Anyone who wants to see the Arab world's change in attitude toward Israel should compare the resolutions of the Arab summit in Khartoum in 1967 and the resolutions of the Riyadh summit. In Khartoum, the decision was "no peace, no talks, no recognition of Israel." The leader of the pack was the president of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
It took a bumpy, 40-year ride, strewn with bloody wars, for the Arabs to arrive at the decisions they reached at Riyadh - recognizing Israel, calling for peace and normalization and willingness to negotiate. They have laid down some very tough conditions, of course, but the Arab countries leading the initiative know very well that Israel will not accept the return of Palestinian refugees.
Both of these summits were post-war conferences. The Khartoum summit came after the Six-Day War, in which Egypt, Syria and Jordan suffered a devastating blow. Despite its great military triumph, Israel did not achieve its political goals. The war did not bring peace, and occupying the territories went from temporary to permanent, creating serious problems for Israel.
The Riyadh summit convened after the Second Lebanon War, which was perceived as a psychological defeat for Israel, although the political objective of distancing Hezbollah from the border and prompting the Lebanese Army to mobilize in the south, alongside a large international peacekeeping force, was achieved.
It was not the outcome of the war in Lebanon that gave rise to the Riyadh resolutions. Saudi Arabia was prodded into action by Iran's growing involvement in the Arab world and the Middle East as a whole, which was also felt in this war.
Over the years, Saudi Arabia has usurped Egypt's place as the leader of the Arab world. One of its important achievements, in the wake of diplomacy with Iran, has been to relieve Hezbollah's pressure on Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's administration. All this has taken place as the United States wallows in the Iraqi quagmire and is gradually losing its power of deterrence.
Another major Saudi achievement is linked to Israel. While Israel's response to the Saudi peace initiative after the 2002 Arab summit in Beirut was evasive, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is now responding positively. This is an important step forward.
Olmert proposed negotiations on the Saudi initiative, but without going into detail. Israel might make some surprising concessions, he said.
Olmert understood that flatly turning down the proposal would be bad for Israel's international standing. On the one hand, the Arabs are offering Israel peace and recognition; on the other, Israel would be saying no, which boils down to a desire to continue its subjugation of another people. That is a formula for failure and loss of global legitimacy - and this would be happening while Iran steps up its involvement in the Middle East.
The trouble is implementing these declarations. Israel is entering a corridor that looks very promising, but also harbors great dangers. The process is meant to begin as the United States withdraws from Iraq, which is sure to be labeled a defeat, and Iran continues its race for nuclear arms.
If the initiative is to succeed, Israel will need extraordinary leadership capable of introducing wise, courageous policies. To date, however, there has been no serious discussion of all the relevant factors. Israel's leaders will have to operate on several fronts simultaneously: Saudi Arabia and the moderate Arab countries; Syria; the Palestinians, who are swayed by Hamas; and Iran and its lackeys.
Last, but not least, is the home front. On the one hand, the leadership of the Arab minority is calling for a change in the character of the state and challenging its identity as a democratic Jewish entity. On the other, the settlers are waking up, as evidenced by the protest at Homesh and the acquisition of a Palestinian house in Hebron.
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