Absolute Demands, Opening Bids, or ?Terms of Reference?? Understanding the Dynamics of the Debate on the Saudi Initiative

A complex diplomatic fan dance is in progress in the Middle East—not because anyone expects a breakthrough toward peace anytime soon (the political leaders on both sides are too beleaguered and weak at this time to reach an agreement, let alone implement it); but because the present period is perceived by Israelis and Arabs alike as a crucial preliminary stage in which decisive parameters can perhaps be set, in advance of any future negotiations. For the uninitiated, there is something unreal about the play of words: While Israel declares itself quite willing to “engage” with the moderate Arab states, so as to explore the potential for progress based on the Saudi initiative, the key Arab spokesmen have put forward the demand for an unambiguous “commitment” to the Arab League’s version of it (i.e., the 2002 Beirut resolution, recently re-endorsed in Riyadh).

It may all seem quite trivial (“Why can’t the Arabs and the Jews just sit down and cut a deal like good Christians….”), but it is not. In the complex craft of diplomacy, particularly in the run-up to active and purposive negotiations, some of the gravest issues have to do with the question of how to enter into the framework and how to regulate the work of the negotiators on both sides. Not just the notorious symbolic arguments about the shape of tables are relevant here (although they do matter!). At stake are far more substantive aspects, which may easily predetermine the outcome.
This is what makes the present interactions over the “Arab initiative” so intriguing. In essence, what Israel would now seek to explore—possibly in official meetings with the Saudis and other “moderate” Arabs, or through more clandestine channels—is the actual significance of the Arab position. Is it, in other words:

  • A nonnegotiable (“no bazaar, fixed price”) position, simply telling Israel what is it that it is obliged to do according to the Arab reading of “international legitimacy”—namely, go back to the 1967 lines, carve up Jerusalem, accept the return of refugees—in return for recognition by the entire Arab world. This would be, as the secretary-general of the Arab League, Amru Musa, put it, no more and no less than “recognition” of the requirements for peace (mu’atayyat al-salam).
  • An admittedly high opening bid in an open-ended game. This is the view the AJC Executive Committee heard from hopeful Israelis such as Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit (and a number of others), who believe the Arab side “knows” that none of the three demands is realistic, and sooner or later will consent to a less sweeping interpretation of UNSCR 242 of November 1967 (on the withdrawals) or UNGAR 194 of December 1948 (on the refugees), which the Israeli mainstream can live with. In most other parts of the world, such practical considerations would have been almost obvious; but in this region, there is more than a touch of naïve faith in the expectation that the Arab side would recognize that some things—such as the uprooting of half a million Jews from the West Bank and East Jerusalem—simply cannot be done.
  • A third option, and in many ways the most problematic (because it cannot be dismissed out-of-hand) is a structure that does not require Israel to commit right away to the 1967 lines or the “right of return,” but does define them, or the Arab reading of the relevant resolutions, as the “terms of reference” (ToR) for future negotiations. These do not immediately impede progress, but they do lurk patiently until a divisive issue comes up—and then they are there to govern what may or may not be on the table. Once the Arab initiative is defined as the ToR for the talks, there will be legitimate “grievances” whenever Israel resists Arab offers based on these terms.

This is not to say that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is wrong to seek such an exploratory process—simply to warn that we may very soon be in the grips of “negotiations over the negotiations.” Ariel Sharon may have believed that the ToR issue was laid to rest by the firm U.S. position as expressed in President George W. Bush’s letter to him on April 14, 2004, which ruled out the “return” of refugees to Israel and suggested that the territorial solution would not be based strictly on the 1949 armistice lines; but as often happens in this region, what was meant to be the end is merely the beginning.

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