The flurry of activity surrounding the reintroduction of the Saudi initiative at the Arab League Summit in Riyadh in late March is entirely different from the atmosphere when it was originally adopted by the Arab states during their Beirut meeting five years ago. The convergence of ominous developments in the Middle East in the wake of the Iraq war, especially the looming regional conflict between Shiites and Sunnis along with Iran’s ambition to become, armed with nuclear weapons, the region’s main power has precipitated rapid and extraordinary realignments. Israel is now seen not only as the lesser evil but as a possible strategic partner in deterring Iran. In addition, because Syria is essential to any unification of the various Sunni groups, ending the Arab-Israeli conflict has assumed new urgency.
It is in the context of these developments, that the Saudi initiative has become so critical. The initiative calls on Israel to agree to full withdrawal from the occupied territories; to arrive at a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194; and to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as the capital. Although Olmert’s government rejects in principle the right of return and does not subscribe to full withdrawal from the territories, the government sees positive elements in the Saudi initiative, which was rejected by the Sharon government after the Arab League’s adoption in 2002. The significant new factor that makes these developments possible is the separate but joint recognition by Israel and the Arab states that the larger regional threat emanates from Iran. If the Arab states want to prevent an all-out Shiite-Sunni conflict, they know they must contain Iran’s ambitions, and this means finally ending their conflict with Israel. While the Middle East is in unprecedented turmoil, the new reality offers a genuine opportunity to dramatically advance the Arab-Israeli peace process.
Although this altered landscape strengthens the Israeli bargaining position, to make serious progress and to persuade the Israelis to accept the initiative, the Saudis must (1) add a reference to UN resolution 242, not only in the original initiative’s preamble, where it is already referenced, but also in provision 2, and (2) insist that the new Palestinian unity government accept the initiative.
First, referring to 242 in provision 2 can allay Israeli concerns over two extremely sensitive areas: territorial withdrawal and the return of refugees. First, the Security Council resolution 242 passed in November 1967 calls for “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict [the Six Days War, 1967] within secure and recognized borders.” Second, on the refugee problem, the resolution stipulates “achieving just settlement of the refugee problem.” It is critical to note here that 242, supersedes the 1948 UN General Assembly resolution 194 which, in any case, unlike 242, is not binding. Moreover, as the initiative itself notes, both the Arab states and Israel have accepted 242, and, as such, it has provided the basis for peace negotiations and agreements between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Jordan. Referencing 242 in the body of provision 2 would simply strengthen the Saudi initiative, making it consistent with the accepted basis of negotiation between Israel and the Arab states, including the 1993-1994 Oslo accords agreed to by Israel and the Palestinians. From the Israeli perspective, resolution 242 allows some room for territorial negotiation to achieve “secure borders,” perhaps through limited land swapping. Also implicit in the resolution is finding a humanitarian solution to the refugee problem through resettlement in Palestinian territories and/or compensation because even the principle of the “right of return” is a nonstarter for Israel.
Second, although Arab league resolution must be unanimous, for the revived Saudi initiative to accomplish its ends the Palestinians must accept it. The approved resolution should leave no loopholes for the Palestinians under the pretext that no Palestinian state now exists. If the new unity Palestinian government rejects the initiative the Arab states can hardly blame Israel for rejecting it. Indeed, Israel would be hard pressed not to accept the initiative once the Palestinians do. On the Palestinian side, the initiative represents another momentous opportunity, especially for Hamas, to finally face the reality of Israel under the Arab league cover, and so pave the way for earnest negotiations with the objective of reaching a two-state solution. If the Palestinians press forward sincerely, this would also allow the United States to exert greater pressure on Israel to seize the moment.
A commitment to negotiate a peace agreement based on the general principles of the Saudi initiative is, of course, a high-risk game. From the Israeli perspective, the occupied territories are vitally linked to national security, and the Jewish identity of the state is directly related to the kind of solution brought to the Palestinian refugee problem. Thus, by accepting the Saudi initiative, Israel believes it will be taking a considerable risk once it commits itself to ending the occupation. For this reason, any Israeli government, regardless of its political orientation, must be able to envision the end-game with some certainty before it can make such a commitment. It is understandable why the Saudis do not want to modify the language of their original initiative. But inserting this additional reference to 242 just might satisfy the Israelis to the point that they decide to accept the initiative.
The reintroduction of the Saudi initiative, in the wake of the ominous development in the Middle East, since the Iraq war began four years ago, offer the Israelis and Palestinians a momentous opportunity to end their century-old conflict. Israel and the Palestinians will have only themselves to blame if they miss this historic opportunity.
Alon Ben-Meir is Professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU and is the Middle East Project Director at the World Policy Institute, New York. He is a member of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.