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Support for Saudi Move Builds Ahead of Arabs’ Beirut Summit

March 6, 2002
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American and European diplomats are focused on a Saudi initiative for Israeli- Arab peace, but before the proposal can go anywhere it must get past Beirut.

Arab League officials will convene in the Lebanese capital later this month for a summit that is expected to consider the Saudi initiative, which calls on Israel to withdraw from all territory occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War in return for normalization of relations with the Arab world.

Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah mentioned the initiative in a February interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, but never formally presented it — out of anger at Israeli policy, the crown prince said.

Judging by the recent upsurge in Israeli-Palestinian violence, Abdullah’s proposal might seem premature, if not downright quixotic. Yet the initiative is alive and kicking, largely for lack of an alternative plan.

Seemingly straightforward — land for peace, which has been the formula behind all Israeli-Arab peace proposals since the 1967 war — the Saudi idea remains confusingly vague.

For one, what do the Arab states mean by “normalization”?

Egypt has striven to keep economic and cultural contact with Israel to an absolute minimum. But Cairo also maintains that it has upheld its side of the 1979 peace treaty, which Israel anticipated would lead to a flourishing neighborly interchange. In Jordan, the other Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, journalists and academics who have contact with Israeli counterparts are blacklisted, forced from their jobs and made to apologize.

While those peace treaties certainly have led to a state of nonbelligerence, they are a far cry from what the Western world understands as “normal” relations.

Second, the initiative in fact abandons the land-for-peace signposts — U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 — that have guided previous peace efforts.

The Arab world always has claimed that those resolutions call for complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and eastern Jerusalem. Yet the record of the time clearly shows that U.N. diplomats rejected that approach in favor of vaguer terminology that would allow Israel to negotiate secure and defensible boundaries, even by retaining some of its war-won territory.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said this week that a return to the pre-1967 borders would endanger Israel’s security, and warned Israeli officials to reject formulas not explicitly based on Resolutions 242 and 338.

Third, what room is there in the initiative for negotiation — on border adjustments, Jewish holy sites and the fate of Palestinian refugees?

Despite those vagaries, or perhaps because of them, the initiative stands a good chance to be adopted at the Arab summit.

That’s because Saudi Arabia, the keeper of the Muslim holy sites, enjoys considerable influence in both the Arab world and the United States. In addition, the proposal now has the support of three key players — the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Syria.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat says he accepts the initiative “completely.” He told The New York Times that the initiative is “a very strong platform” for comprehensive peace in the Middle East, while P.A. Cabinet member Saeb Erekat called it “the most significant and strategic idea that came from the Arab world since the convening of the” 1991 Madrid peace conference.

If the Arab League summit endorses the Saudi proposal, Arafat will receive Arab and Islamic backing for the Palestinians’ conditions to end the conflict — complete Israeli withdrawal — as well as a road map to realize them.

One wild card, however, may be Arafat’s ability to make it to Beirut. Saudi Arabia has said it will not present a formal plan if Israel does not allow Arafat to attend the Arab League summit.

Israel has kept Arafat confined to the West Bank city of Ramallah until he cracks down on terrorism, and has not said what it will do about the summit.

Egypt wants the United States to be more active in mediating between Israel and the Palestinians, and sees the Saudi proposal as an incentive for fresh negotiations.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Monday that Sharon had asked him to organize a secret meeting with Abdullah to discuss the Saudi initiative, but Abdullah rejected the idea out of hand, Mubarak said.

Mubarak, who was in Washington this week, presented his own proposal to host Sharon, Arafat and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to a summit in Egypt.

Both Mubarak and Abdullah are motivated by fear that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might spill over to their own countries and destabilize their regimes.

Egypt has enjoyed relative quiet in recent years after a harsh crackdown on its own radical Islamic groups, but Saudi Arabia is plagued by strong radical groups that, some analysts argue, could lead to an Islamic coup against the kingdom.

Abdullah also may be eager to improve Saudi Arabia’s image in the West. This comes after 15 of the 19 terrorists in the Sept. 11 attacks were found to be Saudis, and the American press blasted Saudi Arabia for its half-hearted support of the U.S. war on terror.

Columnists throughout the Arab world have written favorably about the initiative — the obsequious Saudi press described it as a stroke of genius — pointing at the chance it gives to depict Israel as obstructionist and the Arabs as peace-seekers.

One important piece of the equation fell into place this week when Syria, which lost the Golan Heights to Israel in the 1967 war, reportedly gave its backing to the initiative.

After sitting on the fence for several weeks, Syrian President Bashar Assad voiced his approval for the initiative Tuesday on a visit to Saudi Arabia. A statement from the official Syrian news agency after the meeting said the Saudi and Syrian “viewpoints were identical” — including on the need for full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and even the Shabaa Farms area of southern Lebanon, and implementation of the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees.

If Syria is on board then its client state, Lebanon, surely will be as well.

The countries that may present the most difficulty at the Beirut summit are Iraq and Libya.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein this week blasted the Saudi plan, while Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi — despite his recent attempts to moderate his image — threatened to quit the Arab League over it.

Saddam said this week that Arabs should not offer plans on behalf of the Palestinian people.

“Not one of us, not even Saddam Hussein, has the right to act on behalf of Palestine and its people,” Saddam said.

Most open to relations with Israel, it is believed, would be Morocco, Tunisia, Oman and Qatar, which forged varying levels of diplomatic ties with Israel in the 1990s, before severing them during the intifada.

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