Accept the Saudi initiative

Iran's possible support for the Saudi plan is an incentive to say yes. Now the ball's in Olmert's court.

King Abdullah Saudi 88 (photo credit: )
King Abdullah Saudi 88
(photo credit: )
Four years after it was first presented, the Arab peace initiative is finally coming to center stage. Rumors of behind the scenes meetings and negotiations on the initiative between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Saudi national security advisor Prince Bandar bin Sultan have been strengthened by reports that the Saudi prince is trying to modify the initiative so that it will be more acceptable to Israel. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni stated that Israel cannot accept the initiative in its present form because it mentions UN Resolution 194 which is the foundation of the Arab claims for the right of return of refugees from the 1948 war to their homes inside of Israel. Israel also rejects the direct reference to the June 4, 1967 lines in the initiative. Israel rightly claims that in negotiations with the Palestinians on borders, the principle of territorial exchanges has already been accepted, so why go back to the 1967 lines which ignore any of the new realities on the ground and the very tenuous nature of those lines for Israel. Despite the rumors that Bandar is trying to modify the document, it is very unlikely that the Arab world will agree to change the proposal which was already hammered out between various interests and forces within the Arab world. But the Arab League could improve on the document by marketing it better to Israel. For one, it is possible to state that the Arab peace initiative is a "framework, a basis, or a platform" for renewing the peace process rather than having it appear as a document that must be accepted in full or rejected in full. The Arab League summit which will be held in Riyadh at the end of this month could decide to send a high level representative to appear in the Knesset and in the Palestinian Legislative Council in order to present the initiative directly to the people of Israel and Palestine. That would be the kind of triggering event that would completely change the political climate surrounding the initiative since 2002. SINCE THE initiative has been widely overlooked by Israeli politicians it is certainly worthwhile to point to its primary advantages and reasons why Israel should accept it quickly before it is no longer relevant. The Arab peace initiative was accepted unanimously by all of the member states of the Arab League in March 2002. It was once again unanimously ratified at the meeting of the League of Arab States in Khartoum in May 2006. The initiative calls for the recognition of the State of Israel, full peace and normalized relations between all of the members states of the Arab League and Israel. There is huge significance to the reference to normalized relations. It should be understood that the notion of normalization of relations with Israel has been a steadfast taboo in Arab political culture since 1948. For the Arab League to call for normalized relations is no less than a political revolution. The initiative also calls for "achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194." This is the first time that an Arab document uses the word "agreed" in this context. That would mean that this issue could be negotiated between the parties. In its operative paragraph on refugees, UN Resolution 194 states: "That the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible." The resolution does not state that all refugees must be allowed to return and opens the door for those who do not wish to return to receive financial compensation instead. An agreement between Israel and the PLO that would award Palestinian refugees compensation instead of return would certainly fulfill the requirements of the Arab peace initiative and should not hinder Israeli agreement to the Initiative. In order to receive the benefits of the proposal Israeli must allow for the creation of an independent sovereign Palestinian state in borders that will be mutually acceptable to Israel and the PLO with east Jerusalem as its capital. This step is clearly understood to be within the Israeli national security interests. Israel would still need to resolve the issue of the Shaba Farms area with Lebanon and Syria, and must withdraw from the Golan Heights. Removing the northern front from the domain of possible war is also clearly an Israeli national security interest. SOLVING THESE issues provide the means for achieving peace. Now with the Arab peace initiative, the results of such moves would not only bring peace with the Palestinians, Lebanon and Syria, but with the entire Arab world. The peace camp created would extend from Marrakech all the way to Bangladesh. Only Iran would be outside of the region of peace, but it has also been reported that the Iranian president during his recent visit to Riyadh also stated his support for the Arab peace initiative. This is almost too good to be true. It is now the turn of the leaders of Israel to turn to the Arab world and to say "yes" loud and clear. The government of Israel should send a message to the Arab League summit that it accepts the Arab peace initiative, even in its current form, as a framework for the renewal of the peace process and bilateral negotiations that should commence as soon as possible. Prime Minister Olmert in announcing his acceptable of the initiative as a framework should declare his willingness to speak before the Arab League summit. The Quartet should declare its willingness to escort Olmert to Riyadh and to lend its support to immediately organize a regional peace conference for the re-launching of all the bilateral and multilateral tracks aimed at reaching full agreements within one year on all fronts. For the first time in the history of the Middle East, the possibility for genuine comprehensive peace is much more real than fantasy. The opportunity is placed at our doorstep. If we miss it, we will have no one to blame for the next war than ourselves. The writer is the Co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.