Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak s op-ed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Wall Street Journal (June 19) should not be viewed through the prism of economic and political challenges he faces at home nor should it be influenced by the increasingly vocal domestic demands for democratic reform.
Failure to put his speech in the proper context for which it was designed could undermine its importance in the wake of elections results in Iran, Israel, Lebanon, and the US.
The commentary outlined measurable steps to resolve the Middle East conflict and served as an urgent coup de main fulfilling stated – and implied – goals.
By reiterating Egyptian diplomatic proposals – which form the cornerstones of the 2002/2009 Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative – Mubarak is critically challenging Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu s pitiful peace overtures and also responding to US President Barack Obama s recent speech in Cairo.
Obama reached out not only to the Muslim World but also to Israelis and Arabs urging them to take bold steps to bring the 61-year conflict to a peaceful end. In a move that has worried many hard-line Israelis and members of the Christian Zionist movements, Obama called on Israel to halt settlement expansion as a precursor to negotiations and a just peace. Israel s rightwing supporters in Congress accused Obama of selling out to Arab terrorists; their counterparts in the Israeli settler movement photo-shopped a Palestinian kefiyeh atop Obama s head and highlighted his middle name Hussein as an indication of his terrorist roots.
However, their Islamophobic and racist propaganda could not undo the fact that the Obama administration was prepared to adopt an aggressive agenda in the Middle East – by pushing the Israelis on one track and using a more conciliatory tone in dealing with Iran.
Realizing that the momentum was not in his government s favor, Netanyahu purportedly outlined the so-called concessions he was prepared to make.
However, his speech was more about Iran and less about creating a Palestinian state; nevertheless, many Washington insiders and media pundits applauded Netanyahu s historic and unprecedented pledges.
Seasoned Egyptian negotiators, however, found Netanyahu s speech to be a dismal non-sequitur but the Arabs had yet to issue a response to Obama s speech.
In this regard, then, Mubarak s speech could not have been more timely.
The Arab House is itself in a state of disarray, and according to some, in disrepair. The brutal Israeli aggression on Gaza (which incidentally helped pave the far rightwing victory in the Knesset) exacerbated intra-Arab disagreements first exposed during the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006 and divided the Arab League into two camps.
Regional Arab power-brokers Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia were pit against new diplomatic players who had recently dispatched their own initiatives to resolving regional crises. The three countries were also severely criticized by Iran, Syria and Tehran s proxy, Hezbollah, for caving in to US-Israeli pressures.
Focus on the plight of the Palestinians (particularly in besieged Gaza), the dire situation of the peace process, the nearly insurmountable obstacles to demarcating a viable Palestinian state created by Israeli expansionism and Jewish settler violence seem to have been lost amid Arab bickering and the public harangues traded between Tehran and Tel Aviv.
Mubarak s commentary counters repeated disinformation campaigns fanatically maintained by Israeli and American rightwing pundits which claim the Arabs want to push Israel into the sea . Netanyahu and other leaders continue to use Hamas charter as evidence that the 22-member Arab League reject normalization of relations with Israel.
For the first time in the history of the conflict, the Arab states unanimously committed to full normalization and security for Israel in exchange for a full withdrawal to the 1967 lines and a negotiated resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue, Mubarak writes.
Mubarak s commentary is a reminder for the US and Europe that there remains a functioning Arab proposal on the table for the Israelis to accept. It stresses the importance of withdrawing to the 1967 borders and enforcing UN resolutions 242 and 338, which Israel has violated for 42 years. It also promises the Israelis full Arab recognition (as stipulated in the Arab Peace Initiative, which he directly references) and diplomatic ties in exchange for withdrawal – in effect, the land-for-peace approach.
However, the commentary also serves to remind the Arabs that Egypt has for years led negotiations to secure an Israeli-Palestinian settlement and played a key role in Madrid, Oslo, the Wye River Accords, and Annapolis and in recent years a series of summits in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh. In a not so subtle nudge, the Egyptian president is reminding other Arab states not to isolate or outmaneuver his country s diplomatic initiatives, which he believes are central to any future peace deal.
He may be right. As a frontline state, Egypt has lost tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians in numerous military engagements (and wars of attrition) with Israel in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. And it was Egyptian diplomats who engaged in intense negotiations with their Israeli counterparts ahead of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, which in March marked its 30th anniversary.
Egypt s bold initiatives with Israel in 1978-1979 earned it rebuke and isolation from Arabs furious that then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat could even shake hands with the “Zionists . Within a decade, and as Israel began to return the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt’s position – at least as far as its own strategic aims were concerned – was vindicated.
Arabs states now openly engage Israel at international conferences and no longer refer to it as the Zionist entity.
Though, it remains to be seen how the Israeli government will respond to Mubarak’s Wall Street Journal commentary, it is likely other Arab leaders may now feel the need to bring to the fore their ideas of how Middle East peace can be achieved.
Firas Al-Atraqchi is a Canadian journalist of Iraqi descent who has covered the Middle East since 1992. In July 2009, he leaves Al Jazeera s English-language website, where he has worked as a senior editor and contributor since 2004, to pursue a writing career and research a book on Iraq.