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Middle East Peace Plans Abound, and Israel Has Opted to Wait and See

January 27, 2004
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With the U.S.-led “road map” plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace stalled, Middle East leaders are looking at alternatives to get a peace process moving again.

In Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to use a visit to Washington next month to discuss his contingency plan for unilateral Israeli separation from Palestinian-populated territory.

In Saudi Arabia, there are signs of a new plan to make peace between Israel and the entire Arab world based upon territorial concessions and an agreement in which Palestinian refugees would be resettled in a newly created Palestinian state and other Arab countries, not Israel. Turkey has offered to mediate between Israel and Syria, and between Israel and the Palestinians. Egypt still is working on an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire.

And outside of the Middle East, members of the “Quartet” — the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations — are trying to resuscitate the moribund road map but are ready to listen to new ideas.

The question remains, however, whether any of these new initiatives actually can work.

Israeli officials are skeptical.

Sharon is convinced that the current Palestinian leadership — in which Ahmed Qurei is the Palestinian Authority prime minister but Yasser Arafat, the P.A. president, really pulls the strings — will not be able to take the road map any further.

Sharon argues that the Palestinians will not fight terrorism and therefore fail to create the necessary conditions for peace negotiations.

The Americans agree, but they have problems of their own with Sharon, who they suspect may be planning to annex large swathes of West Bank territory.

Last week, Sharon sent his bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, to Washington to persuade the Bush administration that he has no such designs. Weisglass told President Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, that Israel intended to leave all territorial questions open for negotiations, which could start whenever the Palestinians were ready to stop the violence and start talking.

Indeed, he said, Israel hopes that once it redeploys behind the security fence it is constructing in the West Bank, it will be able to provide the security against terror the Palestinians so far have been reluctant to do.

If successful, then, the fence actually could create the peace and quiet essential for successful negotiations, Weisglass said.

By most counts, the Americans remain skeptical. They’re afraid Sharon’s unilateral moves will further alienate the Palestinians, not help the cause of negotiations.

Sharon will have to work hard next month to convince Bush that his unilateral moves will not compromise the president’s vision of two states for two peoples.

The new Saudi plan, which so far has been reported only in the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Siyasa, goes further. According to the report, all Arab states would normalize relations with Israel, including exchanging ambassadors, if Israel withdrew to its 1967 borders. That would mean leaving the West Bank, which was captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War; Gaza, which was captured from Egypt, and the Golan Heights, captured from Syria.

Additionally, 2 million Palestinian refugees would be absorbed in the new Palestinian state and 2 million more would be absorbed in the Arab states. Israel would not have to take any.

Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah reportedly already has presented the plan to the State Department and aims to have it approved at the next Arab League summit, scheduled for March.

Israel would be hard-pressed to reject such an all-encompassing proposal, but it is unlikely that it would sail through the Arab League.

For one thing, the Palestinians are unlikely to waive their rights to have Palestinian refugees resettle in Israel proper. For another, the Arab states have never been eager to absorb Palestinian refugees.

Turkey’s offer of mediation has been welcomed by Syria, and neither Israel nor the Palestinians have rejected it. But though Turkey is particularly well placed to play an honest broker, being both a predominantly Muslim country and a close ally of Israel’s, Turkey does not carry the clout of a major power and could not replace the United States as the main mediating force.

Nevertheless, any successful Turkish diplomatic role would greatly enhance the country’s international prestige.

All the while, the Egyptians have not given up on their efforts to mediate a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians, which would include a year-long suspension of attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In exchange, Israel would be asked to suspend its policy of targeted killings and other pre-emptive military measures.

But Palestinian terrorist groups have shown little inclination to agree to a cease-fire — or adhere to one — and in any case a cease-fire would not suffice for the Americans and the British.

They are insisting on a detailed Palestinian security plan as a basis for taking the road map forward. That position was made clear by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in early January and will be reiterated by special U.S. peace envoys John Wolf and David Satterfield, due in the Middle East this week.

Israeli officials describe the envoys’ mission as “maintenance,” and say it is not expected to trigger a renewal of peace talks. Indeed, in an American election year, the Israelis do not expect heavy U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian process.

At this point, Israel is staying cautious on all fronts. It has not taken seriously Syrian overtures to return to the negotiating table — which some Israeli officials have called public-relations ploys — and is not jumping at the chance to use Turkey as a mediator.

The Jewish state still is waiting for the Palestinians to crack down on terrorism, and there has been no official reaction from Jerusalem on the reports of the Saudi plan.

But pundits and opposition leaders are beginning to ask if the government is being unduly cautious, missing chances for a dramatic transformation of its ties with the Arab world in a changing Middle East.

Much of the heightened activity on the peace front clearly is part of the domino effect of the U.S. presence in Iraq.

Regional players are well aware that the U.S. ultimately wants to achieve peace in the Middle East, and autocratic Arab states want to show Washington that they are on the right side of the war on terror to safeguard against becoming future targets of U.S. forces.

The Saudi, Egyptian and Syrian peace moves are intended, at least partly, to impress the United States. On that score, they are similar to Libyan and Iranian offers to scrap their nuclear-weapons programs.

The dilemma Israel faces is not simple: Should they exploit this new Arab willingness to talk peacemaking — and risk giving the Arabs easy diplomatic gains without any tangible peace results? Or, should they put off peacemaking on the assumption that waiting will improve their bargaining position with the Arabs, who will be inclined to offer even more the longer they are ignored by Washington?

For the time being, it seems, Israel will wait and see.

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