The Peace Process / Only Saudi Arabia Can Do It

After months of stagnation and hesitation, in which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert lost almost all public support in his leadership, he revealed a new political agenda yesterday.

Olmert began the weekly cabinet meeting with a positive statement about the Saudi plan for a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab states, and hinted that if changes were made to it, it would be capable of serving as the basis for a renewed political process with the Palestinians.

Olmert's statement also hinted at contact taking place between Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States, in anticipation of the Arab summit scheduled for Riyadh at the end of the month. At the core of these contacts lies the shared interest in curbing Iran's increasing power and the desire to form a regional "axis of moderates" around a renewed peace process.

Everyone recognizes that the Palestinians' unstable situation makes it difficult for them to contribute their part to a political process or an agreement, and the Saudi involvement is meant to provide them with patronage.

Only Saudi Arabia can grant Israel regional recognition and legitimacy, in exchange for its withdrawal from the territories.

From Olmert's perspective, the Saudi plan is the only alternative that allows him to demonstrate initiative and political action. The Syrian channel is blocked and the talks with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas aren't going anywhere, eliciting little more than a yawn from the Israeli public.

But if a pan-Arab proposal for comprehensive peace were to emerge from Riyadh, especially if accompanied by summit meetings involving Olmert and Arab leaders, it could elicit new hope among the public.

Olmert desperately needs a political initiative that will provide him with some political oxygen. He knows he won't be able to continue in his post much longer, what with his negligible public support, the criticism over the second Lebanon war, the waves of scandals and the absence of an agenda. The Saudi initiative gives Olmert a chance to recover, if he can manage to demonstrate political progress. He doesn't have a lot to lose.

Above all, the magic of the Saudi initiative stems from its being merely a declaration of principles rather than a detailed plan.

Thus it is possible to speak in slogans, negotiate over the wording, and defer paying the domestic price that withdrawal from the West Bank and the Golan Heights entails.

But make no mistake: If Israel accepts the Saudi initiative, even only as the basis for negotiations, it will be taking a huge step toward the end of its control over the territories - one that even Olmert's successors will have difficulty renouncing.