Washington - Saudi Arabia is stepping up efforts to make its peace initiative — based on a quick Israeli return to the 1967 borders and prompt establishment of a Palestinian state — a key plank in American foreign policy.
According to American and Arab diplomatic sources in Washington, the Saudis have been pressing for a more active role in attempting to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One diplomat said that the Saudi push reflects the prevailing notion among the kingdom’s leaders that existing peace efforts directed by the United States are not bearing fruit and will not bring a swift conclusion to the conflict.
At the same time, sources said, some officials of the United States believe that an American embrace of the Saudi plan would increase Riyadh’s support for America’s approach to Iraq and Iran.
This week, Saudi officials raised the issue in meetings with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her visit to Riyadh. And last week, the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal, pushed the matter in a meeting with leaders of the left-wing group Americans for Peace Now. Near the end of last year, the Saudis also conveyed their message to Vice President Dick Cheney and to senators who visited the region.
In addition to attempting to line up Israeli and American support, Saudi leaders have been assuring the Palestinians that they would have wide Arab support for a final deal with Israel, diplomatic sources said.
According to these sources, Riyadh believes that a convergence of factors makes it much more likely that this time around, Washington will accept the Saudi plan. In particular, the Saudis are banking on America’s need for the support of moderate Sunni regimes on the Iraq front and the backing of the Gulf countries in isolating Iran, as well as a new Israeli openness to discuss the plan.
”We hope the Israelis are changing their view; we’ve been waiting for them to see the plan in a positive light,” said Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi media columnist and an adviser to Riyadh’s ambassador in Washington. “With all the talk now in Washington about the need for boosting the peace process, and with the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations, everyone now understands the need to solve this problem.”
Khashoggi said that the Saudis are now in a position to help the process. “If we, the Saudis and the Egyptians, leave it to the Israelis and the Palestinians, there will never be peace,” he said. “That is why the U.S. needs to apply pressure on its ally Israel and we will pressure our allies the Palestinians.”
According to Khashoggi, the Saudi message to Washington is that Riyadh does not want to get bogged down in details. “We are telling the Americans that the process killed the peace,” he said, asserting that since the outlines of any future peace deal are essentially known, there is no need for a gradual approach, such as one outlined in the American-backed road map plan.
In her visit this week to the region, however, Rice made it clear that the United States still believes in a gradual approach. After hearing from the Palestinians that they reject the path of creating a state with provisional borders, Rice managed to convince Israeli and Palestinian leaders to join her for a trilateral summit next month. In her visit to Riyadh at the end of her trip, Rice promised Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal that the summit signals a new phase in American peacemaking efforts.
“I did say to his Royal Highness that the United States would deepen its involvement in the efforts to find peace between the Palestinians and Israelis,” Rice told reporters after the meeting.
Diplomatic sources in Washington said this week that in her upcoming summit with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Rice will attempt to create a “political horizon” for the Palestinians, which will include a promise for statehood at the end of the process.
Meanwhile, the Saudis are focusing their effort on convincing Hamas to accept the international community’s requirements that the militant group recognize Israel, renounce terrorism and accept previous agreements signed with Israel. The issue was raised in a meeting last month between the Saudi monarch and Hamas-linked Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya. According to reports, King Abdullah told Haniya that the refusal of Hamas to accept the three conditions is harming the Palestinian cause. He urged the group to adopt a more pragmatic approach. The Saudi calls for moderation have thus far been rejected by Hamas.
In a phone interview from Paris, Henry Siegman, the foreign policy analyst and former president of the American Jewish Congress who helped publicize the initial Saudi plan, said that officials in Riyadh now feel they have a lot to offer in terms of bringing about an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
“[The Saudis] can provide incentives to the Palestinian side, so the Palestinians will be encouraged to make the necessary compromises,” Siegman said, “On the territorial issue, for instance, they will urge the Palestinians to accept reasonable agreements regarding the Jewish settlement concentrations based on comparable land swaps. The Saudis will promise that if the Palestinians take these steps, they will get the full support of the Arab world for such compromises.”
The Saudi initiative was first introduced publicly in February 2002 in a New York Times column by Tom Friedman, after an interview with then-crown prince Abdullah. It was then fleshed out in an article by Siegman, now the director of the New York-based U.S./Middle East Project think tank, following extensive talks he held with Abdullah. According to Siegman, a main purpose of the plan was to address Israel’s concerns that even after making concessions to the Palestinians, it would still encounter belligerence in the Arab world.
A more detailed version of the plan was approved later that year by the Arab League during a summit in Beirut.
The plan calls for full recognition of the State of Israel and normalization with all Arab countries in return for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 border with slight border changes. The version adopted by the Arab League also called for solving the Palestinian refugee problem based on United Nations Resolution 194, a resolution that Israel vehemently opposes, on the grounds that it would open the door to millions of Palestinians settling in Israel proper. Then-prime minister Ariel Sharon was dismissive of the Saudi initiative when it was first unveiled. But Olmert, in a November 27, 2006, speech, gave the first public sign that Israel’s view was shifting.
“The voices emanating from those states regarding the need for recognition and normalization of relations with the State of Israel — including, for example, some parts in the Saudi peace initiative — are positive, and I intend to invest efforts in order to advance the connection with those states and strengthen their support of direct bilateral negotiations between us and the Palestinians.”
According to reports in the Israeli press, Olmert also held a secret meeting with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Abdullah’s national security adviser and the former ambassador to the United States.
Following Olmert’s statement, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni also raised the possibility of turning to the plan as a basis for moving forward. All Israeli officials stressed the need to make changes in the plan, mainly on issues relating to Palestinian refugees’ right of return.
Siegman said that, on the Palestinian side, “the refugee issue has to be part of the tradeoff once the negotiations begin.” But he added that the Arab League would not accept as an opening position the view articulated by Bush to Sharon in a 2003 letter that said the issue should be dealt with by settling all the refugees in the Palestinian territories.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was 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.