With Arabs’ Peace Initiative, Seize This Time to Negotiate

Opportunity comes infrequently, often disguised, but when it comes, you had better recognize it and do something about it because it may be a long time before it comes again.

This is a hard lesson I learned from 40 years in the investment business and one I repeat endlessly to my MBA students.

This same principle should be applied to policy decisions in the Middle East, for example in responding to overtures from Saudi Arabia and Syria. The unanimous approval of the Arab Peace Initiative by leaders of 22 Arab states at the Arab League summit in late March offers the United States and Israel an opportunity to put this principle into practice. The opportunity may not arise again.

In December, I participated in private meetings in Washington with ambassadors from Saudi Arabia and Syria organized by the Israel Policy Forum. These discussions convinced me that the spread of instability and fundamentalism in the Middle East poses at least as much of a threat to countries there as it does to the West.

As a result, the United States and Israel now have a momentous opportunity to use diplomacy to help bring peace and stability to the Middle East and long-term security to Israel. Then-Saudi Ambassador Prince Turki Al-Faisal told us in December that the United States needs to make a determined push for peace. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have begun to do exactly that.

The ambassador also told us that his country seeks an accommodation with Israel. Saudi Arabia for the first time has something to lose as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict festers and Iran aids Hamas and Hezbollah. This makes the Middle East a more dangerous region. It explains, at least in part, why the Saudis revived their peace initiative, which Crown Prince Abdullah, now the king, first floated in early 2002.

The initiative calls for all Arab states to normalize relations with Isra! el after an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and eastern Jerusalem. Its mention of “peace” and “normal relations” with Israel and the “ending” of the “Arab-Israel conflict” is extremely significant. This Saudi move in ’02 was a dramatic reversal of more than 50 years of rejectionist policy. Foolishly, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dismissed the initiative, while the Bush administration stayed silent.

Those who fault this plan point to its reference to Palestinian refugees, which critics maintain would result in the refugees and their descendants settling in Israel. A careful reading of the language shows this not to be the case. The initiative calls for a “just solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees,” which could mean compensation, and “to be agreed upon,” which means that Israel must agree to the solution. These words were not carelessly included; they serve as a basis for negotiations. Indeed, the Saudi ambassador told us he did not expect the Israelis to accept the initiative as proposed.

Though the initiative was not revised to meet some of Israel’s objections, Israel still should seize this opportunity and use the initiative as the basis for negotiations with the Arab states that approved it and expressed a willingness to do so, including Syria. The United States should actively encourage and facilitate these negotiations, taking part in them when necessary.

Syria also has made serious overtures to Israel, according to persistent reports in the Israeli and Arab media, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly has rejected them at the behest of the Bush administration.

Israeli intelligence is divided over Syrian President Bashar Assad’s intentions. The Mossad agency argues that Assad is not interested in peace but only in a peace process. Military intelligence maintains that he would be ready for a peace deal with Israel in exchange for the Golan Heights, which Israel! capture d in 1967.

The Syrian ambassador, Imad Moustapha, told us during our meeting in December that when Syria makes an agreement, it keeps the agreement. As he put it, “The Golan border is quiet because we make sure it’s quiet.”

Here, too, lies an opportunity for the Israeli government that it cannot afford to ignore. Israel should talk to the Syrians, test their intentions and end the speculation. That is the only way to find out whether Assad is genuinely interested in making peace.

From January 2004 to December 2006, Alon Liel, former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, participated in secret, unofficial contacts with Syrian representatives on a framework for a Syrian-Israeli settlement. Olmert rebuffed requests to turn these contacts into official talks. Liel told a teleconference call arranged by the Israel Policy Forum in March that if official Israeli-Syrian talks were to begin now, “we can finalize a deal within four to six months.”

Israel should view these opportunities for dialogue with Saudi Arabia and Syria as glasses half full. From a public-relations perspective alone, Israel should never say no to a peace opportunity. A nation’s image in the international community is an important asset that its actions can enhance. This is especially true for a small country surrounded by historically hostile neighbors. Peace negotiations are far more likely to enhance that reputation than to diminish it.

The Bush administration has a critical role to play. Not only should it urge the Israeli government to engage in talks with Saudi and Syrian officials, it should encourage Israel to pursue all diplomatic avenues that might lead to a peaceful resolution of its conflicts with all its neighbors.

I am not a naive man and this is not a naive approach. In foreign policy, as in business, negotiations must be attempted even when the odds of success are long.

Larry Zicklin is a member of the executive committee of the! Israel Policy Forum and a past president of UJA-Federation of New York. He is a clinical professor of markets, ethics and law at the New York University Stern School of Business.

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