Paul Pillar

The Arab League's Business

Arab League foreign ministers, meeting Friday in Libya, didn't make much news in taking a position on the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The ministers endorsed the decision by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to stop the talks in the face of resumed Israeli construction of settlements in occupied territory. The League also appealed to the United States “to pursue its efforts to prepare adequate grounds and circumstances to resume the peace process and put this peace process back on the right track, including stopping settlements.” The ministers did not declare any deadlines but said they would meet again in a month to reconsider the issue. So the peace process stands about as it did before the Arab ministers met, which is to say at a standstill. The ministers merely gave us one more reminder of how critical the U.S. role in this process is.

Amid this pause in the action, we might reflect for a moment on why the Arab League should involve itself at all in this dispute, and what it means that it gets involved. The dispute, after all, is supposedly between Israelis and Palestinians, not Saudis or Libyans or anyone else. One thing that it means is that the Arab League, although historically largely feckless, is the closest thing the Palestinian side in this conflict has to an ally and source of support. It is thus the counterpart of—but in reality a ridiculously lame substitute for—the enormous support the Israeli side has enjoyed for years from the United States.

Another thing it means is that the Israeli-Palestinian problem has enormous region-wide resonance and inspires strong region-wide emotions. There have long been many other indications of this resonance. The Arab identity that most denizens of the Middle East share with the Palestinians, coupled with a strong sense of injustice over the occupation, means that many Arabs feel themselves to be parties to the dispute and not just sympathetic observers of it. And the issue of Israeli settlements that underlies the current impasse isn't even the principal basis for such feelings. Disposition of the holy sites in Jerusalem is an even stronger basis for inspiring strong feelings in the region (and beyond), because it involves religious as well as ethnic identities. King (and Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques) Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has indicated in the past that on most issues in dispute with Israel, whatever is good enough for the Palestinians would be good enough for him, but that the holy places in Jerusalem is a matter in which all Muslims, not just Palestinians, have a stake.

We shouldn't need reminders from the Arab League, but the League reminds us of how important the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to issues, sentiments, and relationships across the Middle East.