Making The Saudi Peace Proposal Work
Whatever motivated Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to propose a general formula for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, the proposal and its timing are extremely significant and warrant serious consideration by all affected parties. The proposed peace plan, however, will not work unless a number of conditions involving the Saudis, Israelis, Palestinians and the United States are first established.
The plan offers Israel a comprehensive peace with the Arab world in exchange for the return of the territories Israel captured in the war of 1967. Although the plan, in-and-of-itself, is not new, what is new about it is that it was initiated by Saudi Arabia (the guardian of Islam) and the Saudis themselves would make peace with Israel with full normalization of relations. The seriousness of the plan can be measured, first, by the motivations behind it, and, second, by the readiness of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab states to deal with Israel's legitimate concerns beyond the surrender of the territories.
First, let us look at the motivations which seem to validate the seriousness of the proposal: (1) In the wake of the September 11th attack in which a large number of Saudis were involved, the growing anti-American element in Saudi society and the lack of cooperation with various terrorist-related investigations have strained the US-Saudi relationship. The Saudis realize that they need to mend a relationship vital to their national security and the very safety of the royal family; (2) the Saudis genuinely believe that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will substantially stem acts of terrorism in the Middle East and stifle the sympathy for the cause of Osama bin Laden among the Saudis which is a matter of great urgency and concern to Saudi Arabia's own internal stability; (3) the Saudis are alarmed by the growing threat that the raging violence in Israel and the territories could spill over into neighboring Jordan, Syria and Lebanon and thus engulf the whole region in a bloody conflict with unimaginable consequences; (4) the Saudis want to thwart Vice President Cheney's trip to the Middle East in the second week of March to rally Arab support for ousting Saddam Hussein by force. Any American plan that entails an attack on Iraq would cause a tremendous Arab backlash that could severely undermine the Saudi regime and further strain the American-Saudi relationship. By placing his peace proposal on the table now, Crown Prince Abdullah hopes to compel the United States to seek solutions that will not involve a military showdown with Iraq.
Second, whereas a majority of Israelis support a comprehensive peace with the Arab world in exchange for the West Bank and Gaza (along the lines of former Prime Minister Barak's offer), they also do not believe that extremist Arab states like Iraq and Libya or factions such as Hamas and Jihad will ever accept Israel in any part of a mandated Palestine. The past 18 months of mindless violence have shattered any residue of trust. The only way to garner Israeli public support is to offer a peace agreement based on iron clad arrangements, that is, an agreement which cannot be wantonly changed by anyone, anytime or under any circumstances. To that end as they flesh out publically their peace plan at the Arab League meeting in Beirut, Lebanon (March 27-28), the Saudis must allay the Israelis' grave concerns in connection with the following four vital aspects:
(1) The peace plan must include a clause that once a mutual agreement is achieved, based on the exchange of territory for peace, there will be no further claims whatsoever against Israel by the Palestinians or any Arab states; (2) the solution to the Palestinian refugee problem must be found through resettlement and/or compensation. Repatriation of the refugees to Israel proper must not appear as part of the proposal. How many of the refugees will settle in the West Bank and Gaza will be left to the Palestinian Authority; (3) the holiest Jewish shrines, especially the Wailing Wall and Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, must remain under Israeli sovereignty with some territorial swap; (4) the Arab League must endorse the concept that, other than maintaining a police force for internal security, the future Palestinian state will be demilitarized. All other political, economic, security and demographic issues will be subject to negotiation.
Whether the Sharon government accepts, rejects or remains ambiguous about the plan is secondary to convincing the Israeli public that the Arab world is finally ready to accept Israel as an integral part of the region. The Arab states, and most importantly the Palestinians, must hone all of their public relations skills to persuade the Israelis that this is an historic turning point and not another public relations stunt to disguise the Arabs' ultimate intention to liquidate Israel in stages. A substantial reduction in the current maddening violence by both sides will provide a good start.
The peace plan is consistent with policies of successive American administrations which have endorsed a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict based on UN resolution 242, calling for the return of territories captured in 1967 in exchange for peace with secure borders. The Bush administration must lead by immediately developing a strategy for the ultimate implementation of the plan while refocusing its efforts to reduce the level of violence between Israel and the Palestinians in order to (1) keep the plan alive until it is fully emerges in Beirut and (2) pave the way for the resumption of negotiations.
Leave to it the Israeli people, once they receive the level of comfort they need from the United States and satisfy themselves regarding the Arab states' ultimate intentions, to push the current government and, if need be a new government, to negotiate in earnest a lasting peace.