Not since the invention of the Volkswagen, which vanished as a working man's product and re-emerged as a prestige brand, has there been such a successful marketing effort as the Saudi initiative, now the focal point of the Arab League summit in Beirut. The innovation is not in the substance of the proposal, but in the identity of the proposer. Israel offers land for peace? There's nothing to report. A dog bit a man. Saudi Arabia proposes peace for land? That's a headline - though this week, talking about his trial balloon, the Saudi biter got slightly cold feet and said he only barked.
Fifty-four years after the establishment of the state of Israel and the invasion of Arab armies that tried to kill it in its cradle, 35 years after the Six-Day War, an Arab summit is convening for a hesitant debate on peace with Israel. Good morning, Abdullah. It seems you're a little tardy.
Saudi Arabia, whose border with Jordan can be seen from Eilat, conducted secret contacts with Israel all the way back in the 1960s, when both promoted a victory for the royalists in Yemen over the rebels supported by Egypt. Kamal Adham, for years head of Saudi intelligence, routinely corresponded with the heads of the Israeli intelligence and security services. But the Saudis are afraid of everyone - Iraqis, Iranians, Palestinians - and are ready to pay protection money for defense.
Abdullah's sudden daring is a sign that he believes an American victory over Saddam Hussein is near, and following it a Pax Americana - between Israel and the Arabs, and in the Gulf. "Let Bush win," Abdullah is hinting. Looking back, the Madrid and Oslo processes will be demarcated by two American wars, led by two presidents named Bush, against Iraq.
Beirut is the belated antithesis of the "Three Noes" conference in Khartoum - no peace with Israel, no recognition, and no negotiations. In 1967, the Arabs presented a rejectionist front to Israel, whose government decided, a week after the war, to return Sinai to Egypt and the Golan to Syria in exchange for peace. That is the heart of UN Security Resolution 242.
Everything that followed, from the two versions of the Rogers Plan, through UN Security Resolution 338 at the end of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Sadat initiative, Camp David in 1978, the autonomy talks and the contacts with Jordan as representative of the Palestinians in the 1980s, the Madrid conference and the bargaining with Syria - it's all the subtext under the headline. The minute the Arab side offered peace, it found an Israeli side that was ready, under domestic and American pressure, to give land.
Israel failed in its efforts to distinguish between the West Bank and Gaza, and the Egyptian and Syrian territories, and to reach separate agreements with those two, instead of an overall peace dependent on a general return of the territories. Even when Sadat decided to befriend the Americans for the sake of his own country, he added a comment next to Sinai in the land registry, warning that the Palestinian issue needed to be resolved.
The Palestinians can get land from Israel, without refugees inside Israel, in exchange for peace, and security for Israel. Ehud Barak's biggest mistake was his fear of a peace deal with Syria in exchange for the Golan and northeast corner of Lake Kinneret. In the summer of 2000, the general staff proposed that Barak unilaterally withdraw from the settlements he had already verbally given up at Camp David - a calm and willing withdrawal, and not under fire. The statesman in Barak gave way to the politician, who feared the public and its representatives would not support the decision.
In 2002, after hundreds of Israeli casualties and with no hope for change, the political calculations are different. A large majority of Israelis will support withdrawal, if it indeed brings peace and an end to the conflict, and they won't let the settlers get in the way of an end to the occupation, as long as it is not a stop on the path to a Palestinian conquest from inside, via the right-of-return crack in the wall. Reaching out for peace with a defensive hand is a welcome policy.
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