Refugee Issue Complicates Saudi Plan


Saudi Arabia was seen this week as the key to a future peace agreement between Israel and the rest of the Arab world.

“The Saudis are trying to find a [compromise] between the Israelis and the other Arab parties in which all are satisfied,” said Yitzchak Reiter, a fellow of the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “I’m not sure they will succeed.”

A key stumbling block is the Palestinian demand for the “right-of-return,” in which all Palestinian refugees from Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 would be allowed to return to their former homes in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel. The 700,000 Palestinian refugees who either fled or were expelled from the country during the war moved to neighboring Arab countries. The United Nations said the current number of registered Palestinian refugees totals 4.2 million.

The Arab League proposal adopted in 2002 calls on Israel to abide by UN Resolution 194, which permits all refugees to return to their old homes in Israel. That resolution, Reiter explained, “gives legitimacy to the Arab claim of a right-of-return, which Israel is unwilling to accept because it would [in effect] take responsibility for creating the refugees and Israel says the Arabs invaded and therefore they are responsible for the outcome of the war.”

The 22-member Arab League peace proposal adopted in Beirut in 2002 calls for the full normalization of relations with Israel provided it returns to its 1967 borders, establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital, and permits the return of Palestinian refugees.

Reiter pointed out that the refugee issue was not in the Saudis’ original plan when it was presented at the Arab summit in March 2002, and that it was included at the insistence of Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians “to achieve an Arab consensus.”

“The Saudis are now trying to find an equation that would give Israel some security that the issue of the refugees will not be a commitment that Israel will have to accept, but rather something that is negotiated,” Reiter said. A report in the online edition of the Yediot Achronot said secret talks to resolve this issue were held recently involving the Saudis, the U.S. and Israel. It said the three agreed that Palestinians who want to return to their old homes would be permitted to move to the Palestinian territories only and that the rest would receive financial compensation. In addition, the U.S., the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates would pour billions into projects to improve the refugees’ quality of life, the newspaper said.

It added that although Libya rejected the plan, Jordan and several Emirates have already agreed to it.Another published report Wednesday quoted Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul-Ilah al-Khatib as saying the Arab summit held this week in Riyadh would create “working groups” in which Arab countries would hold behind-the-scenes discussions to develop new initiatives to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and that there was a “potential” that Israel could be involved in those direct talks.

Reiter said the Saudis appear to be trying to forge a solution not only because they wish to please their ally the United States but because “they have an important stake in bringing all the Arab parties together in a united camp, and they want to play a major role in dealing with other conflicts such as Iran. They want to crystallize an Arab moderate front to stand against the extreme and radical elements in the Middle East, such as Iran and Hezbollah.”

“There is a window of opportunity here that Israel has to find a way to join and to finally be accepted in the Middle East,” he added. “Before 1967, this was something Israel could only dream of. Now Arab countries are saying to Israel, if you could only agree on refugees and the 1967 borders, [we will] end the conflict and accept Israel in this region — which is something fundamental and was never before suggested. It is an initiative which tries to end the historic conflict.” But there was also tough talk this week from Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who held out no room for compromise when he told a British newspaper that if Israel rejected the Arab peace plan, “that means it doesn’t want peace and it places everything back in the hands of fate. They will be putting their future in the hands not of the peacemakers but in the hands of the lords of war.”

Although the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has primarily objected to the Arab demand for the Palestinian “right-of-return,” Gideon Saar of the Likud Party and the deputy speaker of the Knesset, told The Jewish Week that there are many objections to the Arab proposal. He said he found the idea of returning to the 1967 border “dangerous and unacceptable.” And he questioned how the Arabs expect Israel to come to the negotiating table after they have said, in effect, take it or leave it.

“What’s left to negotiate?” he asked. “You shouldn’t go into negotiations when they have already declared what the final outcome is.”

Saar, in a recent interview here arranged by Likud USA, said Israel should come up with its own peace plan that would form the basis for future negotiations. But he stressed that ultimately it is the Palestinians Israel must come to terms with, not the rest of the Arab world. And with a terrorist organization, Hamas, leading the Palestinian government, achieving peace with the Palestinians becomes all the more difficult.

He pointed out that two principles former Palestinian President Yasir Arafat had agreed to — recognizing Israel and abandoning the path of terror — are disregarded by Hamas.“They went back to the path of terror — what they call resistance — and they are not ready to recognize Israel,” Saar said. “Since all assumptions of the peace process have collapsed, why should we continue blindly promoting this path? To continue this process without taking into consideration the reality on the ground is madness.”

But others argue that reviving regional peace efforts could actually help the Israeli-Palestinian track.

“By resolving the bilateral issues, Israel gets a welcome mat to the whole region,’’ said Gershon Baskin, the co-chair of the Israel Palestinian Committee for Research and Information. “That’s the primary value to the whole Arab peace initiative.’’

And Ran Cohen of the Meretz Party said he viewed what is happening now as an “historic opportunity.”

“If [former Prime Minister David] Ben Gurion would have come to life and realized that 22 Arab countries were willing to sign a peace agreement with Israel within the ‘67 lines, it would have been a sweet dream of every Zionist in Israel,’’ he said. "There’s no question that the Riyadh summit creates a big challenge to Israel. It’s almost equivalent to the decision of Sadat to come to Jerusalem, because it’s a psychological and atmospheric change.”

Israel correspondent Joshua Mitnick contributed to this report.