A New Political Asset

Finally, there is an ideal partner for negotiation. It is not an Arab state, nor an Arab leader. It is a document - one Israel can argue with, laugh at, shelve or embrace.

Finally, there is an ideal partner for negotiation. It is not an Arab state, nor an Arab leader. It is a document - one Israel can argue with, laugh at, shelve or embrace. As a mute partner, the document cannot even respond. We are talking this time about the Saudi initiative, better known as the decisions approved by the Arab summit in Beirut in 2002.

It is not a working paper, but rather a declaration of intentions and a definition of Arab strategy. According to this initiative, if Israel agrees to withdraw to the 1967 borders and discuss a mutually acceptable solution for the problem of the refugees, the Arab states would make peace with Israel and even normalize relations with it. Israel, on its part, has so far treated the document as if it were itself a hostile state or, more precisely, a terror organization. But in recent weeks, it has turned out to be an Israeli political asset, because it opens a new path of escape.

To use this path, we are developing an original trick. According to this sleight of hand, the removal or refinement of several articles in the Arab League decision would release Israel from the political paralysis it has imposed on itself. It is as if the entire Arab-Israeli peace depended only on rewording the right of return - not on an Israeli withdrawal from the territories and the Golan, not on removing the settlements, not on resolving the status of Jerusalem or demarcating borders, and not even on recognition of Israel by the Palestinian Authority.

This is a sure way of eviscerating the Saudi initiative, which was only intended to provide an umbrella for real negotiation, and not serve as an alternative to it. Thus, Israel is again trying the old and proven formula: There is no need to conduct negotiations - we only need to find someone to blame for blocking the negotiations. In honor of this trick, "the Arab world" is suddenly the partner. And it is an excellent partner, because if it does not agree to change its positions, "it" - and not Israel - will be responsible for the continued freeze.

In this way, Israel seeks to convey the notion that the Arab initiative is unrelated to the need for conducting real negotiations with Syria and the Palestinian Authority. Those are the two direct focal points of the conflict, and without resolving them, there is no relevance to any Israeli nod toward the Saudi initiative, in its original wording or in a revised version, if there ever is one. To be on the safe side, Israel was quick to attach prior conditions to any channel of negotiation - with the Palestinians, these are the conditions of the Quartet, and with the Syrians, these are the American conditions. And now, another barrier is being constructed: first, virtual negotiations on the Arab League decisions and then, if the Arabs change their stance, the restrictive conditions that prevent direct negotiations with the Palestinians and Syrians still remain intact. Thus, Israel seeks to place the right of decision in the hands of every last member state of the Arab League.

Therefore, the microsurgical analysis of the decisions of the 2002 Arab League summit by lawyers and Middle East experts may be fascinating, but it is meaningless. After all, the reality will not be determined by textual exegetists, but by politicians. The Arab League's decisions, past or future, will be relevant only if these real negotiations lead to a peace accord. Then, perhaps, Israel can call on the Arab states to sign an accord with it based on the Beirut decisions. But what would Israel do if Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq or Libya refused? Would it cancel the peace accord with the Palestinians or Syrians? Because it is only fair to say that this is the other side of the Arab League's decisions: Just as some Arab states showed contempt for the Arab League's Khartoum decisions that rejected any negotiations with Israel, there will be states that disdain the Beirut decisions promising normalization.

Until then, Israel must unfortunately return from the Saudi ballroom and focus on the difficult housecleaning tasks. It should formulate a position vis-a-vis the new Palestinian government, accepting it as representing the Palestinian public and enabling it to function. It should regard this government as the product of another welcome Saudi initiative - the Mecca agreement. And it should also formulate a practical, public response to Syria.