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US pressure on Arab states grows

President Obama and King Abdullah in Riyadh in June 2009
The meeting in June with King Abdullah did not achieve its aims

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

Amid a flurry of US diplomatic activity in the Middle East, the Obama administration is increasing the pressure on Arab countries to do more to help kick-start the peace process. This follows months of pressure on Israel to freeze settlement activity.

The Obama administration has been frustrated by the lack of movement on all sides but has reportedly been particularly disappointed by how little Arab countries have been willing to do or even promise.

Wary from past experience of negotiating with the Israelis, the official Arab position has been one of "show us the goods, then we will talk".

"Things may have moved a bit over the last few days, but it's been one of the administrations biggest disappointments," said one Washington-based advocate on Arab issues with close contacts with the US administrations and relevant parties in the Middle East.

A US official also said the meeting in May in Riyadh between President Barack Obama and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia did not go as expected.

"President Obama went to Saudi Arabia and got nothing," said the official with close knowledge of the talks.

'Unfulfilled promises'

The US administration is reportedly also upset with Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, for failing to give the Palestinian Authority adequate financial support, disbursing almost none of the money they pledged at donor conferences over the last two years.

The US on Friday announced it was transferring US $200m (£121m) it had pledged in March and called on others to follow suit.

We must stop the small-minded waiting game in which each side refuses to budge until the other side makes the first move .We've got to be bigger than that... if peace is to have a chance
Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, Crown Prince of Bahrain

To offset the shortfall from donor funds, the cash strapped Palestinian Authority has had to borrow money from private banks for the last three months.

Special envoy for the Middle East George Mitchell who has already visited almost all Arab countries, is now on a tour that includes Egypt, Syria and Bahrain.

He is reportedly pressing Arab states to agree to some confidence building measures which would come in parallel with an Israeli promise to freeze settlements - the hope is that this can start a process that would eventually lead to a regional peace conference during the summer, according to various officials and observers in Washington.

Israel has been holding its ground on the settlement freeze issue.

The US administration is seeking even more from Arabs to unblock the Israeli position. With neither side wanting to budge first, the strategy is focused on a simultaneous move by both Israelis and Arabs.

Difficult steps

Speaking after his meetings in the West Bank, Mr Mitchell said "that in order to achieve the objective the president has asked that all those involved takes steps to make possible an early return to meaningful negotiations and a prompt resolution of those negotiations".

That means that everyone must take steps, some difficult, some controversial.

A state department official also confirmed that Mr Obama had recently sent letters to several Arab leaders asking them "to commit to steps towards Israel and to increase support for the Palestinian Authority, in the context of meaningful Israeli moves towards peace".

Barack Obama in Cairo
Obama gave a key speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in June

The talk of confidence-building measures is a sensitive one for Arab countries and partly explains what happened in Riyadh in May. The meeting was a last-minute addition to the itinerary, and preceded Mr Obama's speech in Cairo. It appears to have been an ill-prepared affair - the king did not expect the American request and the president did not expect to come out empty handed.

Some of what has been discussed in general, but not necessarily specifically during this meeting, includes over flight rights for Israeli carriers over Arab countries, and the opening of Israeli trade missions in Arab countries.

But King Abdullah, Custodian of the two Holy mosques and leader of a key regional power, was reluctant to put his credibility on the line because of past experience, such as the Sharm al-Sheikh talks in June 2003 which preceded the formal launch of the road map in Aqaba.

In his book, The Arab Center, former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher recounts how President George W Bush, in attempt to convince Arab leaders to make concessions for the sake of peace, told them: "If I did not think we could do this, I would not be here."

Almost six years later and with no Palestinian state in sight, the King Abdullah may have wondered why he should believe the assurances of yet another American president about peace making.

Reaching out

But with Mr Obama so clearly reaching out to the Arab world, there is some willingness to help though no desire to get burnt.

So it has now fallen to the small, pro-Western kingdom of Bahrain to take the lead publicly, with reported tacit support from the Saudis.

Earlier this month, the Crown Prince, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, wrote an opinion letter in the Washington Post arguing that the Arab states need to talk to the Israelis.

He argued that the biggest mistake in the peace efforts has been to assume that "you can simply switch peace on like a light bulb" and that Arabs have not done enough to communicate directly with the people of Israel.

"We must stop the small-minded waiting game in which each side refuses to budge until the other side makes the first move, "Sheikh Salman wrote in the Washington Post.

"We've got to be bigger than that. All sides need to take simultaneous, good-faith action if peace is to have a chance."



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