Clinton?s speech: time for the Arab states to put up or shut up

I have been saying for some time now that the Arab states will be rapidly finding themselves in a situation in which they have to put up or shut up on Israeli-Palestinian peace. That day has come one step closer with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech at the Council on Foreign Relations this afternoon. The speech as delivered was somewhat softer in its tone towards the Arab states than an earlier draft, but still relatively hard-hitting in terms of ratcheting up the pressure for Arab diplomatic engagement with Israel in exchange for Israeli gestures such as a putative settlement freeze.

An earlier draft of the speech, as prepared, included the following passage: “The Saudi peace proposal, supported by more than twenty nations, was a positive step. But so far, those who embrace it seem unwilling to do anything until the Israelis and Palestinians reach an agreement. This may be understandable, but it is not helpful.” Secretary Clinton’s remarks as delivered were much softer: “The Saudi peace proposal, supported by more than twenty nations, was a positive step. But we believe that more is needed. So we are asking those who embrace the proposal to take meaningful steps now.” Nonetheless, the message is clear: if the administration is going to persist with its firm stance towards Israel regarding settlements, Arab states are going to have to demonstrate that the Arab Peace Initiative really is part of the diplomatic landscape of the Middle East and not simply a public relations ploy.

This is partly an inevitable consequence of Obama and Clinton’s policy of applying pressure towards Israel, and partly linked to a meeting the President had on Monday with leaders of major American Jewish organizations. Obama told the group that peace would require Israel “to engage in serious self-reflection” and held firm on his position regarding an end to settlement activity. By all accounts, most of the Jewish-American organizations either supported this position or declined to offer any vigorous opposition to it. However, it is clear that it is becoming politically difficult for the administration to be perceived as applying pressure on Israel, with its powerful domestic constituencies, and the Palestinians, with their greatly limited options and capacities, but not on the Arab states who have neither the domestic American back-up of Israel nor the understandable constraints of a people living under foreign military occupation. It is vital that Obama keep the pressure on Israel and not relent on settlements, but to do so he is going to require serious and significant Arab support and engagement.

The Arab League position that it is not willing to make diplomatic overtures towards Israel until a permanent status agreement is reached is an unworkable and irresponsible stance. In the real world, if the Arab states genuinely understand how vitally important it is to their national interests for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to be brought to an end, they too have to be willing to incur political pain and take political risks. It cannot be only the Palestinians, the Israelis and the Americans who do all the heavy lifting, and the Arabs who reap a significant part of the benefits. Secretary Clinton’s remarks today demonstrate that as political pressure mounts on the administration to ease its position on Israel, the preferred approach by the Obama camp is to refuse to do so, but to balance its approach by demanding similarly difficult steps by Arab states, particularly American allies such as Saudi Arabia.

The United States cannot achieve peace in the Middle East on its own. If they really insist on doing nothing helpful, whether through apathy or cowardice, then the Arab states could well end up shouldering a significant degree of blame for scuppering the most promising initiative towards peace in many decades. Clinton has made it clear that the Arab states will not be given a free pass on this issue. Sharing the booby prize of failure with Netanyahu and his extremist coalition partners, and confirming the familiar accusations that they don’t actually care that much about ending the occupation and the conflict, will be the bitter consequences of such a tragic error.