The Saudi Initiative Returns to Center Stage

In today’s IPFocus, David Dreiliinger highlights the nexus between the resurgence of the Saudi Initiative.  He says, “America is critical to the next stage: using the initiative as the basis for negotiations between the parties.  The new Saudi embrace of regional diplomacy does not mean that the United States’ role in Israeli-Arab peacemaking is being eclipsed; in fact, it only strengthens the need for more US involvement.

“That message seems to have gotten through.  Abbas and Olmert are scheduled to meet again next week, and Israeli advisors are in Washington briefing the administration on what those talks will cover.  Secretary of State Rice is due back in the region shortly for more talks.  Hopefully the discussions between Olmert and Abbas will be substantive – real negotiations are crucial for creating an atmosphere favorable to larger regional talks, or at least maintaining the fragile calm in the Palestinian territories and tilting the balance of legitimacy in Abbas’s favor.”

To read the full piece, follow the jump.

Events of the past few months have led analysts in the Middle East and elsewhere – most notably in Washington DC – to suggest that in today’s Middle East, Saudi Arabia has become the new address for regional diplomacy. 

The Saudis have embraced their role with what is for them atypical front-and-center engagement.  Where the Egyptians, Jordanians, and Qataris were unable to end internal Palestinian fighting, Saudi Arabia brokered the unity government deal between Hamas and Fatah in Mecca.  While politics in Iraq and Lebanon stagnate amid ethnic suspicions and violence, Saudi Arabia has established contacts with leaders in those countries and has put its money and prestige on the line to try to reach political compromises and avert civil war in both places.  At the same time, there are reports that Riyadh is taking the lead to slow the momentum of the pro-Iranian Shiite forces throughout the Middle East.

And now perhaps the most important Middle East peace initiative in years, the Saudi Plan, is back on the table. In a summit scheduled to take place in Riyadh at the end of the month, the Arab League is expected to re-launch the initiative, perhaps with some important emendations. 

The initiative, first introduced by Crown Prince (now King) Abdullah in 2002, calls for all of the Arab states to normalize relations with Israel after an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders (including the Golan Heights) and the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.  This move was a dramatic reversal of more than fifty years of rejectionist policy from Saudi Arabia and it was ratified, though simultaneously hardened, by the Arab League in Beirut a few weeks later.

This was a potentially groundbreaking initiative, and a concrete suggestion that the Arab world might be ready to come to terms with Israel. But there were serious weaknesses, and then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dismissed the initiative out of hand; the Bush administration remained mute on the matter.

The problem was that the Arab League plan’s demands were maximalist: it called for the return of millions of Palestinian refugees to the Jewish state – a nonstarter for Israel – and it did not provide a workable formula for dealing with the demographic changes around the 1967 lines.  And the Arab League’s timing was poor: its release coincided with a suicide bombing at a Netanya hotel that killed 30 Israelis and prompted Israel’s partial reoccupation of the West Bank in Operation Defensive Shield.  (Indeed, there was then and remains now suspicion that the bombing was designed to bury the plan, and if so, the suicide attack accomplished its objectives.)

But today, there is a chance the initiative could make its return in a format that takes into account Israel’s red lines.  According to Itamar Eichner in Yediot Ahronot, “the expected revision… will focus on the status of the Palestinian refugees in the final status arrangement.  The revised plan will propose that the refugees will be able to return only to the [West Bank and Gaza] or remain in their places of residence and receive monetary compensation.”

And the timing is right.  Israeli and Arab interests are as closely aligned as they have ever been – both sides have an overriding strategic interest in a stable Iraq and there is a new appreciation of the need to cooperate to check the rising power of Shiite Iran and Hezbollah.  In the late fall, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert met with a high-ranking Saudi official – presumably Prince Bandar bin Sultan (the former long-term Saudi Ambassador to the US, the present Saudi National Security Advisor, and the reputed architect of the new Saudi strategy) – in Amman, a meeting that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.  There is an understanding that the persistence of the Arab-Israeli conflict is an obstacle to strategic action.

Of course, in the big picture, there are as many, probably even more, places that Israeli and Saudi interests diverge.  Saudi Arabia has few ideological qualms with Hamas, for instance – Riyadh simply wants to take Iran’s place as the main influence on Hamas. The Saudis are merely looking out for what they perceive to be their regional interests; today, those interests include an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but no one is sure what will happen on the day after.

That’s why the United States’ role in pushing forward on the Saudi Plan is so important.  Without the United States, the Arab League initiative will amount to very little.  There are only modest steps the US can (or should) take to influence the outcome of this month’s Arab League summit – that is best left to the parties themselves.  But America is critical to the next stage: using the initiative as the basis for negotiations between the parties.  The new Saudi embrace of regional diplomacy does not mean that the United States’ role in Israeli-Arab peacemaking is being eclipsed; in fact, it only strengthens the need for more US involvement.

That message seems to have gotten through.  Abbas and Olmert are scheduled to meet again next week, and Israeli advisors are in Washington briefing the administration on what those talks will cover.  Secretary of State Rice is due back in the region shortly for more talks.  Hopefully the discussions between Olmert and Abbas will be substantive – real negotiations are crucial for creating an atmosphere favorable to larger regional talks, or at least maintaining the fragile calm in the Palestinian territories and tilting the balance of legitimacy in Abbas’s favor.

It is easy to dismiss all of these diplomatic efforts and to be skeptical about the chances for progress given the state of the Middle East today – Olmert’s government is weak and embroiled in one domestic scandal after another, Hamas is in the Palestinian Authority government and shows no sign of meeting the three conditions (renunciation of violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of prior agreements with Israel), and the US government appears distracted by Iraq and unable or unwilling to commit to a peace process.

But negotiations could be a lifeline for Olmert’s government.  The Kadima party was, after all, elected on a platform of withdrawal from much of the West Bank, and diplomatic movement would be one antidote to the political stagnation and recriminations at home.  Abbas is still the President of the PA, and he is eager to continue talks with Israel.  And the Bush administration is showing a new appreciation for negotiations and is engaging Iran and Syria to help ensure stability in Iraq.

But it will take concerted efforts to overcome the obstacles and to take advantage of the complex opportunities that widespread frustration and fear seem to be creating.  That’s why confidence building measures could be useful.  Writing in the Jerusalem Post, Gershon Baskin suggested that “The Arab League… could decide to send a high level representative to appear in the Knesset and in the Palestinian Legislative Council in order to present the initiative directly to the people of Israel and Palestine. That would be the kind of triggering event that would completely change the political climate surrounding the initiative since 2002.”

In any event, if it materializes according to current reports, the renewed peace push from the Arab states at the end of the month should not be ignored.  It would then take extremely hard work, both in the US, Israel, and the Arab States, to make the Arab League initiative fit the needs of both Israel and the other states in the region, but if a new document were to offer an opening for negotiations, progress would be possible. The stakes would then be too high to let the opportunity pass.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Israel, Middle East, Middle East Peace, Palestinians, Two State Solution, U.S. Role

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