- Palestinian-Israeli crossfire on
"The Saudi initiative"

March 4, 2002 Edition 8

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>< "A problem of implementation" - by Ghassan Khatib
The Saudi initiative, which is gaining steam and the support of almost all the Arab world, has one major flaw. Who will make Israel abide by it?

>< "A major strategic event?" - by Yossi Alpher
Abdullah's proposal is clearly a positive and welcome event. But is it a strategic turning point?

>< "A very courageous step" - interview with Saeb Erekat
We came a long way in the previous negotiations and the Israelis must make up their minds.

>< "Interesting, but borders have to be negotiated" - interview with Dan Meridor
If Saudi Arabia wants to play a role in peacemaking, then we need to talk.

A problem of implementation

by Ghassan Khatib

Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Abdullah's statement, seen by the outside world as a significant Saudi political initiative, has created a great deal of noise in the Middle East and among concerned states. As such, many have viewed it as a genuine political initiative, while others see it only as a maneuver.

But in order to gain proper understanding of the initiative, it has to be put in context. The Saudis have maintained a high profile concerning the Middle East conflict ever since the start of this uprising, but even more so after the events of September 11. In particular, Prince Abdullah presented a rousing speech to the first Arab summit conference after the start of Palestinian-Israeli confrontations, a speech that strongly advocated Arab support for the Palestinians, at the same time promoting a peaceful solution.

Another indication of Saudi involvement in the regional dispute has been the several statements and contacts made by Saudi Arabia attempting to strengthen United States government involvement and produce a more balanced American position. Many diplomats believe that the relatively even-handed speech of United States Secretary of State Colin Powell just after September 11 was a result of these Saudi efforts.

The events of September 11 and the war fought in Afghanistan put the Saudi government in a position where it needed to show more vocal support for the Palestinians and defend their cause, in particular the struggle for Jerusalem and its holy sites. The Saudi government's position backing the US war against Afghanistan and Al Qaeda, including Osama Bin Ladin, the self-proclaimed defender of the Arabian peninsula against American control, exposed the Saudi regime to growing opposition from its own people, who were increasingly sympathetic to both Bin Ladin's rhetoric and Al Qaeda's cause. In order for the regime to compensate for its decline in popularity, it tried to raise the banner of vocal support for the Palestinians, which, of course, also boosts its popularity in the rest of the Arab world.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia had gained a bit of leverage over the United States. Because the United States administration was worried about internal political upset in Saudi Arabia, it felt that they had to do something positive to shore up the weakening Saudi government. It is clear that the Saudis wanted for the Americans to be--among other things--less biased and more active in restraining Israeli aggression, including that directed towards Yasser Arafat and his authority.

The Saudi initiative, albeit brief and unelaborated, touched on the most fundamental concerns of both Palestinians and Israelis. It gave Israel all of what it wants, which is peace, security, recognition and integration and it offers the Palestinians an end to the occupation, which is their number one concern. The Palestinians, officially and unofficially, are in support of the ideas.

The result is that the initiative has proven very embarrassing for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who opposes an end to occupation. In fact, he has found no way out of a head-on collision with the initiative as it grows in momentum than to produce an unprecedented escalation, one in which the Israeli army entered certain Palestinian refugee camps sure to cause strong Palestinian reactions. As many as 30 Palestinians were killed in just 24 hours in that incursion. The next 24 hours saw the Palestinian reaction--the killing of 20 Israelis; today's Palestinian death toll at the hands of the Israeli army is 15 and counting. It seems that Sharon is achieving his tactical objective of shifting the attention completely from the new initiative to the bloodshed he commenced.

The problem with the Saudi initiative, despite its having received the support of nearly the entire Arab world, is the lack of mechanisms for its implementation. So far, during the last 16 months of confrontations, there have been four breakthroughs--the Sharm Al Sheikh agreement for a ceasefire sponsored by former President Bill Clinton, the Mitchell committee report, Tenet plan and now the Saudi initiative. All of these were received warmly, until Israeli diplomacy found a way (usually through violence) for Israel to duck its responsibilities in implementing these plans.

In addition, the lack of will on the part of the international community to interfere and enforce criteria established by international law and relevant United Nations security council resolutions is a major component of Israel's continuing support. Without those criteria, the conflict falls prey to the imbalance of power. The only outcome one can see from here is that Sharon is proving more and more successful at moving the Israeli-Palestinian relationship towards an existential and intractable fight.-Published 4/3/02(c)

Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

A major strategic event?

by Yossi Alpher

In the course of nearly 35 years since the Six-Day War, major changes in the Middle East have taken the form of strategic surprises. The October 1973 Arab attack on Israel; Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's November 1977 visit to Jerusalem; the rise of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini in 1978 and '79; Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990--these and more were events which, for better or for worse, took the region by surprise and influenced the course of events for years to come.

Crown Prince Abdullah's proposal for "full Arab normalization with Israel in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territories" is clearly a positive and welcome event. But is it another of these strategic turning points? To find out, it must be addressed at this early stage with questions rather than answers--questions that elucidate the possible intentions and ramifications of the initiative.

First, why Abdullah, and why now? Is Abdullah's main purpose, as some allege, to improve the Saudi image in the US and give Saudi Arabia leverage with Washington with regard to the latter's plans to attack Iraq? Or is the real objective indeed (in the words of Abdullah's policy adviser, Adel Jubeir) "to send a signal to the Israeli public that peace is possible"? Is Abdullah so concerned over the ramifications for the Arab world of the current escalation between Israelis and Palestinians that he is prepared to put his prestige on the line in order to revive the process, or does he have a hidden agenda that will soon emerge?

In this connection, what will happen at the Beirut Arab League Summit on March 27? Abdullah is a tough Arab nationalist whose country is keeper of the Muslim holy places and is the economic mainstay of the confrontation states and of much of the Arab media. Will he stick with the elegant simplicity of his formula, or will it suffer the fate of its predecessor, Prince (now King) Fahd's August 1981 offer to recognize Israel's right to live in peace, which emerged from the Fez Arab League summit replete with a demand for the Palestinian refugees' right of return to Israel, and even then was not approved by Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization? Can Abdullah "deliver" them this time?

Is the Arab League summit the most suitable and significant place to discuss this initiative? Obviously, Abdullah wants as many Arab countries as possible to line up behind his offer of normalization. But the other half of the equation--broadly speaking, Israeli-Palestinian peace--is up to Israel's Ariel Sharon, Palestinians' Yasir Arafat and almost certainly US President George W. Bush. Yet these three key actors have demonstrated repeatedly in the course of the past year that none of them has a strategy for peace. Two of them, and possibly all three, will not even be in Beirut in late March. Incidentally, does Abdullah envisage normalization in return for Israeli-Palestinian peace only, or is the Israeli-Syrian border also included in his initiative?

Then there are the essentially Israeli considerations: will the offer of normalization persuade Israelis to give up the territories? On the one hand, most Israelis have become rather cynical about the ostensible benefits of peace and normalization. We have had peace with Egypt for over 20 years, and President Husni Mubarak won't even set foot in Israel. We expected normalization with the Arab world back at the 1991 Madrid Conference and again after the 1993 Oslo signing, and were broadly disappointed.

On the other hand, a majority of Israelis supported Ehud Barak's readiness to give up nearly all the territories, with compensation for annexation of settlement blocs and Jewish neighborhoods across the Green Line in Jerusalem. The death and destruction of the past 18 months have apparently not weakened--indeed, may have strengthened--that readiness, even if Israel's current prime minister is not a candidate for serious territorial concessions. Israelis were even prepared to back Barak, and before him prime ministers Rabin, Peres and Netanyahu, in giving up more or less all of the Golan in return for peace with Syria. So if the territorial stipulation of Abdullah's formula is even a little flexible, it may encourage Israelis to search for a leadership that will meet him halfway.

In this regard, can the attractions of Abdullah's proffered pay-off--normalization with the Arab world--compensate for Yasir Arafat's almost complete loss of credibility in the eyes of Israelis? Is this initiative actually meant to bypass Arafat, whom even Arab leaders no longer trust? Or, in contrast, could Abdullah's offer constitute the missing pan-Arab support that will finally enable the Palestinian leader to acknowledge a genuine two state solution that recognizes Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state (i.e., no right of return and a recognized status on the Temple Mount)? In other words, is this the political ingredient that was lacking at Camp David?

The substantive issue is leadership: will Abdullah emerge as a great and persistent Middle East leader in an era of mediocre leadership? This is the key to transforming his initiative into a genuine strategic turning point.-Published 4/3/02(c)

Yossi Alpher is Director of the Political Security Domain. He is former Director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University.

A very courageous step

an interview with Saeb Erekat

bitterlemons: What is your first general impression of the Saudi initiative?

Erekat: I think it is the most significant thing to come from the Arab world since the convening of the Madrid peace conference in 1991. I believe this is a very courageous step by Saudi Arabia. I really hope that the United States will not try to undermine these efforts and will concentrate on the strategic importance of this initiative. I hope that the United States will understand that what it will take to bring us and the Israelis outside of this current deteriorating situation is not going to be this security arrangement program or that security arrangement program but part of a package that can provide for a political hope and political horizon and political solution.

I hope that this Saudi message will reach the Israeli people to show them that there is an alternative and that the alternative is peace and the shortest way to peace is ending the Israeli occupation.

bitterlemons: What do you see as the major pitfalls lying in the path of this plan?

Erekat: I hope that, first of all, the Arab countries in the next Arab summit in Beirut at the end of the month will introduce a resolution to adopt [Saudi] Prince Abdullah's ideas. I hope that this will be followed up by real, hard work to establish a partnership with the Europeans and the Russians and the Non-Aligned Movement and I hope that after that a dialogue will begun between the Arabs and the United States in order to maximize this effort.

bitterlemons: The question that a lot of Palestinians seem to be asking is, what about the refugees?

Erekat: Well, I don't think that you can say that the Saudi ideas or initiative undermines the refugees in any way. I think that the Saudi [ideas] are based on the relevant [United Nations] Security Council resolutions and that this [initiative] is consistent because the refugee problem is going to be solved in accordance with Resolution 194.

That is what I meant [when I asked] for the Americans not to undermine these events by discussing the details. The details are a matter of negotiations and not for the Saudis.

bitterlemons: If that is the case, then aren't we back to square one? The details are what Palestinians and Israelis are having trouble with, aren't they?

Erekat: No, I don't think that we have trouble with the details. I think we came a long way in the previous negotiations and the Israelis must make up their minds. If the Israelis want real full peace with normalization, that requires real full withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 borders and a just solution to the refugees based on Resolution 194.

bitterlemons: Is it possible that the rest of the Arab world might make peace and leave the Palestinians behind?

Erekat: That is impossible.-Published 4/3/02(c)

Saeb Erekat is chief negotiator for the Palestinian negotiating team and Palestinian Authority Minister of Local Government.

Interesting, but borders have to be negotiated

an interview with Dan Meridor

bitterlemons: How do you see Crown Prince Abdullah's initiative?

Meridor: It is very interesting. I haven't heard it laid out openly by the Crown Prince, but if what is written in Tom Friedman's article becomes an official Saudi proposal, this is a positive development, in that it embodies recognition of the State of Israel and acceptance of normalization between Israel and the Arabs. I attach particular importance to the initiative because Saudi Arabia is the defender of the Muslim holy sites, and the conflict has been tainted recently by religious aspects, with Islam abused by some people to justify murders and other criminal acts.

bitterlemons: Abdullah's premise is that Israel will withdraw to the 1967 borders.

Meridor: Israeli-Arab borders have to be determined by negotiation, not by preconditions. Israel does not share the concept of borders embodied in the Saudi proposal. Henry Siegman of the New York Council on Foreign Relations has pointed out that the Saudis don't mean the exact 1967 lines, even in Jerusalem. So if borders can be negotiated, we end up with an Israeli state alongside a Palestinian state, and Saudi Arabia rallies the Arab League, this is an interesting development.

bitterlemons: Can the Saudis get the entire Arab League to support this idea?

Meridor: I find it difficult to see an Arab League consensus on this, with the Iraqis, the Libyans and others.

bitterlemons: What's missing from the initiative?

Meridor: The proposal--if, I emphasize, it is a proposal, because we haven't yet heard it directly--doesn't mention many things, most prominently the Temple Mount issue in Jerusalem and the refugee/right of return issue, that have to be negotiated. In connection with the refugees, Israel's view of a successful two-state solution includes a statement regarding the end of conflict. So if this is indeed a serious proposal it must stipulate that this is the end of the conflict. This is the litmus test. Then the proposal can afford not to mention certain final status issues.

bitterlemons: What's the next step?

Meridor: This shouldn't be left as just an interview or an idea hovering over the Middle East or Washington. The next step could be mutual visits or Saudi-Israeli negotiations or Arab League negotiations with Israel. If, on the other hand, this initiative remains in the PR phase, the impression will be that it was meant to improve the Saudi image in the US.

bitterlemons: The Saudis' reply is apparently that Israel should first make peace, then they will talk about normalization.

Meridor: If Saudi Arabia wants to play a role in peacemaking, then we need to talk.

bitterlemons: Can Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accept the Saudi territorial demands, even with minor adjustments?

Meridor: The premise of the peace process, including the Oslo accords, is a territorial settlement based on [United Nations Security Council] Resolution 242. I don't believe a new basis is needed. We know there is a border controversy. Sharon is the first Israeli prime minister to agree up front to a Palestinian state. At Camp David in July 2000, where I participated in the negotiations, the border issue was not the reason for failure. It was clear that there would be no complete return to the 1967 border, the armistice lines, and that the main settlement blocs would be incorporated into Israel. If Saudi Arabia wants the 1967 lines, this goes beyond Camp David, which failed over the refugee and Temple Mount issues. So we need to see a concrete proposal.

bitterlemons: One of the reasons given for the failure of Camp David was the Saudi refusal to support compromises by Yasir Arafat. Have the Saudis now reversed course?

Meridor: The notion that the Arab world was not prepared to support Arafat at Camp David is unfounded criticism. Had Arafat accepted an agreement at Camp David, he would have had the Arabs behind him. It is patronizing, childish and na´ve to think that Arafat needs this legitimacy. He has to make the courageous historical compromise decision, then most of the other Arabs will support him. Menachem Begin didn't wait for the Arab world when he made peace with Egypt, nor did Rabin with Jordan or when he signed Oslo. The idea that Arafat needs a cradle or else he cannot sign is patronizing. "Peace of the brave" means that Arafat has to be brave.-Published 4/3/02(c)

Dan Meridor, leader of the Center Party, is a minister in the Israeli Cabinet. In previous governments he served as Minister of Finance and Minister of Justice.

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