Arab League's Amr Moussa on the failing peace process

18 April 2008
Palestine remains the principal issue for the Arab League, but if it is to be effective it must change.

When US President George Bush travels to Israel next month to take part in the country's 60th anniversary celebrations, injecting life back into the Annapolis peace process will be at the top of his agenda.

Delivering a lasting peace agreement in Palestine has become a priority for Bush, who is desperate to leave a positive legacy to his presidency in the region after the string of policy failures in the Middle East.

Career History

May 2001: Unanimously elected secretary general of the League of Arab States (Arab League)
1991-2001: Throughout his time in office, Moussa’s tough stance on Israel and US policies in the Middle East made him popular in Egypt, with many Egyptians saying they would vote for him as president
1991: Appointed foreign minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Atef Sedki
1958: Joined Egypt’s Foreign Ministry. Appointed as Cairo’s ambassador to India in 1967. Appointed ambassador to the UN in 1990

But with little sign of progress since the Annapolis peace conference in November, the US President needs to act quickly if he is to meet its aims of delivering an agreement between Tel Aviv and the Palestinians that will lead to the creation of a Palestinian state by the end of the year, and the normalisation of relations between Israel and the rest of the Arab world.

For one key player at Annapolis, Bush's chances of delivering an agreement are already slim. "The Annapolis process is heading towards total failure," says Amr Moussa, secretary general of the League of Arab States (Arab League).

"Five months after Annapolis there is nothing. There is no comprehensive approach. Time is running out. The timeframe cannot be achieved, because as we go on, time goes by very quickly. If we want to establish a Palestinian state by the end of 2008, something must have been done by now on settlements, on negotiations, and on Jerusalem."

Moussa's words carry considerable weight. As leader of the 22-member group of Arab countries and former Egyptian foreign minister, he will play an important role in the negotiations for any deal. But he is clearly frustrated by the lack of progress.

The Annapolis process, which is based on the two-state solution proposed by the 2002 Arab peace plan, reiterated in 2007, foresees the creation of an independent Palestinian state by the end of 2008, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Its conditions for normalisation of Arab relations with Israel include: an end to the building of new Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and a start on the dismantling of existing ones; and an Israeli withdrawal from the territories back to the 1967 borders.

Moussa says so far there have been no talks with Israel about meeting any elements of the peace plan, and warns that time is running out.

"We have to meet and talk frankly," he says. "I hope that there is a possibility and we are willing to give enough time, but the mid-year benchmark is coming very soon. I don't think we can reach June without anything happening on the ground or progress in negotiations about stopping settlements."

Moussa exudes the easy charm of an experienced diplomat, while leaving no doubt about the firmness of his position. Born in 1936, he studied law in Cairo and then joined the Egyptian Foreign Ministry in 1958. He served as ambassador to India and the UN until he became foreign minister in 1991.

During his years in office, Moussa was a tough critic of Israel and the US, and was a popular figure in Egyptian politics, with many Egyptians saying they would like to see him stand for the presidency.

His move to his current role in 2001 was seen by some as an attempt by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to remove a potential rival.

Moussa has maintained his scepticism towards Washington and Tel Aviv.

"On the Israeli side, there is a government with a majority in the parliament, and our experience tells us there is something wrong here," he says. "Sometimes if there is a strong prime minister we are told that he is too strong, he is not going to concede. If he is a weak prime minister they say he is just weak, he cannot deliver. If Israel needs peace, it knows what to do. It is not doing anything to help establish peace."

The Arab-Israeli conflict remains the touchstone issue for the Arab League's member states, but it is far from the only issue facing the organisation.

Asked what he sees as the main challenges facing the Arab world, Moussa rolls his eyes and sighs. "There are so many issues," he says. "We have the political security problems: the Palestinian question, the Arab-Israeli question, the situation in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Sudan, in Somalia. We have a situation pertaining to nuclear weapons and to reform in the Arab world.

"We also have an additional item: the clash of civilisations - the relations between the West and Islam. So we have a full agenda."

The deterioration in relations and understanding between the Arab world and the West, which he blames on the rise of hard-liners on both sides, but particularly the policies of the neo-conservatives in the US, is a major concern for Moussa.

"This theory of policy based on the clash of civilisations has sown havoc in East-West relations," he says. "The extreme wings of both civilisations - the arch conservatives in the West and the fanatics on the other side - have done a lot of harm to those relations."

He says sharp policy shifts by Western governments, particularly in their attitude to democracy in the Middle East, have undermined their credibility in the region.

"The drive towards democracy was a reluctant one," he says. "One day you call for democracy forcefully; the next you forget about it and talk differently. That is why many Western arguments are not taken seriously."

Embracing reform

Despite this, Moussa says the Arab world is embracing reform. He argues that the globalisation of the world economy, and rapid social and economic development in the Middle East, is delivering social and political reform without the need for external pressure.

"There is movement," he says. "If you look at the Arab world today and [go] back five years, there is major progress with a lot of elections, parties and political movements.

"You can say that it has been too slow and that there are no concrete results. It is slow. But you cannot deny that there is change. We are talking about the rights of women, the reform of the education system, and about modernisation."

These changes have major ramifications for the Arab League itself. Established in 1945, the organisation has been shaped by the politics of the post-colonial era in the region, and by the Cold War.

But throughout its history, the competing agendas of member states, including hostility between monarchies and Cold War divisions, have undermined the effectiveness of the organ-isation. It remains blighted by differences on key issues. Deep rifts emerged over the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the league's most recent summit, in Damascus in late March, was boycotted by Lebanon because of Syria's role in its current political crisis. In a show of support for Beirut, several other governments, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, sent relatively low-level delegations.

Moussa admits he is not satisfied with the effectiveness of the organisation but says the post-Cold War world represents an oppor-tunity for the Arab League to reform and become more effective.

"For several years, we have been trying to change the direction of the organisation in order not to focus only on political issues," he says. "We have to focus on issues of the present and the future. And we were obliged to do that in view of the fact that we have entered a new century, with a new atmosphere. We cannot act in the same way as we did.

"The issues of development and reform now constitute a principal item on the agenda of the Arab League. We have decided to hold a special summit next January on the issues of economic and social dimensions. No political issues will be on the agenda.

"At the summit, we are going to push the move towards a common market by 2020. This is the goal we are going to talk about - moving from this free-trade area, which is currently in existence, to a common market. We give the next 10-12 years for this regional endeavour."

In the past, rivalries between the larger states such as Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia have hampered the organisation's ability to act collectively. Moussa says this too is changing, and that common social and economic issues are leading to greater levels of consensus. "I would say that we are moving towards collective leadership," he says. "A consensus among all the Arab countries."

But political issues remain the priority for the league and, naturally, differences between member states remain. "What I am saying does not mean there are not differences in the Arab League. There are," says Moussa. "It is my job to narrow the differences."

Moussa accepts that the organisation needs to change. "On the question of unity, we are talking now about co-operation and solidarity on certain issues," he says. "But we acknowledge that there would and should be some differences on political issues

" Now we are ready for peace with Israel on the basis of the initiative of 2002. This is a new basis for our policies. Therefore we will have to move on all fronts - political, security, economic and social development - to deal with the new challenges."

Relations between the Arab world and Iran are another priority for Moussa, with the related rise in sectarian tensions between the Sunni and Shia muslims particularly troubling.

"We do not look on Iran as a Shia country," he says. "This is something that has been brought back from the deep history in order to manage Iraq after 2003. And this is one of the major effects that has been caused by the very negative policy in Iraq.

"Arab relations with Iran are very important. There are areas of disagreement. One of them is the issue of the [Greater and Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa] islands pertaining to the emirates.

"Also, how are we going to settle the issue of Iraq? Iran will say that it is the close neighbour of Iraq and that it has special interests over there. That is fine, but we Arab countries also have special interests in Iraq, as an Arab country. So we have to save Iraq, not further complicate the situation there. The only way to do that is to sit and talk."

The many divisions in the Arab League have led to criticisms over the years that it is little more than a talking shop, which will occasionally make declarations on the few issues where there is consensus. As a career diplomat, it is hardly surprising that Moussa places enormous importance on the value of discussion and debate. He insists that the league has a valuable role to play in the development of the Arab world, but also accepts that it could do better.

"I cannot say that I am satisfied with the impact of the Arab League," he says. "There is a lot that we should do more and better."

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