Respond to Riyadh by Convening ‘Consultations’

The Strategic Interest

By Yossi Alpher

Published April 13, 2007, issue of April 13, 2007.

The smoke has cleared from last month’s Arab summit in Riyadh. The Arab peace initiative, originally ratified in 2002, has been reconfirmed without change. Saudi Arabia, newly-emergent as leader of the Arab world, refused to soften the refugee clause as Israel requested; nor did Saudi King Abdullah invite himself to Jerusalem to present his case, as many suggested he should.

The Arab world stands by its offer of comprehensive normalization and security for Israel, but only if Jerusalem first makes peace with its Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese neighbors on the basis of the 1967 lines and a solution to the refugee issue linked to United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s offer to meet the Saudis and other Arabs to discuss the modalities of peace and present his ideas — in other words, as the Arabs see it, to start negotiations by bypassing the Palestinians and Syrians at a convenient photo-op — was rejected out of hand as an attempt to place elements of normalization before peace.

It is not easy for the Arab world to reach consensus on anything. Having done so in 2002, and having now reaffirmed their peace offer, the Saudis insist that it is Israel’s turn to make a substantive gesture, that the ball is in Israel’s court. Unfortunately, in the hands of the embattled Olmert, the ball is not likely to go anywhere any time soon. But the status and composition of the Israeli government are likely to change soon, and despite its drawbacks the latest Arab gesture is too good an opportunity to miss.

Now, then, would seem to be a good time for the international community to take the initiative and set the scene for future progress by convening the relevant parties. It is hard to imagine Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia refusing such an invitation if it is defined as a consultation rather than as an attempt at initiating negotiations.

Three sets of issues should be on the agenda of such a consultative meeting. One is the need for specific Arab clarifications on important peace issues. A second is the demand for an Israeli initiative. Third, the Arab community can be encouraged to motivate and facilitate the process at relatively low political cost to its member states.

Despite the Arab insistence that Israel must now take the initiative, Jerusalem is entitled to a few explanations, particularly from the Saudis. One issue is Hamas. Riyadh argues convincingly that the Mecca agreement that led to the creation of a Palestinian unity government represents a Saudi commitment to “tame” Hamas — to modify its orientation and its positions until it accepts a two-state solution and takes its distance from Tehran and Damascus.

There is some evidence in the guidelines of the new Hamas-Fatah government that at least part of Hamas is indeed moving in this direction. But there are also contrary indications, particularly the military buildup inside Gaza, the Hamas leadership’s failure to exercise full control in that small territory and the ongoing proclivity of Hamas’ military wing to initiate acts of terrorism against Israel.

Israel needs to hear from the Saudis how Riyadh intends to proceed with Hamas and stabilize a moderate Palestinian negotiating partner. Failing this, Israel’s hesitations about committing to serious talks with the Palestinians are understandable.

An additional issue that needs clarifying by the Saudis is their attitude toward Israeli peace talks with Syria. It is not only Washington that objects to a positive Israeli response to Bashar al-Assad’s invitation to renew peace negotiations. Saudi Arabia, too, does not wish to “reward” Damascus with the legitimization of a peace process until it stops meddling in Lebanon and Iraq, stops supporting terrorism and faces up to the consequences of its involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri two years ago.

Nor would Jordan, an important neighbor of Israel’s, welcome an Israeli-Syrian peace process at this juncture in view of Syria’s support for anti-regime elements in Amman and its uncooperative stance on border and water issues. Riyadh has to explain why it insists on a comprehensive peace process as a precondition for normalization when it opposes Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

Israel does not have to wait for these Arab clarifications in order to put on the table its own comprehensive answer to the Arab peace initiative. To the Arab demand for the 1967 borders it can respond with U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which allows for secure borders. To the Arab demand for a refugee solution based on Resolution 194 it can respond with its own interpretation — Resolution 194, after all, does not endorse the “right of return” of the 1948 refugees — or it can propose the formula put forth by Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh, under which Arab refugees return to Palestine and Jews return to Israel.

Jerusalem can also point out that a comprehensive peace process cannot be carried out in one stroke; it must be broken down into phases, and Israeli movement in any given phase can and should produce a positive Arab response as an incentive to Israelis to make additional concessions.

This points to the third agenda item for an international consultative meeting: encouraging broad Arab motivation and facilitation. Internationally sponsored consultations should enable the Arabs, led by the Saudis, to clarify the endgame of a permanent settlement from a political, economic and security standpoint. This should motivate not only Israelis, but Palestinians and Syrians as well, thereby establishing a comprehensive regional overlay to what is usually addressed as a bilateral approach and encouraging concerned Arab states to assist and motivate. Finally, the Arab summit itself must be enlisted to legitimize the diplomatic process and its outcome.

This is an ambitious agenda and there is no guarantee it will work. American, Israeli and Arab strategic weakness renders the task more difficult — but also far more important. The Saudis have issued a challenge that must not be ignored.

Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.

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