"If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem," goes the old saying. The Arab League is not part of the Middle East Quartet, so does this mean that it is actually part of the problem when it comes to the Middle East conflict?
The answer to this question depends on what the mission of the Quartet is. Every self-respecting company, organisation or group has their own website nowadays, so it was to my surprise, on trying to determine what the exact aim of the Middle East Quartet is, that they do not possess one. Facing the lack of an easily determined mission statement, I would like to define the Quartet's aims, in layman's terms, as representing the world's contribution in helping find a solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict.
The Quartet consists of the United Nations, United States, European Union and Russia. But why isn't the Quartet actually a Quintet - including the Arab League or the Organisation of the Islamic Conference? Isn't the Arab League (which represents over 20 countries) or perhaps the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (with nearly 60 member states) interested in being part of a peaceful solution?
Maybe therein lies the problem - that they are not. A parallel can be drawn between the lack of the Arab League in the Quartet, and the absence of Hamas in negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. If Hamas were to change its charter and also recognize Israel, would the chances for peace be higher? Undoubtedly. If the Arab League was to commit itself to being part of a peaceful solution, would the chances of a meaningful solution be greater? Probably.
The Arab League's role in the conflict over the years is nothing to be proud of. Their 'three No's declaration (No peace deals, No diplomatic recognitions and No negotiations) were never destined to contribute to something positive. The more recent Arab peace initiative was a move in the right direction. However, its vagueness on the issue of Palestinian refugees suggests an unwillingness to address their own responsibilities in solving this particular part of the problem.
The question needs to be asked: Why are there still Palestinian refugee camps in Arab countries? Israel has accommodated and integrated far more Jewish refugees from Arab countries (in a country that covers about 1% of the Middle East) than the lesser number of Palestinian refugees that has remained in limbo for decades in 99% of the Middle East. The Palestinian refugees have been held hostage by their own supposed brethren for political, not moral or socially progressive, purposes.
Some of the accusations applied liberally (and inappropriately) against Israel stand true when it comes to the treatment of Palestinians by countries in the Arab world - for example 'apartheid'. There are a few hundred thousand 'Palestinians' in Lebanon. I say 'Palestinians' in inverted commas since people who were born in Lebanon, and whose parents were born in Lebanon (possibly to parents who were also born there), are still labelled 'Palestinians' based on the lineage of a grandparent. This is a special 'privilege' that is reserved solely for Palestinians. No other refugees in the world have their refugee status passed on to future generations. The UN's responsibility in defining the Palestinians as the only people in the world for which refugee status is inherited plays a part in perpetuating this one particular issue in the conflict.
In Lebanon this means that certain professions, healthcare benefits and even basic human rights such as citizenship are not the same for 'Palestinians' as they are for other people born in Lebanon. Next time you hear someone ranting about apartheid in Israel, ask them what they think of the situation for Palestinians in Lebanon.
Another accusation made against Israel on a daily basis is brutality against the Palestinians. Yet, there is a deafening silence from those oh-so-concerned souls when it comes to the treatment of Palestinians in Arab countries. There are a number of occasions during history when the Arab treatment of Palestinians makes one recall the phrase 'with friends like these, who needs enemies?' During Black September, thousands (estimates range from 1,000 to 25,000) of Palestinians were killed at the hands of their Arab brethren. During the War of the Camps, thousands of Palestinians died - both at the hands of Lebanese militia and at the hands of other Palestinians. For a more recent example, hundreds of Palestinians have been killed during conflicts between Hamas and Fatah since the new millennium. And the world looks the other way, including, of course, those who profess outrage when it comes to Palestinian suffering when Israel can be attributed the blame.
The argument that the State of Israel was imposed upon the Arabs under the United Nations partition plan, which proposed both an Arab state and a Jewish state in British mandated Palestine, is frequently made. Of course, had the Arabs accepted the plan (as did the Jews), we might not find ourselves still seeking a solution over 60 years later. But that is not the issue - the point is that the Arabs now have a chance to play a positive role in the solution.
It can easily be demonstrated how the Arab countries have done few favors for the Palestinian people. Instead there has been a long-practised custom of diverting attention away from local problems by focusing a spotlight on Israel and the Palestinians. This simply doesn't wash anymore - evidenced by the revolutions all over the Arab world. People on the streets of Cairo have woken up to the fact that an Israeli tank entering the streets of Qalqilia has zero impact on the price of milk in the local shop. While the revolutions in the Arab world are bringing long-buried problems to a head, the time is nigh for the Arab League to demonstrate that it has something to contribute to establishing peace in the region.
I'm no expert, but it seems to me that if a musical quartet is missing a vital instrument, the resulting tune will not be how the musical piece was intended to be heard. The same applies to the Middle East quartet. Without the inclusion of the Arab League, can the quartet ever mediate a meaningful peace agreement?