No Free 'Gifts' to Israel

The exact makeup of the Arab League delegation for the promotion of the Saudi peace initiative has not yet been determined, but the Palestinians hastened to demand that it not include representatives from countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. This precondition leaves only Egypt and Jordan, and maybe Qatar.

The Palestinians are seeking to avoid giving free "gifts" to Israel, in the form of a diplomatic encounter with a hostile country - let alone a prominent player such as Saudi Arabia - before Israel commits itself to serious negotiations with the Palestinians.

Egypt has seconded this Palestinian prerequisite. Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, stated the delegation will not engage in dialogue with Israel in place of the interested parties, and will not alter the priorities decided on by the Arab League.

In other words, the Saudi initiative will not serve Israel as a bypass, canceling the need for bilateral talks with Arab partners. It will only focus on trying to persuade Israel to accept the Saudi initiative as is, without demanding various amendments and stipulations.

This serves to strip Israel's statements that it is prepared to engage in dialogue with the Arab League of any practical consequences. The Arab League is not prepared to negotiate with Israel about negotiations, nor is it willing to conduct negotiations with Israel in place of other negotiations. Rather, it wants only to clarify the Saudi initiative as a framework for future negotiations.

Nonetheless, the flexibility demonstrated by the Arab League in changing its 2002 declarative statement regarding the initiative is of considerable significance. For the first time, the league is expressing willingness to translate the initiative into diplomatic action, rather than leaving it as a mere statement.

The attitude guiding the league's steps is equally significant. It heralds the end of the time when Israel and the U.S. were on one side of the equation, while Syria and the Palestinians were "under the jurisdiction" of the Arab League.

It appears that since the Saudi initiative was first drawn up, in Beirut five years ago, the Arab countries have come to believe that Israel is not outside their sphere of influence, or at least that there are grounds to attempt to pull it closer to that sphere.

Thus, the Arab League is no longer content to simply adopt the Saudi initiative as the Arab initiative, and with that to throw the ball back into the Israeli side of the court, as it did in 2002. This time around, the Arab countries are willing to advance a little further down the road to implementation of their initiative.

Next Wednesday, the 13 members of the committee for the implementation of the Saudi initiative are expected to meet. They will probably discuss the modus operandi of contacts with Israel and with other countries. They had intended to form a subcommittee of representatives from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to conduct the talks. That was the makeup agreed upon in the Riyadh conference last month.

However, following the presentation of the Palestinian demand, the committee might decide on the formation of two separate subcommittees; one for talks with Israel, and the other for marketing the initiative to the U.S. and the other four members of the Quartet.

The two committees, if they would indeed be formed, would have identical spheres of authority and missions, and would in fact operate as one double-headed committee.