saudi king abdullah.
(photo credit: AP [file])
In 1949, the then foreign minister of the newly born State of Israel, Moshe Sharett, sent Gideon Rafael (in later years Israel's ambassador to the UN) on a special mission to Vienna.
In those days, the capital of Austria was divided into separate districts under the control of the four occupying powers, and Rafael found himself explaining to the American governor: "We came here to ask for the bones of Theodor Herzl for burial in Israel."
"Take them," answered the governor promptly.
But our diligent diplomat was not satisfied and insisted on explaining that "the bones belong to the visionary founder of the State of Israel, going on to expound the history and purposes of political Zionism.
"Take them," repeated the governor; but again that did not put an end to Rafael's zeal. Upon his return to the hotel Rafael decided to present an official note verbale.
When a few days went by and no answer arrived, this became a source of deep concern for our ambassador: Could it be because of French or British intervention?
Telegrams and emissaries were dispatched to European capitals. At the end of one long and nerve-wracking week, the following answer was received: "Dear Mr. Herzl, you are hereby authorized to take to Israel the bones of Gideon Rafael."
I WAS reminded of this story a few days ago, during the Madrid +15 Conference, which I had the privilege to attend. The Saudi initiative, adopted by all the Arab states at the Beirut summit of the Arab League in April 2002, still lies on our doorstep. In return for territories acquired 40 years ago, Israel has been offered recognition by all the Arab countries and full-fledged diplomatic relations with them; putting an end to the conflict and to any further claims; collective security agreements, and a pragmatic solution, backed by international cooperation, to the refugee problem.
For four years now successive Israeli governments have refused to seriously consider this plan, or even negotiate its contents. Yet the Saudi plan is alive and kicking, and even though we have gone through an intifada, acts of violence and a war in Lebanon, no Arab state has backed off.
The recent war in Lebanon, Islamic radicalization and the threat posed by Iran to all have created a realignment in our area. Today we share common interests with the moderate Arab states. Surely those who hold this view should take advantage of this opening. A meeting of top Israeli politicians with members of the Arab League to discuss the Arab initiative is timely and necessary.
Even though an agreement with our neighbors, be they Palestinians or Syrians, can be reached only through bilateral negotiations, the constructive involvement and support of key Arab states is crucial.
This year should be one of renewed peace efforts. Time is of the essence, for in the absence of a political process violence can only increase as the flow of armaments to extremists continues.
Official Israel should therefore not remain locked in a rejectionist stance. We should not turn a blind eye to Syria's overtures; after all, its sincerity can easily be tested.
For once, let us take yes for an answer.
The writer is a Labor member of Knesset.