A New Wind

Published March 09, 2007, issue of March 09, 2007.
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There are still those who believe that the frenzy of diplomatic initiatives coming out of Saudi Arabia in the past few weeks — the brokering of the Palestinian unity government deal, the weekend visit to Riyadh by Iran’s president, the planned Arab League summit where the 2002 Saudi peace plan is to be revived — represents a threat to Israel, a tightening of the noose. But there’s at least as much reason to see it all as a new wind blowing in Israel’s favor.

Pessimists point to the continued spewing of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rhetoric from nearly every corner of the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia itself. They fear the Saudi effort to legitimize the rule of the terrorist Hamas movement in the Palestinian Authority could undermine the international quarantine on Hamas. They worry about some dangerous details in the Saudi peace plan.

The warnings all have merit. But the case for optimism is growing steadily stronger. Mounting evidence suggests that the Saudis have shifted their stance toward Israel in the past few months, that they’re now trying to do openly what their apologists have long insisted they were doing quietly: use their clout to help bring about a genuine Israeli-Arab peace.

Many of the signs are ambiguous. Saudi leaders say the Palestinian unity government will allow the president of the P.A., Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, to talk peace with Israel with tacit consent of Hamas. Yet Hamas still refuses to recognize Israel.

And if they did talk, what would they talk about? The Saudis are pushing hard for their own 2002 peace plan. The plan promises “normal” diplomatic relations with all 22 Arab states if Israel agrees to Palestinian statehood along the pre-1967 borders. The Saudis are hosting an Arab League summit at the end of the month largely to win reaffirmation of the plan. But Israel worries that the plan will require it to accept a flood of Palestinian refugees, threatening the Jewish state’s demography. Israel would like to see the plan amended before it can be discussed. The secretary general of the Arab League, Amre Moussa, said this week that the details aren’t negotiable.

Saudi officials claim that when Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, met with King Abdullah in Riyadh last weekend, he was persuaded to accept the Saudi peace plan. If that’s true, it could signal a revolutionary shift on the part of Israel’s most dangerous enemy. But Iranian officials deny that any such agreement took place.

Some Israelis worry that the Saudi-Iranian summit actually produced the opposite: a Saudi shift toward Iran. Jerusalem and Washington want to see the Saudis anchor an alliance of Sunni states, along with Egypt and Jordan, to oppose the growing militancy of Iran. The Riyadh summit looked to many eyes like a big step in the wrong direction.

For all the ambiguities, though, there’s one development that can only be read optimistically: the direct dialogue recently opened up between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials have whispered for years that they stand behind peace efforts by Egypt, Jordan and the like, but they’ve never taken the basic step of talking with Israel face to face. That’s changed. The Saudi national security adviser, Prince Bandar al-Sultan, has reportedly sat down with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for conversations that Olmert, at least, seems to have found convincing. After years of Israeli dismissal, Olmert and his ministers have begun speaking of the Saudi peace plan as “positive” and a “good starting point.” Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni last week offered the first formal Israeli counteroffer, asking for specific amendments at the upcoming Arab League summit.

In the final analysis, Israel believes the Saudi gestures are genuine because it understands that the Saudis need an Israeli-Palestinian deal. They’re terrified of the radical forces unleashed in the region by the Iraq War — the resurgence of Al Qaeda, with its radically anti-Saudi agenda, and the rise of militant Shi’ism — and they desperately want stability. Given the Saudis’ clout within the Arab and Muslim world, Israel may now have the best opportunity it’s had in years to secure a deal on terms it can accept.

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