Jerusalem — Facing mounting pressure from international powers and from members of his own party, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is warming publicly to the Saudi peace initiative, going so far as to call on Arab leaders to meet with him so that a regional peace plan can be discussed.
Israel initially shunned the plan in 2002, when Abdullah, then-Saudi crown prince, first put it forward. These days, Olmert’s reference to the initiative, which he describes as a possible component in a regional peace plan, concerns its “positive elements.”
Olmert’s new approach to the Arab initiative — which calls for a complete normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world in compensation for a return to the 1967 borders and resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem — has been laid out in recent days in a well-orchestrated series of media interviews and public appearances.
“Within five years, we can have peace in the entire region,” Olmert promised in an interview with Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s most popular daily newspaper. Yediot plastered the quote on the front page of its weekend issue.
In a separate interview, with the Tel Aviv newspaper Ma’ariv, Olmert said, “I found it important to signal to the Saudis, in a definitely public way, that I am interested in talking with them and that the Saudi initiative can serve as a corridor to a dialogue.”
And in a talk with Time magazine, the Israeli premier said that “the Saudi king will be surprised with what he hears from me.”
But throughout the interview, Olmert made a point of stressing that the Saudi peace plan — which was reaffirmed last week by the Arab League — cannot be accepted on an “as is” basis and would have to undergo changes before Israel could accept it as a map to regional peace. The main component of the initiative that Israel wants changed is the call for repatriation of Palestinian refugees, a call that is seen in Jerusalem as threatening the Jewish character of the State of Israel.
Analysts see the new openness to the Saudi peace plan not as a change in the Olmert government’s state of mind, but rather as a realization of the fact that mounting international and domestic pressure might take its toll on the government if the government does not seize the initiative.
In addition to the Arab League, several key international players are moving ahead with their own peace initiatives.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, concluding another round of talks in the region last week, is pushing for discussions on the final-status solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is also trying to promote his own ideas of renewing the peace process, and European nations are slowly beginning to deal with the new Palestinian national unity government in which Fatah and Hamas share power.
At home, too, Olmert is in a tight spot.
The Passover issues of Israeli papers, traditionally a platform for providing the government with a report card and for summing up the leadership’s achievements in the past year, carried only bad news for the Israeli leader. Olmert, who is plagued by a single-digit approval rating and is readying for what might be a damning report from the national-inquiry committee looking into his handling of last summer’s war in Lebanon, is portrayed as a has-been, as a leader whose days are numbered. The question that emerged in almost every newspaper and TV interview with Olmert was, “Will you still be in this office when we come back next year for the Passover interview?”
Olmert, who fended off questions with a smile and a promise to complete his four-year term, is now seeking a new agenda for his government — and the Saudi peace plan provides him with a good opportunity.
This past Sunday, standing next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Olmert attempted to flesh out the new idea of a regional peace process based on the Arab League initiative. “I invite for a meeting all the heads of Arab states — including, of course, the king of Saudi Arabia, who I see as a very important leader — to hold talks with us,” Olmert said, adding that he does not “intend to dictate” to Arab leaders the outlines of a possible future solution.
Apart from helping Olmert’s government to adopt a new cause, the idea of a regional peace process based on the Saudi initiative also fits in with efforts of the Bush administration to promote a united front of moderate Arab powers in the region — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Fatah — and to engage it in a combined drive to solve the Palestinian conflict.
“I think it is time to make a momentous effort in order to give a push to the diplomatic process,” Olmert said in Jerusalem.
A response from the Arab states was yet to come, and it is not clear if, and under what conditions, the states’ leaders would be willing to take up Olmert’s offer for a meeting. But, at least in the short-run, Olmert’s call for a regional deal is giving new energy to Middle East peace efforts and is helping his embattled government deal with pressure to take action on the diplomatic front.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.