Isn’t the Saudi initiative good enough?

With the peace process now badly stalled, can the Arab League proposal based on the Saudi initiative for normal relations between the Arab world and Israel help revive it?

The Saudi initiative first saw the light of day five weeks before last year’s Beirut Arab League summit, in the unlikely context of a New York Times interview with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah. His proposal has since been on life support and the crown prince himself has rarely cited it.

The initiative’s central concept was establishment of normal relations in return for Israel’s full withdrawal to the lines of June 4, 1967. While it did not present a detailed blueprint for how to achieve peace, it did flatly assert the possibility for peace between Arabs and Israelis. This enhanced its attraction to the United States.

When the crown prince’s thoughts initially appeared in the press, his omission in so many words of the right of return for Palestinian refugees was welcome. The ritual assertion from Arab leaders of the refugees’ right to go home has long been the quickest way to kill the interest of Israelis in any new proposal, since they perceive it as a coded call for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state.

However, the expansion of Abdullah’s vision in the Arab League resolution did cite the 1948 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, which for years Arabs have interpreted as assuring them their right of return. Syrian sources have claimed that they introduced this reference to make the Saudi initiative acceptable to other Arabs.

American officials, nevertheless, correctly understood the initiative to be part and parcel of the crown prince’s program aimed at reforming the kingdom’s domestic and foreign policies. President Bush, after quickly authorizing a US vote applauding the crown prince’s contribution in Security Council Resolution 1397, praised the League’s subsequent resolution as "promising" and "hopeful because it acknowledges Israel’s right to exist."

So why didn’t the initiative give a much-needed boost to the peace process last year and help forestall another year of bloodshed? One reason was its reception by Israeli officials, whose comments ranged from the skeptical to the sarcastic. While Prime Minister Ariel Sharon initially said he wanted more details about the Saudi proposal, several of his colleagues dismissed it as not serious and facetiously suggested shuttle diplomacy between Riyadh and Tel Aviv. Others dismissed it as a cynical effort to polish the Saudi image so badly tarnished in the wake of 9/11. (It was hard to find an American talk show which had not debated the theme "Saudi Arabia: Friend or Enemy?") Those derisory comments drowned out then Foreign Minister Shimon Peres’ careful words of praise for the initiative.

The Israelis chose to overlook the fact that Abdullah never saw himself as negotiating with Israel but as one interested in helping reshape Arab world attitudes. Commenting on the initiative, a Saudi spokesman had helpfully added that the kingdom was "not in the real estate business", i.e. that Riyadh did not rule out that Palestinian-Israeli negotiations might modify the June 4, 1967 line.

But Sharon could not welcome the Saudi initiative. This would have meant endorsing its fundamental demand for Israeli withdrawal to the June 1967 lines, as opposed to his vision of a much smaller Palestinian state.

The timing of the Arab League vote was also unlucky. It preceded by a day the terrorist bombing of a Passover celebration in Netanya, which killed 30 Israelis and provoked a major Israeli military response. The ferocity of Israel’s retaliation persuaded many Arabs that further military action would remain Israel’s only answer to the initiative.

Did the Saudis expect too much of the Bush administration? Certainly they had high expectations when Bush was first elected that he would be as aggressive in the search for peace as his father had been in organizing the 1991 Madrid Arab-Israel summit. Crown Prince Abdullah has made clear his expectation that the US can and must persuade Israelis to stop violence and return to the negotiating table. Bush’s efforts in dispatching the Tenet and Mitchell missions had not impressed Riyadh as showing sufficient presidential involvement in peacemaking.

To revive this dormant initiative will require more than good personal relations between Saudi and American leaders. This year’s summits at Sharm al Sheikh and Aqaba aroused Saudi hopes for a more vigorous approach by Bush, but they have not been followed up. The respect which Bush reportedly has for Crown Prince Abdullah as a warrior against terrorism is helpful; but it is not by itself sufficient to promote restarting the peace process.

Hopefully, the Saudi initiative will remain the anchor for future Arab peace process diplomacy. Its contrast with the 1967 Arab summit resolution at Khartoum–rejecting negotiation, recognition and peace with Israel–could not be sharper. That no Arab leader has withdrawn the support he gave the initiative at the Beirut summit is significant. But the Saudi initiative is not currently the basic issue in the peace process.

A strong revival of the peace process will be improbable as long as the current Israeli and Palestinian leaderships remain in place, and impossible until after next year’s American presidential election.