The Warped Saudi Initiative

Itamar Rabinovich
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Itamar Rabinovich

The events of the past few days have given rise to a strange and embarrassing situation. In theory, the Arab world has adopted the peace plan put forward by Saudi Arabia, and has presented an attractive formula for the final resolution of the conflict, while Israel has not responded concretely and continues to be caught up in the cycle of violence.

In fact, things are more complex. For example, the relatively flexible formula on the right of return issue that was in the statement read out by Arab League secretary-general, Amr Moussa, was neutralized by the explicit demand for the right of return that appeared in a parallel announcement, the "Beirut Statement," read out by the foreign minister of Lebanon.

From a point of departure holding that the present confrontation does not have a military solution and that the only way out is a political settlement, it is important to understand how the Saudi initiative evolved into what is now officially known as the "Arab peace initiative" and also to understand the advantages and drawbacks of this development.

When the Saudi initiative was first made public, it had two clear advantages. It bore a positive character (for the first time a country like Saudi Arabia adopted the idea of normalization with Israel) and it was clear and simple - full normalization in return for full withdrawal. At the same time, some serious questions arose. How was a simplistic formula to be turned into a political plan? Would the plan obtain an Arab consensus? And if so, how could the new political and diplomatic horizon be used to break out of the cycle of violence?

A hint of things to come appeared in the reaction by Syria, which closed ranks with Lebanon and came out against the Saudi initiative. Immediately afterward, President Bashar Assad was invited to visit Saudi Arabia, and at the conclusion of his visit we were told Syria had adopted the Saudi peace initiative after being assured that the Israeli withdrawal to the borders of 1967 would be interpreted according to Damascus's conception.

However, the communique issued by Syria showed that it also had another condition - implementing the right of return. This exemplified the internal contradiction that was built into the continuation of the Saudi move: in order to obtain the support of the rest of the Arab world, the simplistic formula had to be waived and restrictive conditions added.

The introduction of the right of return as a limiting condition on behalf of Syria deprived the Saudi initiative of the revolutionary innovation that it may have contained and adapted it to the Arab world's traditional line that no solution bearing a "final" character should be agreed to, rather an opening must always be left in order to prevent true normalization.

This duality was inserted into the resolutions of the Beirut summit. In a joint press conference with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, Amr Moussa read out the text of "the Saudi peace initiative, which is henceforth known as the Arab peace initiative." The Council of the Arab League adds two demands to the Saudi proposal that the Arab states will establish normal relations with Israel in return for full withdrawal to the 1967 borders and the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Those two demands are withdrawal from lands that Israel "still occupies in South Lebanon," and a just and agreed solution to the refugee problem on the basis of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 of December 1948. If Israel agrees to these terms, the Arab states will consider this to be the end of the conflict and establish normal relations with Israel.

However, along with this statement, the summit conference published a concluding statement that emphasized, among other points, that Israel must allow the Palestinians to realize all their rights, including the guarantee of the right of return of the Palestinian refugees on the basis of the legitimate international resolutions and on the basis of the principles of international law including General Assembly Resolution 194.

The Arab leaders also emphasized their support for Lebanon to use all legitimate means in regard to the liberation of its territory from Israeli occupation up to the recognized international border, and they asserted that peace and security in the region mandate that Israel affiliate itself with the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and open its nuclear facilities to international supervision.

If Moussa's statement is amenable to interpretation as showing a certain flexibility in relation to the right of return, this was eliminated by the traditional formula on the right of return that was included in the summit's concluding statement.

The demand for nuclear disarmament and for Israel to be subjected to international supervision is a well-known Egyptian and Syrian position, which in 1995 was used by Egypt to stop the normalization process. The position taken by the Arab summit on the Lebanon issue effectively permits the border to be heated up by Hezbollah.

In other words, if the Arab summit brandished normalization and the "end of the conflict" with one hand, the other hand held up the familiar formulations, which enable the struggle to continue even after an agreement is obtained.

The Saudi peace initiative thus turns out to be seriously warped. Still, the Beirut resolutions also contain important positive elements. The Israeli leadership is today engaged primarily with the attempt to curb terrorism. However, it must express its opinion about the significance of the Beirut resolutions and articulate an appropriate response. Such a response must appropriate the positive elements of the resolution and place the burden of eliminating the sophistries noted above squarely on the shoulders of the Arab establishment.

The writer is president of Tel Aviv University and a former ambassador to the United States.