A major strategic event?

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In the course of nearly 35 years since the Six-Day War, major changes in the Middle East have taken the form of strategic surprises. The October 1973 Arab attack on Israel; Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s November 1977 visit to Jerusalem; the rise of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini in 1978 and ’79; Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990–these and more were events which, for better or for worse, took the region by surprise and influenced the course of events for years to come.

Crown Prince Abdullah’s proposal for “full Arab normalization with Israel in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territories” is clearly a positive and welcome event. But is it another of these strategic turning points? To find out, it must be addressed at this early stage with questions rather than answers–questions that elucidate the possible intentions and ramifications of the initiative.

First, why Abdullah, and why now? Is Abdullah’s main purpose, as some allege, to improve the Saudi image in the US and give Saudi Arabia leverage with Washington with regard to the latter’s plans to attack Iraq? Or is the real objective indeed (in the words of Abdullah’s policy adviser, Adel Jubeir) “to send a signal to the Israeli public that peace is possible”? Is Abdullah so concerned over the ramifications for the Arab world of the current escalation between Israelis and Palestinians that he is prepared to put his prestige on the line in order to revive the process, or does he have a hidden agenda that will soon emerge?

In this connection, what will happen at the Beirut Arab League Summit on March 27? Abdullah is a tough Arab nationalist whose country is keeper of the Muslim holy places and is the economic mainstay of the confrontation states and of much of the Arab media. Will he stick with the elegant simplicity of his formula, or will it suffer the fate of its predecessor, Prince (now King) Fahd’s August 1981 offer to recognize Israel’s right to live in peace, which emerged from the Fez Arab League summit replete with a demand for the Palestinian refugees’ right of return to Israel, and even then was not approved by Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization? Can Abdullah “deliver” them this time?

Is the Arab League summit the most suitable and significant place to discuss this initiative? Obviously, Abdullah wants as many Arab countries as possible to line up behind his offer of normalization. But the other half of the equation- -broadly speaking, Israeli-Palestinian peace–is up to Israel’s Ariel Sharon, Palestinians’ Yasir Arafat and almost certainly US President George W. Bush. Yet these three key actors have demonstrated repeatedly in the course of the past year that none of them has a strategy for peace. Two of them, and possibly all three, will not even be in Beirut in late March. Incidentally, does Abdullah envisage normalization in return for Israeli- Palestinian peace only, or is the Israeli-Syrian border also included in his initiative?

Then there are the essentially Israeli considerations: will the offer of normalization persuade Israelis to give up the territories? On the one hand, most Israelis have become rather cynical about the ostensible benefits of peace and normalization. We have had peace with Egypt for over 20 years, and President Husni Mubarak won’t even set foot in Israel. We expected normalization with the Arab world back at the 1991 Madrid Conference and again after the 1993 Oslo signing, and were broadly disappointed.

On the other hand, a majority of Israelis supported Ehud Barak’s readiness to give up nearly all the territories, with compensation for annexation of settlement blocs and Jewish neighborhoods across the Green Line in Jerusalem. The death and destruction of the past 18 months have apparently not weakened–indeed, may have strengthened–that readiness, even if Israel’s current prime minister is not a candidate for serious territorial concessions. Israelis were even prepared to back Barak, and before him prime ministers Rabin, Peres and Netanyahu, in giving up more or less all of the Golan in return for peace with Syria. So if the territorial stipulation of Abdullah’s formula is even a little flexible, it may encourage Israelis to search for a leadership that will meet him halfway.

In this regard, can the attractions of Abdullah’s proffered pay-off–normalization with the Arab world–compensate for Yasir Arafat’s almost complete loss of credibility in the eyes of Israelis? Is this initiative actually meant to bypass Arafat, whom even Arab leaders no longer trust? Or, in contrast, could Abdullah’s offer constitute the missing pan-Arab support that will finally enable the Palestinian leader to acknowledge a genuine two state solution that recognizes Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state (i.e., no right of return and a recognized status on the Temple Mount)? In other words, is this the political ingredient that was lacking at Camp David?

The substantive issue is leadership: will Abdullah emerge as a great and persistent Middle East leader in an era of mediocre leadership? This is the key to transforming his initiative into a genuine strategic turning point.-

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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