(photo credit: AP)
On Sunday, at a joint press conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a proposal that should be taken seriously.
"I invite for a meeting all the heads of Arab states - including, of course, the king of Saudi Arabia, who I see as a very important leader - to hold talks with us," Olmert said. "I do not intend to dictate to them what they should say, but I am certain they understand that we also will have something to say." This idea does not come out of thin air. In past weeks, there has been considerable speculation over the prospects of a "4-plus-4-plus-2 meeting," which is diplomatic lingo for the Quartet (US, UN, EU, and Russia), the "Arab quartet" (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and UAE), and Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Such a meeting would seem to be a natural outgrowth of the Arab summit, which reissued the Arab League's 2002 Beirut initaitve. If the Arab states want to jump-start a peace process with Israel, why not begin with a meeting of the nations that say they want peace? Though he did not explicitly say so, Olmert's proposal can be construed as endorsement of a 4-plus-4-plus-2 meeting. If so, this would likely entail an Israeli concession of sorts, since it would mean Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh might also attend such a summit.
What is not clear is why the Saudi King Abdallah would refuse such a meeting. After all Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Olmert have announced that they will meet every two weeks. Why should Saudi Arabia be boycotting Israel to a greater degree than Abbas? In the past, the Arabs have pressed hard for an international conference, while Israel has demurred out of concern that such a meeting would pressure Israel into making unacceptable concessions. Olmert's proposal, then, is either a massive miscalculation or an indication that the shoe is now on the other foot.
The truth is, the danger of an international conference that could force unacceptable Israeli concessions must not be dismissed. But we are far from such a constellation at this moment.
At this time, there would seem to be little harm, and some potential for good, in holding an international meeting. This might recall the 1991 Madrid conference, which even included Syria. Though the process that started at Madrid ultimately fizzled, the series of discussions it produced on regional issues were useful and should be revived.
The real impediment to such a process is an evident Saudi decision not to go beyond the absolute minimum gesture toward peace with Israel. The Saudis could have attempted to reissue their original plan, before negative elements were introduced by Syria at the 2002 Beirut summit. They could have endorsed a 4-plus-4-plus-2 meeting. They could have taken some baby steps toward normalization with Israel. They did none of these things.
From this we may conclude that the Saudis are not seriously interested in achieving peace, as opposed to looking like they want peace. It can also be surmised that the Saudis are, at best, unsure about whether the regional winds are blowing in favor of Iran or the US, and are, as usual, hedging their bets.
The upshot is that so long as it is unclear whether the US will beat a hasty retreat from Iraq or whether Iran will succeed in its race to nuclearize, the Arab states will not materially soften their stance toward Israel. This should be kept in mind by those who think these three arenas can be separated, or see the pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace as the primary means of isolating Iran.
In reality, the causational train is more likely to move in the other direction, with the ebbing of the Iranian regime's fortunes improving the prospects for regional peace. As a consequence, Olmert's proposal will have better prospects of acceptance if progress is made toward victory in Iraq and isolating Iran.