The Saudi Initiative: What's in It for Us? What Isn?t?

In a sense, the so-called “Saudi Initiative” has never really left us: It was, after all, given pride of place in the preamble of the Road Map, presumably accepted by both sides (with certain reservations) as the governing document for much that was done in recent years in pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. The relevant paragraph reads as follows:

The settlement will resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and end the occupation that began in 1967, based on the foundations of the Madrid Conference, the principle of land for peace, UNSCRs 242, 338 and 1397, agreements previously reached by the parties, and the initiative of Saudi Crown Prince Abdulla—endorsed by the Beirut Arab League Summit—calling for acceptance of Israel as a neighbor living in peace and security, in the context of a comprehensive settlement. This initiative is a vital element of international efforts to promote a comprehensive peace on all tracks, including the Syrian-Israeli and Lebanese-Israeli tracks. (Italics added.)

Thus was the 2002 initiative—as well as its problematic modification by the Beirut Summit—put on level with other foundational texts, from 242 onward. Still, it disappeared from sight, in a sense, as the ultimate goals of the Road Map were increasingly obscured from sight by the failure to reach even Stage One of the practical design it was supposed to offer: the cessation of terror and other confidence-building measures that would enable Israel and the Palestinians to move to Stage Two; the creation of a Palestinian state with provisional borders (which President Mahmoud Abbas was actually determined to prevent, despite his formal adherence to the Road Map); let alone Stage Three, the Permanent Status Agreement.
Why, then, did Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, at the AIPAC conference, choose to speak now of “positive elements” in the Saudi initiative (as distinct from the Arab Summit version)—and why was this greeted with a buzz of interest, as if there were something new and revolutionary implied by this carefully crafted language? The reason lies not with the actual content of the initiative, which, as detailed below, has positives and negatives from an Israeli point of view, but rather with the dramatic change of circumstances. In 2002, Saudi Arabia offered this plan as a solution to an escalating and bloody confrontation on the ground: To many Israelis, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, this seemed to be a first step on a slippery slope, or in Sharon’s phrase, “los corrales,” or pens leading us like cattle (he knew about cattle) to the slaughter. With the Passover Massacre in Netanya in March 2002 and the subsequent “Operation Defensive Shield,” the prospects of anyone in Israel taking this Arab position seriously simply evaporated.

This time the premises are distinctly different. There are two reasons for the sudden surge in Saudi activism in recent months.

  • To begin with, the Saudis are truly frightened—not by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which, contrary to the accepted wisdom (recently repeated before the two Houses of Congress by King Abdullah II of Jordan), is, in fact, at a manageable level, but by the ascendance of Iran. Confronting Tehran, or rather, being complicit with the effort to get the international community to do so, requires them to have some form of diplomatic cover, and Israel fully understands the need to provide it.
  • Add to this their newly revived clout—as they ride huge oil incomes, given the present tide in prices, and their unique role as a “swing producer” becomes all the more important, due to the possible need to take Iran out of the market and face political disruptions from Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. As they line up behind a firm anti-Iranian position (probably made even firmer following their bid to tell the president of Iran to his face what they think of him), it is clearly a wise thing for Israel to sound respectful, on the eve of the Arab Summit in Riyadh on March 28.

What, then, are the “positive elements” praised by Olmert? To begin with, there is the notion—already enshrined in the Road Map text—that a breakthrough would indeed lead to Israel’s acceptance by an Arab world which in the past boycotted the peacemakers. There is also—as even the leader of the opposition, Binyamin Netanyahu, pointed out this week—the benefit of tackling the permanent status issues in advance, so that we do not find ourselves dragged into a salami-slicing process; in other words, the Saudi Initiative does offer, up front, the one thing Yasir Arafat did his best to avoid: the finality of the conflict.

The negatives are equally clear and can only be surmounted if (a very big if) the ultimate version that emerges from the Arab cauldron leaves a broad scope for compromise. Any Israeli negotiator coming to the table would be bound to resist the existing language (certainly in the Beirut version, which left no room for maneuver) on three key issues:

  • The notion of the deal depending upon a “comprehensive peace on all tracks”—i.e., the demands of Syria being met at the very time when many in the international community (and in the region!) are reluctant to award Bashar Assad such gains; particularly when he is still under the shadow of potential indictment for the murder of the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, and for the political rape of that country as a whole.
  • The strict Arab interpretation of UNSCR 242 and the demand that Israel go back to the 1967 lines, even in Jerusalem. There are Israelis, such as Housing and Construction Minister Meir Sheetrit (who said this to the AJC Executive Committee on Tuesday) who believe this is an opening position, and a culturally sensitive Israeli negotiator would be able to explain to his Arab interlocutor that it is not realistic to concede the Old City or to uproot some half a million Israelis. Others are less sanguine about the prospects of Arab flexibility, particularly when the familiar “group dynamics” grip the Arab League.
  • Finally, and perhaps decisively, there is the question of the so-called “Right of Return.” True, the initiative, even in its Beirut version, speaks of a “just and agreed” solution, but it sets as the terms of reference for such an agreement the Arab interpretation of UNGAR 194 of December 1948. To most Israelis, this is a nonstarter, not only because of the practical aspects—retaining Israel’s Jewish identity—but also because they viscerally reject the Arab “narrative” of Jewish blame, which ignores the role of the Palestinian leadership, under a Nazi collaborator, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, in launching what would have been a war of extermination (had the Arabs won).

Thus, the prospects of an actual breakthrough in talks with the Arab League, outlining an acceptable outcome of Stage Three and thus setting the framework for the actual Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, are quite dim. The League’s secretary-general, Amru Musa, whose years as foreign minister of Egypt left a painful mark on the bilateral relationship, has already stated that the Arab Initiative is, in fact, nonnegotiable. And yet, it does serve more than one purpose for Israeli leaders to be perceived, in Washington and elsewhere, not as reflexive naysayers, but as sensitive participants in the effort to forge a new political reality in the Middle East.

Copyright 2014/2015 AJC