Even if the King Doesn't Visit

As usual, the prime minister and the foreign minister are sitting on the fence, leaning to the right.

Diplomatic texts are characterized by multiple meanings, and everyone can read and interpret them as they wish. The Arab peace initiative (the "Saudi initiative") that will be reaffirmed today at the summit in Riyadh, is not unusual in this respect. The Israeli right sees it as a cunning conspiracy that will decrease Israel's territory and flood it with millions of Palestinian refugees, and the left believes it represents the renewal of the peace process and a chance for putting an end to the conflict.

As usual, the prime minister and the foreign minister are sitting on the fence, leaning to the right. Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni see "positive fundamentals" in the Saudi initiative, but reject its substance, in their stubborn refusal to negotiate with the Palestinians toward a final settlement and to renew the Syrian track. Olmert would be happy to receive an invitation to a regional summit, in the hope that a photo opportunity with the Saudi king and the princes of the Gulf states would improve his standing in the opinion polls and soften the blow expected from the Winograd Committee report. But it seems that the entry fee is too high for him.

In Arabic, too, it is possible to read the Saudi initiative in a number of ways. Some see it as a document that sanctifies the traditional views of the diplomatic process, which considers a diversion from them to be tantamount to apostasy from the Arab consensus. Others consider it to be an aggressive Israeli diktat that will be outed as rejectionist if it does not accept the initiative as is. And perhaps, on the other hand, it can be seen as a message moderate Arabs are sending to Iran to leave the Arab-Israeli conflict alone, and as an honest offer for reconciliation with Israel and accepting it as an equal member in the region.

The meaning of the initiative will not emerge today. It is doubtful whether the Riyadh declaration will be translated into a diplomatic initiative or into a dramatic visit by Saudi King Abdullah to Jerusalem. Saudi Arabia is not a democracy, but its leaders know how to read opinion polls. A leading Saudi personality who visited Washington recently referred to Olmert with some scorn, saying he is unable to do anything because of his poor political standing. Jim Hoagland, a Washington Post columnist, wrote yesterday that King Abdullah unexpectedly canceled a royal visit to President Bush scheduled for 17 April. The cancellation was interpreted as a withdrawal from the "axis of moderates" and a Saudi move toward Iran and Hamas, in view of the Bush administration's political weakness.

Under such circumstances it is best not to have high expectations of visits to Jeddah palaces and a shopping spree in Dubai, and instead to focus on the substance: If the Saudis wish to effect genuine change and move closer to ending Israeli occupation in the territories and establishing a Palestinian state, they must place their initiative at the center of the political debate in Israel.

Olmert's current rejectionism is based on the broad Israeli consensus that there is no one to talk to and there is nothing to talk about. In recent years many surveys have shown that the majority supports negotiations and compromise, but this support is not translated into political power. In the political arena, the no-partner parties are in control: Kadima and Likud, supported by Shas, the Pensioners Party and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu. The views of the current Labor Party chairman are of no interest to the public while Meretz is committed to a historical alliance with Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas, and is going down with their ship.

Saudi Arabia can effect a change in Israel's domestic dynamics if it offers a convincing alternative to the status quo policies of Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu. If it extends a hand to the Israelis supporting the compromise and the settlement, and provides them with a reliable Arab partner, it will offer a tremendous service to the peace process and to stability in the Middle East. The Saudi initiative could stand at the center of the next Israeli election campaign and offer the voting public an alternative between renewing the peace process and perpetuating the situation in the territories.

To do this the Saudis will have to bolster the moderate interpretation of their initiative and dispel the claims that it is a conspiracy to destroy Israel. They will have to make it clear in a convincing manner that the articles of the initiative are not carved in stone, but represent a basis for diplomatic negotiation that will include flexible solutions such as exchanges of territory and the rehabilitation of refugees. They will have to recognize that responsibility for the conflict and its perpetuation lies not only with Israel, as the Arab leaders declared during the Beirut summit, but is shared among the parties.

But if the Saudis make do with a press announcement at the end of the summit and go back and close themselves into their palaces - they will once more miss an opportunity to instigate change in the region and to appear to have done the minimum in a non-binding statement of peace.