COMMENTARY
 
Musharraf’s Mission Mid-East
Weekly Pulse
Jan 26-Feb 1, 2007
President General Pervez Musharraf’s four-day visit to five Middle Eastern states this past week has taken place in the backdrop of growing turmoil in the Middle East, characterized by deteriorating situation in Iraq, lingering uncertainty on the resolution of Palestinian conflict, the recent Hezbollah-Israel war in Lebanon, and the conflagrating potential of Iran’s nuclear issue for the Middle East.

No surprise that even before boarding his flight to important capitals of the Middle East, President Musharraf took the Iranian leadership into confidence about the principal objective of his trip: On Saturday, in a phone call to his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President Musharraf assured the former that he was visiting Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and the UAE to discuss the “deteriorating situation in the Middle East,” particularly “the need to push for a just settlement of the impasse over Palestinian issues.”

Palestine Initiative

President Musharraf’s first stop during the visit was Saudi Arabia, where, on Sunday, he had a long one-to-one meeting with Kind Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. The two leaders agreed to take a new initiative on Palestine. “If we don’t act now, act immediately and come with a new initiative, the dangers to the Muslim world will be maximum and its fallout to Pakistan will be very dangerous,” said President Musharraf after the meeting.

Pakistani and Saudi leaders “agreed on the necessity of new and forceful initiatives directed at the resolution of Palestine dispute, in our fight against terrorism and extremism and to bring harmony into the Muslim world.” They also agreed on “the need for taking other Muslim leaders on board and evolving a consensus on how to take forward this new initiative.”

After Saudi Arabia, President Musharraf’s next stop was Egypt, where, on Monday, he met President Hosni Mubarak. Their talks reportedly focused again on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The two leaders agreed, to quote Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, “on the need for joint Islamic action to achieve a breakthrough and a settlement on the ground in the Arab and Islamic regions.”

Likewise, in the next two days, President Musharraf continued to build consensus on the new Palestinian initiative, as he met three other important Middle Eastern leaders; namely, Kind Abdullah II of Jordan, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed.

Even before embarking on this important Middle Eastern venture, President Musharraf had described the main objectives behind it, including exploring “possibilities of new initiatives for resolving the Palestine dispute…bringing harmony in the Muslim world…and exchanging views with Middle Eastern leaderships for strategy on the way forward to address the dangers confronting the Muslim World.”

Before him, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz had visited Saudi Arabia for four days, amid another development pertaining to the start of military cooperation between Pakistan and Gulf states. In the past few years, President Musharraf himself has interacted with Middle Eastern and Western leaderships as part of Pakistan’s proactive diplomatic bid to address the Palestinian issue and the Middle Eastern crisis.

Musharraf’s Diplomacy

The roots of such a proactive Pakistani diplomacy vis-à-vis the Muslim world issues can be traced in President Musharraf’s pioneering speech at the 2003 summit of the Organization of Islamic the Conference (OIC) at Putrajaya, Malaysia, in which he had floated the strategy of Enlightened Moderation. The summit also initiated the process of OIC revitalization on the basis of this strategy, which obliged the Muslim world to fight against extremism and terrorism and the Western world to solve Muslim world conflicts and help in Muslim countries’ social emancipation and economic development.

While the OIC eventually began the reformation process after its extraordinary summit in Saudi Arabia in December 2005, Pakistan has been one of the leading Muslim countries that has attempted to take bold initiatives, especially vis-à-vis Palestine, as part of the strategy of Enlightened Moderation.

For instance, at the start of 2005, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visisted Islamabad. President Musharraf agreed with his Palestinian counterpart to send a high level Pakistani delegation to Palestine. While the visit of this delegation is yet to take place, in September 2005, Foreign Minister Kasuri undertook the bold initiative of meeting his Israeli counterpart in Istanbul. This was following by President Musharraf’s address to the American Jewish Congress later in the month on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly summit later in the month.

Criticism of President Musharraf’s domestic political conduct aside, it is a fact that his stature as a statesman of international standing and his skills of diplomacy is acknowledged by the world community. It would not be unfair to suggest that both the Muslim world and the Western world, he is widely considered as a leader who has the ability to resolve a dispute that has plagued the Middle East for over half a century.

There is also growing recognition of the role and emerging status of Pakistan in the international community as one of most influential Muslim country. This is because President Musharraf has quite actively promoted the Muslim world causes at international forums such as the UN and the OIC as well as during his regular interaction with global and regional leaders. He enjoys personal rapport with US President George W Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and a host of other leaders.

His idea of Enlightened Moderation enjoys wide acceptance in the Western as well as Muslim worlds. And, as stated above, the OIC has also endorsed this strategy as the only way to bridge the growing gap between the Muslim world and the West as well as the principal way of reforming the organization itself.

President Musharraf is, indeed, a courageous leader, who has not shied away from criticizing the US on its policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to his discourse, political solutions are acceptable while militant means cannot resolve outstanding political disputes. Such disputes, therefore, need to be resolved through negotiations and sovereign equality.

While pursuing dialogue with Israel, a glimmer of which was evident in the 2005 meeting between Israeli and Pakistani foreign ministers, Islamabad has steadfastly maintained that the establishment of a Palestinian state, living in peace side by side with Israel, would guarantee durable peace in the Middle East.

According to sources, the growing threat of a war against Iran and its impact on the region were also discussed. Both sides felt that it was imperative to avoid another flashpoint in the region. There was unanimity of views on these issues. Some analysts here pointed out that both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were under increasing pressure from Washington. In recent days, Washington has increased its pressure on Islamabad. Similarly, Riyadh is also being asked to support all US initiatives, including the military option against Iran. The two countries understand their limits and hence are seeking ways to handle this situation.

US Policy

The fact that President Musharraf’s whirlwind tour of the Middle East has taken place soon after the visit to the region by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is significant. For its part, the Bush Administration may be exploring new avenues for Middle Eastern peace settlement that essentially revolves around the question of settling Palestine. Ms Rice met the Saudi and Egyptian leaders as well as Palestinian President and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The renewed US interest in Palestinian peace may partly be motivated by the recommendations of the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group (ISG), particularly those pertaining to the US role in Palestine question and US diplomacy with Iran and Syria. The ISG considered the resolution of Palestine as key to bring peace in the Middle East, including pacifying the Iraqi situation.

The ISG also urged the Bush Administration to initiate dialogue with Iran and Syria, again for the sake of wider Middle Eastern peace settlement and to counter the growing sectarian-civil war situation in Iraq.

Engaging Syria

As far as the Palestinian issue is concerned, last year’s coming to power of the Hamas-led government added new dimensions to the conflict, especially dividing the Palestinians to the extent of intra-Palestinian violence. A significant move to end the deteriorating situation in Palestine is the most recent Syrian bid to bring the rival Hamas and Fatah leaders together for the sake of creating a national unity government in Palestine. This is in addition to overtures towards the Palestinian presidency from both Israeli and US leadership.

Recently, the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, also disclosed that unofficial talks between Israel and Syria had been underway for some time on the issue of Golan Heights, which were captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Under UN Security Council resolution 242, Israel is obliged to return the Golan Heights to Syria.

If the reported news that Syria is prepared to negotiate the return of Golan Heights with Israel without any preconditions is true, then there exists strong possibility that Syria may abandon the radical, anti-US, anti-Israel path if it was made part of the wider peace process for Middle Eastern peace settlement.

The Syrian President’s willingness to be part of Pakistani leadership’s push for building a Muslim leadership-wide consensus on Middle Eastern peace is a good omen in this regard. Obviously, if Syria is part of this process, this would imply that, over time, Damascus may re-think its position vis-à-vis Lebanon, meaning de-linking its support to Hezbollah in return for an agreement with Israel on Golan Heights in a way that suits both Syria and Israel.

If, with Pakistan’s indirect role, Syria is engaged in the wider Middle Eastern peace settlement, then it would naturally have an impact on the deteriorating sectarian situation in Iraq. This is because Damascus is allegedly believed to be behind the Sunni/Baathist insurgency in Iraq, that has worsened since the hanging of Saddam Hussain.

The Iranian Factor

As far as Iran is concerned, after the imposition of UN Security Council resolution on its nuclear activities, Tehran has come under increasing international pressure. Until now, Iranian leadership has not budged from its hawkish stand on the issue, amid reports that the Bush administration is planning for further coercive diplomacy to isolate the revolutionary government of Iran in the region.

As far as President Musharraf is concerned, by taking his Iranian counterpart into confidence prior to undertaking his Middle Eastern trip, he has made it clear that Pakistan does not want Iran to be isolated in the region. Pakistan shares a long border with Iran, and has had long ties with the Muslim neighbour. However, the two countries have had differences and disputes over a number of regional issues, especially Afghanistan. Islamabad’s current interest vis-à-vis Iran is the gas pipeline from Iran to meet its growing energy needs.

Given that, Islamabad would like Tehran to be a part of the Middle East peace process, as President Musharraf attempts to build a Muslim leadership consensus on end the regional turmoil, especially by settling Palestine. However, if Iran’s leadership continued to be as hawkish in its foreign policy, especially on the nuclear issue, Islamabad’s potential in bringing Iran “on broad” for the purpose will be limited.

During their meetings with President Musharraf, the Saudi and Egyptian leaders did reportedly express their concern about the deteriorating situation with regard to Iran’s nuclear issue. All of them must be concerned about the rather inflexible attitude of the Iranians on the matter. This is because, in the absence of any settlement on Iran’s nuclear issue, there will always be the risk of yet another crisis plaguing the Middle East turmoil.

The Mission’s Aftermath

Finally, since the main purpose of President Musharraf’s visit was to seek a new approach to Palestine—a point he underscored again during his press conference in Abu Dhabi—the success of Pakistan’s proactive diplomatic push for peace in the Middle East will be determined by what the new initiative on Palestine is and how it makes a difference in resolving the dispute.

Most probably, the new initiative will be essentially based on the 2002 Abdullah Plan for Palestine, in which the Saudi Kind had offered an Israeli recognition by the Muslim countries in return for Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian and Syrian territories that it had occupied in the 1967 war. This new initiative will get a boost if the Palestinians succeed in having a national unity government.

However, what is unclear at this stage is what happens in Israel’s domestic politics. Since the Israeli debacle in the Lebanon war, Prime Minister Olmert has been under increasing public pressure to resign. In case that happens, then Israeli politics will be unstable until the holding of next elections in the country. That would mean no headway on the settlement of a dispute for which the leadership in Islamabad has taken the mantle upon its shoulders.

All said and done, President Musharraf, indeed, deserves credit for undertaking this important Middle Eastern trip, whatever its outcome. Pakistan has always desired well for the Muslim world. It is important that such desires are now frequently expressed by our leadership through such proactive regional diplomatic ventures such as President Musharraf’s unprecedented visit to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and the UAE. He should not let this important task stop at this trip alone, rather this should be the beginning of a peace mission that shall continue to accomplish the twin-pronged agenda that forms the basis of the President’s strategy of Enlightened Moderation.