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Optimism Surrounds Saudi Peace Plan

by N. Janardhan

"Every time the Israelis hit a dead-end, they seek legitimacy.. by agreeing to talk"
(IPS) DUBAI -- It is being billed as the most important peace plan in the recent history of the Middle East conflict and is backed by all parties concerned, even though its specifics remain unknown.

But the importance of the land-for-peace initiative, to borrow the words of European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, comes from two elements: "One is the message of normalization" -- Arab willingness to normalize ties with Israel in exchange for the return of all land occupied after the 1967 war.

"The other is the messenger" -- Saudi Arabia, which is one of the strongest voices in the Arab world not only because of its oil wealth, but also because it is the closest ally of the United States in the region, which usually has a radical opinion against Israel and wields great influence among Muslims by virtue of its king being the custodian of the two most important mosques in Mecca and Medina.

The genesis of the plan lies in a New York Times interview 10 days ago, in which Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz said he had prepared a speech to be delivered at the Arab League meeting on Mar. 27-28 in Beirut, in which he would propose a total Israeli withdrawal from all occupied land, including Arab East Jerusalem, in return for normalizing ties with the Arab world.

But Abdullah -- who has been running the kingdom's day-to-day affairs since his half-brother King Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995 -- said he chose to shelve the landmark speech due to Sharon's hard line against the Palestinians and as the region slid deeper into trenches of violence.

Later, he subtly added that he was open to reviving the idea if Israel worked toward improving the ground situation.

The fact that the Saudi plan has not been publicly announced shows it is still in limbo. But considering that the deal means the Arabs are ready to recognize the existence of Israel -- 54 years after the state of Israel came into being -- it is pregnant with possibilities.

Outlining the only details available so far, Saudi foreign policy adviser Adel al Jubeir says the mechanisms for implementing peace would be based on two U.S.-sponsored blueprints charting security cooperation between the Israelis and Palestinians that would lead to a reduction of violence, a freeze on settlements and the implementation of agreements previously signed by the two parties.

"Its importance is that it sends a signal to the Israeli public by telling them that peace with the Arab world is possible should they make peace with the Palestinians," Jubeir says.

While some Israelis see the plan as the most important since December 2000, when former President Bill Clinton nearly brokered a settlement at Camp David, the Palestinians feel it is the best Arab idea since the 1991 Madrid conference.

"As an end-game vision strategy, a confidence-building measure to get us from violence to the negotiating table, it's a carrot, a very interesting strategic move," Israeli academic Joel Peters was quoted a saying in several newspapers.

For the Palestinians, chief negotiator Saeb Erakat says: "It constitutes a very solid base for a peace formula." Arab League spokesperson Hanan Ashrawi adds: "It will take the pressure off the Palestinians and President Yasser Arafat and put it on the Israelis, forcing it to respond."

Arab watchers see the plan as an acid test of Israel's willingness to make peace in the region and the Jewish state seems to be warming up to the idea, with President Moshe Katsav making an offer to visit Riyadh or receive Abdullah in Tel Aviv to discuss it.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said the plan was "fascinating," while Prime Minister Sharon has reportedly asked Washington to arrange a meeting with the Saudis to discuss the proposal.

But P.V. Vivekanand, editor of a Gulf daily, is skeptical about the Israeli reaction and its intention: "Negotiation is a ploy that Israel has used time and again to put off a final deal. Former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir -- who was involved in the 1991 Madrid talks but lost elections in 1992 to Yitzhak Rabin -- is on record saying that he would have prolonged the negotiations for another 20 years and not signed the 1993 Oslo accord had he been the leader."

"Every time the Israelis hit a dead-end, they seek legitimacy in the international scenario by agreeing to talk. As was the case in the early 1990s, so it is now with Sharon, who is caught between his failed aggressive policies that has led to the death of over 1,000 Palestinians in 17 months of the intifada (uprising) and public discontent at the lack of movement forward in the pursuit of peace," he adds.

For the Saudis too, the Palestinian-Israeli stalemate is an opportune moment to set its record straight. With Saudi-born Osama bin Laden establishing a direct link between the Middle East conflict and the Sep. 11 attacks, Riyadh has to demonstrate that it is proactive in helping the Palestinians achieve their due, thereby pacifying extremist elements within its society and strengthening its regime.

According to Palestinian academic Yezid Sayigh: "The assumption is that the feeling about Palestine in Saudi Arabia is so strong that it allows the Saudis to tell Americans that they must act on Palestine if Washington wants Riyadh to confront globalist Islam."

Interestingly, the entire Arab world has rallied behind the Saudi plan, realizing that the key to marginalizing radical Islamist elements in their respective countries lies in a solution to the Middle East conflict.

Vivekanand says: "The United States is warming up to the idea from Saudis because they want to trade Palestine for Iraq -- satisfy the most pressing need of the Arabs in getting Israel to resume peace talks and then get the green signal to unseat Saddam Hussein. But Riyadh is posturing itself to win on both counts -- get the negotiations going and ensure against any direct attack on Iraq."

The United States considers the initiative an "important step" toward Middle East peace, but has sought further details before taking a definite position. The U.S. stand may become clearer during Vice President Dick Cheney's visit to the region in March.

Though the proposal has also been backed by Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, who has praised it for focusing directly on the Israeli occupation, Saudi intent is still unclear at the practical level.

But the bitterness for each other among the radical groups on both sides will be a stumbling block at the very beginning, testimony to which is Israeli Tourism Minister Benny Elon, a right-winger who slammed the Saudi regime as a "government of corrupt minorities" for whom he had little respect.

Sharon has offered statehood for the Palestinians and an Israeli pullback if violence is halted and negotiations reopen and succeed. But given his hard-line track record, he will never give up all of the territories.

Few Israelis are open to the idea of "surrendering" part of Jerusalem. Israel seized the West Bank, including Arab East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip -- lands that Palestinians want for a state -- in 1967, when it also captured the Golan Heights from Syria. While Israel accepts the land-for-peace principle, it has repeatedly said that it will not return to pre-1967 lines for security reasons.

What the present plan also demands implicitly is the dismantling of West Bank and Gaza settlements, where about 200,000 Israelis live, and which the fragile Israeli coalition government will not risk.

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Albion Monitor March 4, 2002 (

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