Judging by the massive media coverage, the Arab summit taking place on March 27-28 in Beirut promises to be a turning point in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The primary source of excitement is Saudi crown prince Abdullah's proposal for Arabs to normalize relations in return for Israel returning to its June 1967 boundaries. But even the lesser aspects of this summit -- Will Yasir Arafat be there or not? Why did Husni Mubarak decide against going? -- are headline, top-of-the-newscast material.
But nothing of import will take place in Beirut. In fact, in a year's time this summit and the Abdullah plan will almost certainly be well forgotten. I predict this for three principal reasons:
There is a war going on. Had someone in mid-October approached the United States and the Taliban with a plan to "end the violence," both sides would have ignored the offer. Wars take place because parties to the fighting believe they can get more out of fighting than not; they continue until one side believes it is better off giving up. Until one side gives up, splitting-the-difference approaches go nowhere.
Both Israelis and Palestinians at present think they can get more through violence than through negotiations. However deplorable, that is a fact and ignoring it will get nowhere.
It's putting a Band-Aid on cancer. The plans on the table - Mitchell, Tenet, Abdullah - are superficial solutions to a deep problem. These proposals all assume that the great underlying issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict - Arab rejection of Israel's very existence - has been resolved, leaving only secondary issues like borders, Jerusalem, refugees, water, and arms. But if the Arab rejection of Israel was not self-evident during the glory years of the Oslo process, it has been ever since September, 2000, when Palestinians began the current round of violence. The issue today, as the issue throughout Israel's fifty-four years, concerns the existence of a sovereign Jewish state in the Middle East: The Palestinians seek to destroy this polity even as Israelis seek to win its acceptance.
There is no chance that the assembled presidents, kings, and emirs (or the underlings representing them) will this week decide to close down the Arab enmity to Israel's existence. And if that is out of the question, then it is hard to see what they can decide that will amount to more than a historical footnote.
The Abdullah plan is a non-starter. Once Israelis may have believed that giving up substantial chunks of territory in exchange for signed pieces of paper by their enemies made sense. No longer. Having seen the minimal utility of the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan (in both cases, these spurred anti-Zionist sentiments rather than dampen them) and the actual harm done by the Oslo accords, it is hard to see Israelis going this route again. They will surely demand something deeper and more meaningful than a piece of paper.
Specifically, this means two things from their neighbors: a change of heart and a change of regime. The former means a full-fledged acceptance of Israel's existence, as shown through a willingness to have human contacts -trade, tourism, and the rest. The latter implies a turn toward political participation, so that a treaty means more than one man's whim.
* * *
They say the age of prophecy ended in the Middle East over a millennium ago. Perhaps, but there is no need to have divine inspiration to see that the Arab summit is a big yawn.
Feb. 17, 2003 update: In accord with my prediction above, nothing came of the Abdullah Plan, as I point out today at "Happy Birthday, Abdullah Plan."