process."
Prior to the summit, the Arab side was subject to a degree of U.S. pressure to make concessions on certain key points.
On Mar. 24, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the upper Egyptian city of Aswan, where she met with representatives of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which collectively have been dubbed the "Arab Quartet". Rice also met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, as well as intelligence chiefs from the four countries.
According to reports in the local press, the objective of Rice's regional tour -- her seventh within the last two months -- was to urge the Arab side to moderate its demands, especially those pertaining to the phrases "right of return" and "total withdrawal". Rice, who has stated a "personal commitment" to enhancing the prospects for peaceful settlement, reportedly urged Arab states to "reach out" to Israel.
Despite U.S. prodding, however, Arab representatives refused to make any changes to the main thrust of the initiative.
"Egypt is committed to the Arab initiative as is," Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit said in a Mar. 25 joint press conference with Rice. "We hope the Israeli side will deal with it positively and restart peace talks based on the offer."
But like his predecessor Sharon, Olmert ultimately rejected the offer, telling the Israeli press Mar. 30 that the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel was "out of the question". He went on to call for a summit with heads of "moderate" Arab countries, in reference to Egypt, Jordan and some states of the Gulf such as Saudi Arabia.
Rice praised Olmert's suggestion, saying his call for a regional conference represented a "positive" step.
Local commentators, however, described the Israeli PM's response as a delaying tactic intended to prevent progress on key issues.
"Olmert's call for a peace conference was just a distraction; an attempt to play for time," Gemal Kemal, political analyst and deputy editor-in-chief of official daily al-Misaa told IPS. "The Israelis refused to even discuss the refugee problem."
Abdel-Halim Kandil, editor-in-chief of opposition weekly al-Karama, agreed. He said that Olmert's call for direct talks with Arab leaders was an attempt to encourage the trend towards diplomatic normalisation without offering anything in return.
"They want to take steps towards normalisation without actually discussing the rights of Palestinians as mentioned in the initiative," Kandil told IPS. He went on to attribute the Israeli PM's intransigence to "Israel's loss of prestige in the wake of the Lebanon war and to Olmert's consequent weak domestic standing."
Egyptian observers were no less critical of Rice's reported efforts to water down the initiative's core demands in advance of the Riyadh summit.
"In short, Rice tried to get the Arabs to recognise Israel through normalisation without a quid pro quo," wrote prominent columnist Salama Ahmed Salama in flagship government daily al-Ahram.
Kandil suggested that the goal of the Rice visit was to "mobilise the moderate Arab countries" against Iran's purportedly rising influence in the region. "This was indicated by the fact that Rice also met with security and intelligence chiefs, confirming that the Arab states have become mere instruments for the execution of U.S. policy," said Kandil.
According to Kemal, however, Cairo still has cards to play.
"If Israel remains steadfast in its refusal of the offer, the Arab countries can try to embarrass it in front of the UN," he said. "What's more, a decision by Cairo to halt steps towards normalisation with Tel Aviv would not be difficult and would enjoy broad popular support."
Kemal added: "Israel fears this step, as it would be a difficult one to reverse."
According to Basyouni, an Arab foreign ministerial meeting is scheduled for Apr. 18, when 11 Arab foreign ministers will convene a follow-up meeting on the initiative's prospects at the Arab League's Cairo headquarters.
"There's a plan to activate the Arab initiative," Basyouni said. "After this, we expect a response from Israel. But we won't wait forever."
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.