In the words of a popular song, there is nothing new under the sun, and indeed the things you see from there aren't what you see from here. Politicians - who for decades have mesmerized the public with messianic visions, filled the land with settlements and condemned as traitors anyone who dared to call for dividing Jerusalem and returning territory - have finally learned the facts of life. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and even opposition leader and Likud Chair Benjamin Netanyahu are now committed to the Saudi peace initiative. Politicians, Abba Eban used to say, take the right decisions - but only after exhausting all other options.
The Saudi plan goes even farther than the Clinton plan, which the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff at the time, Shaul Mofaz, said posed an existential threat to Israel. Likud politicians, some of whom are leading the country today, totally rejected as irresponsible Clinton's plan, which was the fruit of the most courageous and clear-eyed negotiations toward a settlement of the Palestinian issue that any Israeli government has ever dared to hold.
True, no one is suggesting that the Saudi initiative be treated as holy writ and everyone wants to make changes to it. It is unlikely, however, that the Arab League will agree to change a peace plan based on the consensus of its 22 members even before the start of official negotiations. This is especially true in light of the great doubt concerning the ability of this government - which has not moved even a single illegal outpost - to lead the country into making a critical decision, regardless of the changes to the plan.
If negotiations and amendments do become a reality, it will quickly become clear that what the country's present leaders are aiming for is actually the Clinton plan. That is their last line of defense. The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
Three key issues separate the Saudi initiative from the Clinton plan: territory, Jerusalem and refugees. The Saudi plan speaks of returning to the 1976 borders. The Clinton plan adopted the principle of maintaining three Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank on the basis of territorial exchange, which would result in Israel withdrawing from 97 percent of the West Bank. Today, conditions have changed - and the Palestinian arena has been altered with the rise of Hamas. There will be no agreement unless it is based on a withdrawal to the 1967 borders, even if it includes a territorial exchange.
With regard to Jerusalem, the Saudi initiative calls for a sharp separation between the city's east and west. The Clinton plan adopts a principle created by the writer of these lines and agreed to by the Palestinians: A nationally-based division that would leave the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty. I believe that then prime minister Ehud Barak erred in agreeing to a division of the Old City, and that it would have been better to have insisted on a special arrangement for that complex area, without a division of sovereignty.
On the refugee issue, I am doubtful that we can improve on the Clinton plan, which is based on a strict adherence to Israel's sovereign right to decide who to accept into the country. The plan did not grant an effective right of return, and the architects of the Geneva Initiative distorted the principles of the plan when they agreed to translate them into accepting a number equal to the average of the total numbers third countries agree to accept.
There is thus no need to reinvent the wheel, and it would not detract from the government's honor were it to use the efforts of its predecessors as the foundation for its entry into historical record. The Arabs will place the Saudi initiative on the negotiating table and the Israelis will come with the Clinton plan. The final agreement lies in the space between them.
Historic breakthroughs have generally occurred in the meeting place between conditions that are ripe and a leadership that can carry its people into making a difficult and necessary decision. The conditions are ripe indeed. Never since the beginning of Zionist aliyah has the Arab world - which is so fearful of an Islamic fundamentalist tsunami - been so ready to reach an arrangement with the Jewish state.
As we have said, however, it is not enough for the conditions to be ripe. Without straightforward, far-sighted leadership that can tell the people the plain home truths, this window of opportunity, too, will turn into just another tragic missed opportunity.
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