Arab Leaders Say the Two-State Proposal Is in Peril
CAIRO — Arab leaders will threaten to rescind their offer of full relations with Israel in exchange for a complete Israeli withdrawal from occupied lands unless Israel gives a positive response to their initiative, indicating the Arab states' growing disillusionment with the prospects of a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At an Arab League meeting next month in Syria, the leaders are planning to reiterate support for their initiative, first issued in 2002. The initiative promised Israel normalization with the league's 22 members in return for the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as the capital, and a resolution of the issue of Palestinian refugees.
But this time, "there will be a message to Israel emphasizing the need to respond to the initiative; otherwise, Arab states will reassess the previous stage of peace," said Muhammad Sobeih, assistant secretary general of the Arab League in charge of the Palestinian issue. "They will withdraw the initiative and look for other options. It makes no sense to insist on something that Israel is rejecting."
Many Arab leaders never warmly embraced the idea of a two-state solution to the conflict because of their distaste for Israel, but they accepted it as a means to stabilize the region and tamp down extremism. Now, however, there is a growing feeling that Israel wants to create only a rump Palestinian state that would be neither viable nor truly sovereign. And that, officials say, is not only unacceptable, but also dangerous.
That perception hit Arab leaders hard when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians crashed through the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt last month, in the wake of an Israeli policy to cut off supplies to Gaza to protest the rule of Hamas there and the continuing rocket fire on Israel.
When the Palestinians poured into Egypt, suddenly, officials in both Jordan and Egypt — the only neighbors with peace treaties with Israel — grew frightened that Israel planned to solve its Palestinian problem by forcing Egypt to absorb Gaza, and Jordan the West Bank.
"The crisis was an awakening for those who didn't know or were not familiar with plans or ideas to drop Gaza on Egypt's shoulder," said an Egyptian government official speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the subject. Israeli officials have said over the years that they would like Egypt to take over administration of Gaza.
As a result, there is a growing sentiment in Arab states that the principle at the core of the peace process — the two-state solution — has no future. Increasingly, the peace process, once aimed at figuring out how to get from here to there, is back to a more fundamental point: where to go. "There Is No Longer Space for Two States on the Palestinian Land," read a headline in a recent edition of Al Hayat, a pan-Arab newspaper in London.
One of Egypt's English-language newspapers, The Egyptian Mail, ran this headline about a week later: "No Hope for Two-State Solution."
Egyptians and Jordanians say that the way events have evolved, there is no likelihood that a real Palestinian state would be formed. A truncated entity, one dotted with Israeli settlements and divided by internal Palestinian conflict, would in the end be no state at all, and would serve only to empower radicals and fuel the conflict in perpetuity, Arab political analysts and government officials said.
"There is a general Arab sentiment of despair regarding this issue," said Dureid Mahasneh, a member of the Jordanian team that negotiated the treaty with Israel in the 1990s. "I challenge you to find anyone who took part in the negotiations with Israel to say that he is optimistic."
That despair is accompanied by anxiety and fear that momentum is moving in favor of the more radical players, like Hamas and its patron state, Iran.
"Hamas is going to be fortified," said Mahmoud Shokry, a retired Egyptian ambassador to Syria who serves on the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, a government advisory group. "Not only Egypt, but all the Arab countries have to think about this."
Arabs blame Israel — as the occupying power — for the diminishing viability of a two-state solution, even while Mr. Sobeih said he would never, under any circumstances, accept Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.
"People no longer trust that a Palestinian state can be established, for one sole reason: the brutality of the Israeli state and the retreat of the Arab world," said Abdullah el-Ashaal, a former assistant to the Egyptian foreign minister and a professor of international law at Cairo University, who was articulating a widely held position in this region. "And this is why there is a return to the radicalization of the Arab attitude, meaning the words 'peace process' no longer hold any meaning."
Egypt and Jordan have specific practical concerns because they fear they will ultimately be pressed to absorb the Palestinians into their states, a prospect they find as abhorrent as Israelis view the prospect of joining their Palestinians in a so-called one-state solution, meaning the end of Israel as a state of the Jewish people.
Egypt worries that absorbing Gaza would seem to extinguish the rallying cry of Arabs for a Palestinian state. It would also be a financial burden and create a potential for spreading throughout Egypt the kind of Islamic extremism promoted by Hamas, which is an offshoot of Egypt's homegrown Muslim Brotherhood, a group that is banned but tolerated.
Jordan sees the prospect of having to take responsibility for the West Bank as a financial burden and an existential threat to its very identity. "There are fears a federation will be forced on Jordan and the Palestinians," said Taher al-Adwan, editor of the Jordanian newspaper Al Arab Al Youm. "This is completely rejected by the Jordanians and by the Palestinians as well. Jordan is already half-Palestinian."
There is also the broader fear, that absorption would make permanent the fight over the land Israel is on, giving radical groups a cause to rally around, and moderates nothing to point to.
"The challenge as I see it is, do we continue to work with Israelis and Palestinians in order to achieve what we think is the best solution to this problem — a two- state solution?" said Hossam Zaki, spokesman for Egypt's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Or we succumb to the will, the wishes, plans and ideas of those on both sides who are trying to change the reality on the ground and make the two-state solution impossible."
Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting.