Analysis: Forget the imminent Riyadh peace 'breakthrough'

The Saudis couldn't get Hamas to change its rhetoric, and their spin on Iran has been denied.

iran saudi 298.88 AP (photo credit: AP)
iran saudi 298.88 AP
(photo credit: AP)
The hype already surrounding the Arab League summit in Riyadh, three and a half weeks before it is scheduled to take place, is perhaps understandable, given the eagerness in diplomatic circles to see some kind of breakthrough in the peace process. From a realistic point of view however, it makes very little sense. Whatever the Saudi regime's motives for recycling its five-year-old peace initiative, it surely has few illusions that any Israeli government could accept it without significant modification. There seems little chance of that happening. Last month's Mecca summit between the leaderships of Fatah and Hamas might have produced an agreement between the warring Palestinian factions on the formation of a unity government, which has yet to be sworn in, but it failed to deliver on the main point that would have enabled such a government to reenter negotiations with Israel: the need to recognize Israel's right to exist, which is still anathema to Hamas and unconscionable for a PA government with Hamas participation. If the Saudis couldn't make Hamas change even its rhetorical position on Israel, what chance is there of the Palestinian leadership supporting the removal from the initiative of the clause calling for the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees? And with the refugees still in, the proposal is a non-starter from Israel's point of view. But even assuming the Saudis could come up with a vague formulation that would assuage the Palestinians' fears that they are being sold down the river by their Arab brothers and allow Israel to agree to negotiations where it was not being forced to agree in advance to accepting hundreds of thousands of Palestinians within its borders, there is no government today in Israel capable of responding. In conventional terms, Israel today has a stable government. It is based on a wide coalition of five moderately sized parties, all of which have a clear interest in the government's survival and no wish of early elections. Moreover, none of Kadima's partners is large enough to bring the government down single-handedly. This stability has enabled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to stay in office despite the criticisms over the conduct of the Lebanon war that have already claimed Chief of Staff Dan Halutz and despite the lengthening litany of corruption allegations against him and his associates. But more importantly, the government is maintaining a joint front on the Iranian threat. There might be very little friendship or collegial loyalty within the cabinet, but at least on this crucial issue there has been no sign of discord. Those are the poles of this administration's existence - surviving the backlash of the Lebanon war while restoring the IDF's deterrence and denying Iran a nuclear bomb. This would be a tall order for any government; for one with such a poor track record it is a Herculean task. So solving the century-old Israeli-Arab conflict as envisaged by the Saudi initiative will just have to wait. The spin put out by the Saudis on Sunday that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visiting Riyadh, had expressed support for the initiative - spin that has since been denied - was aimed at convincing Israel and the West of the linkage between the Palestinian solution and the Iranian bomb. But the only result for an Israeli government of embracing the Saudi initiative would be that government's certain and swift demise. No Zionist party has ever gone as far as the Saudis propose: the refugees' "right of return" is anathema for all except the left-wing of Meretz; neither is a total pullback to the 1967 borders including relinquishing east Jerusalem, something that any of the coalition's parties, including Labor, have ever agreed to. A government with a degree of public credibility and an uncluttered agenda might, should it so wish, be capable of initiating a gradual change of national policy. Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres tried but the Oslo process was derailed, mainly due to Yasser Arafat's machinations but also because the Israeli side wasn't ready. Ehud Barak's master plan never got off the ground. Ariel Sharon pushed through the disengagement from the Gaza Strip but even he wasn't prepared to touch the heartland. Headlines on quiet negotiations between Prince Bandar and Olmert notwithstanding, this isn't the government that will go further than its predecessors. For now Riyadh is only a side-show to the real business going on in Teheran.