The Impact of Abdullah’s Initiative

James Zogby’s Column

News that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah is contemplating a major initiative to break the impasse in Middle East peace making efforts is a most welcome development.  While the Crown Prince has indicated that he has some reservations about moving forward with his effort, given the intransigence of the Sharon government, I would encourage him to do so for several reasons.

If the Crown Prince were to give his intended speech and if this were to be followed by a sustained international effort to sell this initiative, it could have a dramatic, even revolutionary, impact on several key audiences: Arab, Palestinian, U.S., European and Israeli.

First, it is important to examine the context.  The current Middle East situation is desperately in need of leadership.  The tragic situation in Palestine has gone from bad to worse.  Israel has tightened its grip on the Palestinians, crushing lives and hope.  The intensified violence has only served to fuel the appetite for more violence.  Israel’s massive brutality and the Palestinian response threaten to transform Palestine into a Chechnya-like tragedy.

With the U.S. aggressively pressing its war on terror and seeking new empires to conquer, there is legitimate concern among many in the Arab World that they are in danger of losing control and the ability to shape their own future.

Political attitudes in the U.S. and Israel, fueled by anti-Arab rhetoric, have hardened, weakening the position of those who seek a just and comprehensive peace and a meaningful relationship with the Arab World.

In the face of all of this, there are some stirrings of long-latent peace forces.  The European Union and several European ministers have spoken out, calling for a new approach to Middle East peacemaking.  In Israel, groups of reservists have revolted against military duty, an organization of military experts has called for a unilateral withdrawal from large parts of the occupied lands, and Peace Now recently organized its largest peace demonstration in years.

Even in the U.S., there are rumblings of change as major religious organizations have come forward to demand a more aggressive and balanced U.S. peacemaking role, and pro-Palestinian activists have gathered in several cities to map strategies to work for Palestinian rights.

What is needed is major initiative to provide impetus to all of these efforts.  The Crown Prince’s proposal, if elaborated into a comprehensive approach to peace, can provide that impetus.

Here’s what I believe this plan should include and what I believe this effort could accomplish.

The essence and genius of the Crown Prince’s initiative, as I understand it, is that it defines the end of the process and holds out a vision of peace, prosperity and security for all peoples of the Middle East.  What it should also do is define, in concrete steps, the path that will be taken to get to that end.

In many ways, the Crown Prince’s initiative builds on the Fahd Peace Proposal and resolutions of previous Arab summits.  Total withdrawal for total peace represents full implementation of U.N. Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.  What is needed to move this important principle forward is a plan and a timetable that addresses critical issues that have so far impeded peacemaking efforts.

Israel must be given clear choices, not options.  Past open-ended efforts have failed.  Israel has pocketed confidence-building gestures (ending the secondary boycott, opening trade offices, participation in regional economic summits) and continued to build settlements while failing to implement its agreements with the Palestinians.  What a new Arab initiative should do is provide Israel with a comprehensive picture of post-peace economic, political and security relationships-but be clear: if Israel wants this normalization and trade, it must agree to specific terms of withdrawal and ceding control of land and resources and borders to a fully independent Palestinian state.

The Crown Prince’s initiative, endorsed by an Arab summit, would make a powerful statement.  First and foremost, it would provide Arab leadership and direction at a time when the Arab World needs both.  Instead of waiting for the U.S. or Europe, the Arab nation, itself, would be defining its agenda and its terms for peace.

It would also provide a much needed boost to the beleaguered Palestinians and their leadership.  It would give them hope and a sense of much needed solidarity at this critical hour in their nation’s history.

Such an Arab initiative would also have a powerful impact in Europe, emboldening the E.U. to take a more decisive stand in the search for peace.  There would also be a very positive impact in the U.S.  By defining the terms of peace and laying out a realistic path to get there, Arabs would take a weapon away from the hands of anti-Arab propagandists.  Because such an Arab initiative can be presented as an acceptance and an elaboration of Secretary of State Powell and President Bush’s vision, it would help redefine, in U.S. public opinion, the pro-peace and anti-peace camps.

The impact of such an initiative in Israel should not be underestimated.  It would spur the already developing debate that is brewing within Israeli society and weaken the hold that hard-liners like Sharon and Netanyahu currently have over a majority of public opinion.  What is needed, if there is to be peace, is to break up the coalition government in Israel, create a move toward new elections and bring into office a government that will seek to end the occupation and brutalization of the Palestinians.  While there are no guarantees that any Arab initiative would produce these results-such an effort represents the best possibility of moving this process forward.

What would be important is that such an initiative not be dropped after being announced at the summit.  It should be preceded by more trial balloons like the one launched in the New York Times by the Crown Prince.  It should also be followed by a sustained political campaign effort to sell it, in the Arab World, in Europe and in the U.S.  The enemies of peace, will, no doubt, attempt to deflate and discredit this effort.  But they can be defeated and public opinion in the West can be won.  It will not be easy to win this fight.  The struggle for peace has never been an easy one, but it is well worth waging.

It would be remarkable accomplishment if, when the hope for peace was dimmest and when Arab morale was at its lowest, Arab leadership were to come forward, take destiny into its own hands and make real change possible.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.