About the deadlock and the Saudi plan

Should Crown Prince Abdullah Ben Abdelaziz accept an invitation to visit Israel in order to explain his plan? Should he accept to receive the Israeli President Moshe Katsav in Riyadh? Maybe it is too soon to contemplate such perspectives. For in the present situation, it is true that the Saudi plan, though motivated by the good will of the prince, has little chance to prevailing over the chaos, if it is not supported by the majority of the Arab states- P.A. included é, the Bush administration and, most of all, accepted by the Israeli government.

There is a precedent in the modern history of the region: The improvised visit to the Knesset by the former Egyptian president Anwar Sadate, which has been accomplished without the backing of the Arab states. True the result was interesting for Israel, but what about the failure in the Arab world? What about breaking up the relations between Cairo and the rest of the Arab capitals, during so many years? This is not to mean that the majority of the Arab states are not yet ready for a full peace with Israel. Their agreement about the Oslo process shows clearly where they stand up. But the failure was also as big as the hope.

Two Israeli leaders, elected, played definitely a disastrous role discrediting the peace process: B. Netanyahu, and A. Sharon. Both are right wing, and even extremists, it seems. But their leftist colleagues who took over or preceded them did not achieve much better record either.

The three year-tenure of the Netanyahu government, which according to the timetable should have seen the climax of the implementation of the Interim Agreement and of negotiations on Permanent status, served only to reduce the hope for peace. ” Netanyahu sabotaged the peace process relentlessly, and made every effort to deligitimize the Palestinian partner”, says Ron Pundak in a document analyzing the problems met by Oslo process since September 1993. This is also the official policy of the current government. Netanyahu did not want the Wye Agreement the Americans imposed on him. That is why Israel did not implement the three stages of the second redeployment, according to the interim agreement. It did not leave the territories, which were supposed to be transferred to the Palestinians. When the government of Barak took office in the spring of 1999, the erosion of hope was obvious to all the observers. The Palestinians were humiliated. ” The so-called ‘fruits of peace’ were hardly encouraging “, says R. Pundak [1]. Here is his description of the situation:

“Closures which were interpreted as collective punishment; restrictions on movement which affected almost all Palestinians; a permit-issuing system which mainly hurt decent people already cleared by Israeli security; a dramatic decrease in employment opportunities in Israel, leading to increased unemployment and the creation of new pockets of poverty; water shortages during the summer months as opposed to the abundance of water supply in the Israeli settlements; the destruction of Palestinian homes while new houses were built in the settlements; the non-release of prisoners tried for activities committed before Oslo; Israeli restrictions on building outside Areas A and B; and the establishment of Bantustan-like areas, controlled according to the whim of Israeli military rule and on occasion dictated by its symbiotic relationship with the settlers’ movementéetc.”

Briefly, Ehud Barak likely did more than Netanyahu for convincing the Arabs that they were actually wasting their time with him. His skillful manipulation of the negotiations made many people in America and Europe believe that he really offered Arafat an honest deal, which the latter stubbornly rejected out of hand. There was such a misinformation campaign about this subject that it became almost impossible to distinguish the true from the false.

On her last visit to Israel, Mrs. Clinton thought it wise to alleviate the Israeli guilt towards the Palestinians in throwing the whole responsibility of the present impasse on Arafat’s shoulders. This is the typical position of many American officials since the failure of Camp David 2. Mr. Clinton himself had described Arafat as an aging leader who relishes his own sense of victim hood and seems incapable of making a final peace deal. Commenting the failure of the negotiations he led, the former president said that by turning down the best peace deal he was ever going to get é the one proffered by Ehud Barak- the Palestinian leader was only guaranteeing the election of the hawkish Ariel Sharon! [2]

However, not all the American observers have been fooled by Barak’s “breathtaking generosity” at Camp David. Deborah Sontag, Kathleen Christison, Robert Malley, and so many others é Israelis included, like Ron Pundak- tried to give more an honest and objective version of what happened. But the simplistic narrative that took hold in Israel and, to some extent in the USA, continued: ” Mr. Barak offered Mr. Arafat the moon at Camp David! Arafat turned it down, then pushed the button and chose the path of violence”, it says! This is still the same refrain repeated endlessly by the successors of Barak, with however something particular to Sharon: he would never give Arafat as much as Barak did!

Thus goes the legend. It acted even as the main justification for the Israeli brutality. Yet, some Israelis recognize the mistakes of their government. ” The Palestinians have indeed compromised”, wrote Akiva Eldar. ” In the Oslo accords, the Palestinians recognized Israeli sovereignty over 78 percent of historic Palestine (23 percent more than Israel was granted pursuant to the 1947 UN partition plan) on the assumption that the Palestinians would be able to exercise sovereignty over the remaining 22 percent. The overwhelming majority of Palestinians accepted this compromise, but this extremely generous compromise was ignored at Camp David and the Palestinians were asked to ‘compromise the compromise’ and make further concessions in favor of Israel.” And the same writer concludes: ” Though the Palestinians can continue to make compromises, no people can be expected to compromise fundamental rights or the viability of their state”. [3]

The viability of the future Palestinian state is precisely the point. Shlomo Ben Ami, who was at the time Israel’s foreign minister declared to Deborah Sontag: ” Mr. Arafat never turned down 97 percent of the West Bank at Taba, as many Israelis hold. The negotiations were suspended by Israel because elections were imminent and the pressure of Israeli public opinion against the talks could not be resisted”[4]. For the Palestinians, the Israeli proposal was ” less than a Bantustan”, Sontag reports in the same story. ” They have to control the Jordan Valley, with five early warning stations there”, says Arafat. ” They have to control the air above, the water aquifers below, the sea and the borders. They have to divide the West Bank in three cantons. They keep 10 percent of it for settlements and roads and their forces. No sovereignty over Haram al Sharif. And refugees, we didn’t have a serious discussion about”.

Then Sharon was elected, and with him appeared almost everywhere in the Israeli press the threats that war is imminent. ” Arafat seems intent on dragging the region into war, as his rejection of former prime minister Ehud Barak’s proposals at Camp David made all too clear”, wrote Michael Freund in Jerusalem Post [5]. To the Palestinians, these hardly hidden threats sounded like a dark blackmail: either you accept OUR proposals, or WE will demolish you! ” The IDF is preparing to sweep into Judea, Samaria, and Gaza and dismantle the Palestinian Authority”, added Freund in the same article.

Another story published by Haaretz in the same period says: ” For three months there have been rumors of a new version of Big Pines (the 1982 Lebanon invasion plan), written especially for the territories” [6]. Then the article points out to another story published in May by the Foreign Report section of Janes: ” the report even mentioned a casualty estimate- 1,000 Palestinians and 100 Israelis. The last paragraph was the most interesting. It said that the U.S., Britain, and France have not only been informed of the plan’s details but have also given Sharon a green light to strike at Arafat é Only the French, said the report, were opposed to any escalation.”

Today, we can at last bring some light to the zones left in the shade and give some answers to the questions of the first period of Sharon’s current mandate. What remains of the Peace Process? What remains of the self-rule infrastructure? What remains of the PA itself after confining Arafat to his headquarters in Ramallah and restricting his movement? How many times the Israeli planes and tanks broke into the PA areas? Where are they standing right now? How many people died? These questions contain their answers, which we assume everybody knows.

On the political side it is still the deadlock. The European have a plan for peace. The Americans are dealing daily with these problems. But on the field, it is the tragedy. Nobody seems able to control anything. It is not only Arafat who is powerless, it is also the Israeli state, or better: the Israeli society as a whole. For if they can always launch their planes and tanks against the Palestinians, they deeply know that Sharon has actually failed to guarantee the security he promised them. Furthermore, if all what Sharon could bring to the Israelis is the promise of avenging their dead, would that really be a policy they can rely on or merely a tragic and desperate misconception of politics?

Is this then the time for shifting completely from side to side, to choose reason instead of insanity and dialogue instead of threats and insults, and peace instead of war? Maybe it is too soon to say. But the Saudi plan seems to offer an opportunity for accomplishing such a change, since it suggests involving the whole Arab world in the process.

Yet, the Saudi plan sounds like a global package: take it or leave it. The details of the offer would eventually be negotiated directly between Palestinians and Israelis, once the plan is adopted by the upcoming Arab summit in Beirut and backed by the Bush administration, the European Union, and accepted by Israel. Whether it is to save the Palestinians or the Israelis or to be more profitable or less to that party or to the other, does it really matter after all that bloodshed? The plan is balanced since it reposes mainly on the acknowledged UN resolutions. And the Prince Abdullah is a staunch Arab nationalist. Nobody doubts his integrity in the Arab world. His reputation is the best assurance that he means what he said. The Saudi Kingdom is moreover able to make of the adoption of the plan the main issue on the agenda of the Arab summit. Thus, it is now up to the Americans and the Israelis to decide. If they are still pretending that Barak offered something relevant in Camp David, here is a global deal that outruns any generous offer for peace. If they reject it, what else may be done to reach peace in our days?