Still on the Table, for Now

The Saudi peace initiative is one of those historic events in which timing is more important than substance. The first pan-Arab proposal for full normalization with Israel was adopted on Passover 2002 - the day of the seder-night bombing at Netanya's Park Hotel, which killed 30 Israelis. The atrocity, and Israel's subsequent invasion of the West Bank, left no room for news from an Arab League summit in Beirut. And with Israel having just returned to West Bank cities it had earlier quit, an Arab plan to return Israel to the 1967 borders seemed irrelevant.

Every spring for the next six years, the Arab League reaffirmed this peace plan, the first it ever produced, but it remained on the back burner. Now, three things have suddenly brought it to center stage: Barack Obama's election as the next American president, the likelihood of Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu becoming Israel's next prime minister in February, and fear that Mahmoud Abbas' already shaky rule in the Palestinian Authority will collapse. And since Obama will be sworn in 20 days before Israel's election, he might be able to influence the outcome by publicly supporting the Saudi peace plan: Anyone who voted for Netanyahu would then know he was defying Obama.

At a meeting with her Egyptian and Jordanian counterparts last July, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni termed the Saudi initiative "a historic opportunity that must not be missed." Officially, however, the Kadima-Labor government never responded to the plan. Even President Shimon Peres, who has recently spoken in its favor, showed no interest in it when he sat in the cabinet.

Five years ago, then-Jordanian foreign minister Marwan Muasher told me he was disappointed by the Israeli peace camp's apathy toward the plan. He could not understand such apathy toward a proposal that requires an "agreed" solution to the refugee problem - wording that, according to Middle East expert Dr. Matti Steinberg, effectively gives Israel a veto on this issue. The significance of this term was also evident from the furious response of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The latter's chairman, Ramadan Shalah, told a conference in Damascus in January that the Saudi initiative was even worse than the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which laid the foundations for the Jewish state.

The Arab League's 22 members, like the 35 other Muslim countries that have adopted the plan, do not expect Israel to announce that it is leaving the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights tomorrow. Interviewed in Brussels two weeks ago, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa explained that after accepting the plan's principles, Israel would have to conduct bilateral negotiations with its neighbors to determine precise borders (territorial exchanges are possible) and security arrangements.

But if Israel prefers to keep building settlements, he warned, the Saudi initiative will be taken off the table and replaced by another idea that has gained momentum recently: a single binational state.