JERUSALEM (JTA) – Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni flew to the Qatari capital of Doha in the Persian Gulf this week with an ambitious goal: changing moderate Arab attitudes toward Israel.
Livni hoped to convince the Persian Gulf states and other Arab moderates that they and Israel should be on the same side of the barricades against the extremists, and that they need to work together for regional peace.
This approach is new. Instead of peace with the Palestinians paving the way for Arab ties with Israel, Livni wants to invert the traditional order: The Arabs, she says, must first help the Palestinians make peace with Israel.
At the eighth annual Doha “Forum on Democracy, Development and Free Trade,” Livni was given a regal reception: four armored cars, Qatari bodyguards and a procession of Arab leaders from all over the Gulf coming to shake her hand.
Her attendance prompted Iranian and Lebanese leaders to boycott the conference.
In her address, and in talks with Gulf leaders, Livni pursued a cluster of major Israeli foreign policy goals:
* Persuading moderate Arab states to give the Palestinians the confidence to make far-reaching moves for peace with Israel. Livni maintains that for too long the Arab states have been sitting on the fence, passively waiting for a breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian track. The Gulf states and other Arab moderates should be playing a far more proactive role in the peace process, she insists.
“Reaching an agreement will require historic compromises on the part of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and the greater the support from the Arab states, the easier it will be for the Palestinians to reach decisions,” she told Israeli journalists in the run-up to the Doha conference.
In her talks with Gulf leaders in Doha, Livni argued that no matter what peace deal Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas makes with Israel, he will come under fire from Palestinian extremists like Hamas. When that happens, the Arab world must give Abbas the backing he needs.
* Convincing moderate Arab states to recognize that the enemy today is not Israel but Iran. Livni argues that the Middle East is on a knife-edge between a future of peace and prosperity and one of Iranian-dominated chaos. For peace and prosperity, the moderates will need to stand up to Iran.
“We have to understand that our ability to reach peace is dependent on the ability of the extremists to prevent us from doing so,” she declared in her Doha address.
Livni contends that if the moderate Arab states think Iran is going to win the battle for regional hegemony, they will start defecting from the sphere of Western support. Therefore, she says, the West must make it absolutely clear that it is determined to thwart Iran’s hegemonic ambitions. That is partly why Israel is taking such a firm stance against Iran’s nuclear program.
Livni drove home the point in an interview with the influential Qatari daily al-Watan, in which she said, “Israel will not tolerate a nuclear Iran.”
* Getting moderate Arabs to back an international ban on terrorist organizations, like Hamas, from running in democratic elections. Livni has pursued this idea at the United Nations and in other forums. Arab backing for this idea is crucial.
* Upgrading trade and economic ties with Qatar, Oman and other Persian Gulf states.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry runs a trade mission in Doha, and Qatar has an interests section in Tel Aviv. Over the past several years, Israeli businessmen have been trading with Qatar, albeit quietly.
In talks with Qatari leaders Emir Sheik Hamad al Khalifa al-Thani and Prime Minister Hamid bin Jasim bin Jabir al-Thani, Livni suggested upgrading ties to full ambassadorial level. She also discussed a resumption of economic ties with Oman’s foreign minister, Yousef Bin Alawi Bin Abdullah.
The desert sultanate, which had benefited from Israeli water technology, severed ties with Israel in 2000 with the outbreak of the second Palestinian initifada.
* Pressing the influential Qatari-based Al Jazeera television station to take a less-biased stance toward Israel. Last month, after what it saw as biased and inflammatory coverage of a large-scale Israeli army raid into Gaza, the Israeli Foreign Ministry decided to stop cooperating with Al Jazeera.
Livni met with the station’s editorial board in Doha to explain the Israeli position and work out a new modus vivendi. It was an extremely delicate mission because the ruling Qatari al-Thani family owns and runs Al Jazeera.
* Getting the moderate Arab states to help secure the release of two kidnapped Israeli soldiers in Lebanon and one in Gaza. Qatari leaders previously had indicated a willingness to act as brokers in Lebanon and Gaza.
In the democracy forum, the Qatari prime minister urged Livni to end Israel’s “crippling blockade of Gaza because of the difficult humanitarian situation.”
Here, too, Livni took the wider view.
“The situation in Gaza is not just Israel’s problem,” she said. “Gaza is becoming an obstacle to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
Livni’s efforts in Doha were part of a strong Israeli-Palestinian push for progress on the negotiating track before President Bush’s visit to Israel next month.
On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Abbas for the second time in a week, ahead of the P.A. president’s upcoming visit to Washington. The Israelis and Palestinians hope be able to present some tangible progress in the marathon peace talks they have been conducting for the past few months.
In the run-up to the Bush visit, the Israelis and Palestinians are working on a deal: Israel and the Palestinians show progress in peacemaking, and the United States rewards both parties by upgrading its ties with them.
The Israelis are hoping that Bush’s visit, in honor of Israel’s 60th anniversary, will be crowned with an upgrade in economic, political, military and strategic ties between Israel and the United States.
In Livni’s view, this also will be part of a more stable Middle East in which Israel is accepted by the moderates as a legitimate and significant player.