Last Sunday, 31 March, Tunisia hosted the 30th regular Arab Summit amidst an escalation by the Trump White House against diplomatic gains the Arabs and Palestinians have achieved in the last 52 years in dealing with the consequences of the Israeli occupation of Arab territories in the June War of 1967.
These gains have been enshrined in UN resolutions that have garnered international support and have provided the legal foundations for what has become known as the “peace process” in the Middle East.
UN Security Council Resolution 242, unanimously adopted on 22 November 1967 has been the major pillar for all peace efforts and endeavours in the Middle East.
In fact, the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of March 1979, the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty of 1994, the Oslo Accords of September 1993 and the two-state solution to peacefully resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, all of these internationally-binding documents have been based on Resolution 242.
The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, initially proposed by Saudi Arabia and later adopted by the Beirut Arab Summit that same year, is based on the land for peace formula of Resolution 242.
More importantly, nine American administrations (four Democrats and five Republicans) since 1967 before the Trump administration have guided American diplomacy in the context of UN resolutions concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict. Needless to say, peace-making between the Arabs, the Palestinians and the Israelis has not been smooth sailing, but still, American diplomacy from 1967 till the election victory of President Donald Trump in 2016 succeeded in working out peace deals that served the long-term peace cause in the Middle East.
Arab countries and the Palestine Liberation Organisation and later on the Palestinian Authority, established by the Oslo Accords, considered the US role in the pursuit of peace in the region to be crucial and some of them believed that the United States is an “honest broker” between the Arabs, the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Some Arab leaders had gone as far as claiming, erroneously, that 99 per cent of what they had liked to describe as the “deal cards” were in the hands of the United States.
But this was an over exaggeration and a major strategic miscalculation. The decisions by the Trump administration recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, on 6 December 2017, and recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights, on 25 March 2019, should debunk this belief.
These two decisions, that run against UN resolutions pertaining to the Arab-Israeli conflict and legitimise the annexation of foreign territories by the use of force, mark a very serious development in American diplomacy in the Middle East and accordingly pose a grave challenge to the Arab world.
From June 1967 onwards, the Arabs negotiated with the Israelis through American mediation on the assumption that the United States would respect the spirit, if not the letter, of applicable resolutions in brokering peace deals and arrangements between Arab countries, the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Going over the various resolutions adopted by Arab summits on peace in the Middle East, we see a certain benign and positive attitude towards American initiatives in this respect.
Arab capitals and cities have seen American presidents, American secretaries of state, American peace envoys and American negotiators come and go, and in some instances shuttling among Middle Eastern capitals to broker a peace deal or to prepare the ground for peace negotiations with the explicit understanding that the endgame is a just, total and comprehensive peace in the Middle East. I am afraid it won’t be any longer.
The question becomes all the more complicated for the Arab heads of state who have been waiting, and the Palestinians notwithstanding, for the last two years for the much-heralded “Deal of the Century” of the Trump White House to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
All the while, the US administration sidestepped the “two-state solution”.
No one knows for sure when the Trump administration will unveil this imaginary deal. It has kept postponing the date of officially submitting the deal to concerned parties, and lately some American and Israeli sources suggested that it would do so after the Israeli elections on 9 April 2019.
What is interesting in this respect, and provocative in the meantime, is the reply given by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to a question by a Congressman in a House of Representatives last week on the FY 2019/2020 budget for the State Department and foreign aid.
Pompeo was asked when the administration would announce its peace deal. The reply was, “in less than 20 years”. Of course, we should not take this answer by the top American diplomat seriously.
However, it goes to show that maybe there won’t be any serious American moves towards a just peace. When and if it is announced, we should not be surprised if the US “deal” would be a capitulation to Israeli demands and conditions.
The Tunisia Arab Summit should be a turning point in how Arab countries deal with Trumpian Middle East strategy. The Arabs should not sign onto, whatever the pressure and veiled threats by Washington, the American Middle East Strategic Alliance that Pompeo talked about in Cairo, of all places, during his visit to the Egyptian capital in January.
The era of the Americans holding 99 per cent of the “cards” is history. The year 2019 is not 1979. The final declaration of the Arab Summit in Tunisia incarnated an Arab consensus rejecting any peace deal that is not based on United Nations resolutions pertaining to the Arab-Israeli conflict and to the Palestinian question.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Confronting Trump diplomacy