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A Seat for the Saudis
Last uploaded : Tuesday 5th Mar 2002 at 23:53
Contributed by : Debra DeLee


With a few remarks to New York Times writer Thomas Friedman and Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Henry Siegman, the Saudis have offered their own contribution to the Middle East peace process, sparked renewed attention to the diplomatic aspects of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and earned themselves a place in the talks. The Saudi plan may well have started out as more of a PR ploy than a serious diplomatic initiative, but that’s irrelevant. It is now up to the United States to lock in the proposal, make the Saudis feel as welcome as possible, and ensure that they keep their seat at the negotiating table.

At its core, the Saudi proposal contains a basic principle: if Israel withdraws from territory captured in the 1967 War, it will receive normalization with the Arab world in return. There is nothing substantively new in suggesting a “land for peace” formula, which has been the basis for Israeli-Arab negotiations for years, including the Oslo process. Indeed, in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza in exchange for peace is also the rallying cry for the resurgent Israeli peace camp, which turned out 20,000 people for a Peace Now rally a few weeks ago.

But the Saudi proposal is significant in other ways.

First, given Saudi Arabia’s prominence in the Arab and Islamic world, a bold statement in support of peace at a time of unrelenting bloodshed—coming from this particular quarter—carries tremendous diplomatic significance. The Saudis possess financial swat because of their oil reserves and religious influence because of their role as guardians of the two holiest sites in Islam. But heretofore they have not been major players in the day-to-day struggles of the peace process, leaving it to Egypt and Jordan to do most of the heavy lifting in the Arab world. At the same time, they have always had the potential to be show-stoppers for any deal, a fact perhaps reflected in Yasir Arafat’s reluctance to accept sole responsibility for negotiating the fate of holy sites in Jerusalem during the Camp David summit. So if the Saudis now want to become productive participants in the peace process, it’s a positive development.

Second, the Saudi proposal has dramatically reminded the parties involved that they will not resolve their differences through suicide bombers, rockets, and buffer zones—that if the Israeli-Arab conflict is truly to be settled, there must be a political as well as a military dimension to the solution.

Third, the Saudi proposal provides a new political horizon for Israel. One of the major criticisms of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s reliance on only military responses to the Intifada is that he has not provided a political context within which Palestinian leaders can crack down on terrorism without being tagged as Arab policemen for the Israelis. In the absence of his willingness to espouse a credible vision of a viable, independent Palestinian state along side a secure Israel, no Palestinian leader will be able to sustain a ceasefire for very long. Now the Saudis have offered a broader political context for Israel: the promise of not just peace, but normalization, with the entire Arab world—not just a few countries—in exchange for withdrawal from occupied territories. Perhaps this diplomatic innovation can provide the pretext for Israel to reexamine its current approach to the conflict.

Given the positive momentum gathering behind the Saudi initiative, the Bush Administration has correctly embraced it as an important step forward.

But it is not enough for the White House to simply cheer on other players, because what’s missing at this point is just as important as what the Saudis have put on the table: the willingness of the White House to become more systematically engaged in moving the Israelis and Palestinians towards a ceasefire and negotiations; a current American proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement, something that could be based on the formulas raised in the negotiations at Taba, Egypt just last year; and a serious Israeli-Syrian negotiating track that could close the circle of the conflict.

More than anything else, what’s missing is the Administration’s recognition that unless it gets more actively reengaged in the peace process, the Saudi initiative—along with other diplomatic proposals that have been floated recently—will go for naught and nothing positive will fill the void.
Debra DeLee is President and CEO of Americans for Peace Now.

JewishComment acknowledges with thanks permission granted by Americans for Peace Now to reprint this article in its entirety.

For further information please contact:
Lewis Roth, Assistant Executive Director
Americans for Peace Now
Phone 00 1 (202) 728-1893
Fax 00 1 (202) 728-1895


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