During Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s last visit to Israel, she devoted special attention to the revival of the 2002 Saudi-inspired Arab peace initiative. As a result, expectations had been elevated that the Riyadh Arab summit might provide a mechanism for restarting the Arab-Israeli peace process.
Certainly, Israeli diplomats had hoped that a modified peace plan might be adopted by the Arab heads of state that would leave out any references to the return of millions Palestinian refugees to Israel proper- a non-starter across the Israeli political spectrum. When that seemed unlikely, there was increasing speculation that while the formal initiative would remain unchanged, then at least some other statements would be made separately that would try to reach out to Israeli public opinion and build mutual confidence.
But the Arab peace initiative got off to a bad start when Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal warned Israel that its rejection of the plan would leave its fate in the hands of the "lords of war." Rather than obtaining some flexibility, Israel was handed an ultimatum.
Moreover, if Israel thought Rice’s optimistic diplomacy was based on some well-established U.S.-Saudi coordination, it came as a total surprise when Jim Hoagland disclosed in the Washington Post that Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah canceled a mid-April gala dinner with President George W. Bush at the White House. During the Riyadh summit meeting itself, Abdullah launched into strong anti-American rhetoric as he addressed the Arab heads of state, branding the U.S. presence in Iraq as "an illegitimate foreign occupation."
Saudi Arabia appeared to be signaling a clear shift in its policy towards Washington. Hoagland heard from administration sources that Riyadh had decided for now to seek common ground with Iran, Hamas, and Hizbullah. .
If Saudi Arabia has decided to distance itself from the U.S. at this time, then how could Washington expect that now the time was ripe for a Saudi-Israeli rapprochement under an American umbrella? Time Magazine‘s Scott MacLeod concluded that the Saudis had left Rice "stranded."
The real problems with the Saudi peace initiative go well beyond the much-discussed issue of the "right of return." The Saudi plan demands "full withdrawal" from "all the territories" Israel captured 40 years ago in the 1967 Six-Day War, thus negating the territorial flexibility contained in UN Security Council Resolution 242 that intentionally did not use this limiting language. This was a great diplomatic victory for President Lyndon Johnson at the UN against the efforts of the Soviet Union to force Israel back to the 1967 lines from which it was attacked.
Adopting the Saudi plan as presented would also clearly lead to the re-division of Jerusalem, exposing its great holy sites to the same radical Islamic assaults that have been all too evident in the last decade from Afghanistan to Iraq. In 1967, Resolution 242 did not even mention Jerusalem and according the U.S. ambassador to the UN at the time, Arthur Goldberg, its absence in the resolution was intentional.
The Saudi Plan would also strip Israel of the "defensible borders" that President Bush said was Israel’s right in his April 2004 letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The assurances contained in the Bush letter are critical for Israel and had constituted the main quid pro quo that Israel had gained for the Gaza disengagement. Yet now with all the praise for the Saudi plan, the letter seems to have been forgotten. Indeed, there was a glaring contradiction between the Bush administration’s new embrace of the Saudi initiative and the written assurances it gave Sharon only three years ago.
It should be stated that in the past, Israel did not have to pay the price of rhetorically accepting full withdrawal in order to gain a diplomatic dialogue with the Arab world. The basis of the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference was UN Security Council Resolution 242, which appeared in the Madrid invitation. The Madrid conference also produced a multilateral track that led to direct diplomatic contacts between Israel and the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. If 242 was sufficient in 1991, why is it not good enough for 2007?
Even the peace that the Saudi initiative presents in exchange for full withdrawal is not what it might seem to be to the uninitiated. It promises "normal relations" with Israel, a Syrian diplomatic term from the 1990s which was intended to be a watered-down alternative to the European-style peace implied by the term "normalization" (tatbiyan in Arabic).
Today, as in 2002, peace with Israel is not likely to be at the top of the Saudi agenda. The paramount problem of Saudi Arabia is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite King Abdullah’s strong ideological identification with the Palestinian cause in the past. What is shaping Saudi Arabia’s new diplomatic activism is the rapidly expanding Iranian threat and the weakness of the Western response.
When Saudi Arabia is facing its own Sunni Islamist threat from within and a Shiite threat from without, it is not surprising that the last thing it needs are planeloads of Israeli negotiators and journalists in Riyadh. And with Hamas in power among the Palestinians and building its military strength daily in Gaza, Israel does not need to experiment with new withdrawals. Under such circumstances, quiet contacts between Israel and its neighbors make far more sense than grandiose public diplomacy.
What would those quiet contacts involve? First, finding ways of building on those Palestinians who are ready to distance themselves from Iran. And if no Palestinian leadership emerges, encouraging Egypt and Jordan to take a more constructive role in eliminating the present chaos by helping counter the growth of terrorist armies that are in the territories.
Right now, however, Saudi Arabia’s priority is re-establishing a minimal Arab consensus for dealing with the Iranian challenge in the future. The Saudis want to draw Hamas into that consensus — and not build up anyone who is more moderate to confront Hamas and then set the stage for renewed peace negotiations. As long as dealing with Iran is far more important for Saudi Arabia than Arab-Israeli peacemaking, Washington should not be surprised by the outcome of Arab summit conferences.