Where's the Israeli initiative?
The lack of an Israeli peace initiative will turn the Saudi document in its present form into the only game in town.
President Shimon Peres tried recently in his contacts with Arab leaders to formulate a positive and flexible position toward the Saudi peace initiative. He praised the document, emphasized its positive foundations and called for negotiations based on it, without accepting all its sections in advance, including the problematic part on refugees. This is exactly the position the Israeli government should have adopted, but such a clear position was never presented by the Kadima government.
If Benjamin Netanyahu forms the next government, the chance he'll be able to deal with the challenge presented by the peace initiative in a positive and creative way is just about zero. That's another reason to worry about the political importance of the return of Netanyahu to power.
Until now, the Saudis and Egyptians have made it completely clear in response to Peres' feelers that the initiative is not open to negotiation and Israel must accept it as written. It is true that the initiative does not dictate the details of future peace agreements, but it definitely sets their principles. On the matter of refugees, it states that the just solution of the problem will be based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which calls for refugees who wish to return to their "homes" (and not a Palestinian state) to do so at the earliest practical time.
The initiative also says that the full withdrawal from the Golan - and it is clear to everyone that without such a withdrawal there will be no agreement - will be to the June 4, 1967 lines, not to the internationally recognized border. This means the return of the Syrians to sections of the Lake Kinneret shore, areas that are not part of Syria according to the official international border. As for Lebanon, the peace plan demands that Israel complete its withdrawal from the country, despite the determination of the UN Security Council in 2000 that Israel had already withdrawn from all of Lebanon.
All these issues do not at all cancel out the great, positive significance of the initiative, which includes an explicit willingness for peace and normalized relations with Israel on the part of the entire Arab world. We should remember not only the initiative's text, but also its diplomatic context. The original Saudi version did not include the section relating to the return of refugees to Israel. It proposed to Israel a revolutionary package deal: withdrawal from the territories in return for peace with the entire Arab world.
This fact emphasizes the distance that Arab countries have covered since the days of the "three noes" of Khartoum, and the desire of pragmatic Arab regimes to end the conflict, especially in light of the strengthening of extreme elements who have fed off the conflict and threaten these regimes. Nevertheless, the fact that the section on refugees was added to the initiative under Syrian and Palestinian pressure reflects the great difficulty pragmatic forces have in standing firm against radical demands phrased in the name of Arab national principles, which enjoy broad public support.
In such a complex reality, it's important to emphasize that the cup is half full without forgetting the half-empty part, and certainly without denying that this half-empty part exists, especially when it is such a fateful matter as the refugees' right of return to Israel. If there is no willingness on the part of the Arab world to discuss the initiative's details today, it is possible that such a willingness could be created in the future, in part because of Israel's policies and behavior.
In any case, it is clear that a negative Israeli position and refusal will not clarify the other side's willingness to moderate its positions. The lack of an Israeli peace initiative will turn the Saudi initiative in its present form into "the only game in town." Every hint of moderation and pragmatism in the Arab world must be answered in a positive way, without ruling out any proposals just because they contain problematic components, but also without a sweeping adoption of those principles and an attempt to deny their existence.