The Meeting in Riyadh
On March 28th and 29th, the Arab League will meet in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to discuss the Iranian threat, tensions in Lebanon, and, most significantly for Israel, the Arab League peace initiative. The plan, which was formulated by Saudi King Abdullah and adopted at the Arab summit in Beirut in 2002, calls for Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders; for a “just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194“; and for Israeli acceptance of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders and with a capital in East Jerusalem. It also calls for the Arab countries to enter into a comprehensive peace with Israel, “normalize” relations with Israel, and provide security for all states in the region.
As Dr. Mati Steinberg, the former advisor on Palestinian Affairs to the head of Shin Bet (General Security Services), has noted, this proposal signaled a great change in direction for the Arab states: they were now all willing to establish relations with Israel, predicated on a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The plan was also unique for its lack of preconditions: Instead of suggesting that Israeli withdrawal from the Territories precede peace and normalization, the two would occur simultaneously. At the time, however, Israel was not interested due (at least in part) to a tragic coincidence: the Arab League approved this initiative at almost exactly the same instant as the most devastating suicide bombing of the Intifada — the attack on a seder at a hotel in Netanya, costing the lives of 29 Israelis celebrating Passover. This concluded a spate of attacks that collectively cost about 100 Israeli lives and prompted the reoccupation of most West Bank towns and cities by the IDF.
Five years later, the proposal is being pushed by several different sides. The Saudis and other moderate Arab countries like Jordan are frightened by rising Iranian influence. And the US is desperate to make progress on the Israeli-Arab peace process because of its failing policies in Iraq.
As for the Israeli take on the plan, Aluf Benn points out reasons to be both optimistic and pessimistic. The Saudi Initiative may represent a new chance for peace; one which could, “save Olmert’s government from the impasse in which it is stuck.” But the upcoming summit in Riyadh could also put Olmert in a difficult position.
One problem may come in the form of Palestinian participation at Riyadh. This week, after more than a month of negotiations, Hamas and Fatah announced an agreement on a unity government. Although the accord recognizes previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements, it does not acknowledge Israel?s right to exist and it does not renounce Palestinian violence. As a result, Israel has announced that it will not deal with the government or any of its ministers (although it will continue to talk to President Mahmoud Abbas, from Fatah). The US is expected to endorse this approach.
Akiva Eldar writes that Prime Minister Olmert intends to deal with this situation by “bypassing Hamas,” working with the Arab League rather than the Palestinians. But this will become impossible after the Riyadh summit, when the Palestinian government – with its Hamas component – is expected to agree to the Saudi Initiative. The Israeli government will be unable to work with one without the other.
Nevertheless, as Daoud Kuttab writes, Hamas attendance at the summit could actually be positive for the Israelis: “If a Hamas ‘representative’ attends the meeting expected to approve a new Arab peace plan – one acceptable to the international community – this will make the plan binding on the unity government, and, indirectly on Hamas itself.” Indeed, Ahmed Yousef, an advisor to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, recently indicated that Hamas would soon undergo an ideological shift.
A bigger sticking point for Israel may center on the refugee issue – a topic which has always been extremely contentious. Both Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have said they will not accept an Arab League plan that gives refugees the right to return to Israel. The Saudis, in turn, will accept no such preconditions to negotiations.
But does the Saudi plan necessarily give all Palestinians the Right of Return? To be exact, it recommends that the refugee problem find a solution in accordance with UN resolution 194, which “Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so.” Gershon Baskin points out that this clause is not binding as only those refugees wishing to return will do so. Indeed, a 2003 poll indicated that, although the vast majority would not give up their right to return, only about 10% would actually take advantage of it to return.
Baskin also notes that the Saudi Initiative calls for an “agreed upon” solution to the refugee problem, indicating that the issue would be negotiated with Israel. Notably, the Geneva Accord deals with Palestinian refugees in a similar manner.
What happens during the Riyadh summit may be problematic for Israel, particularly if it means that the government must deal with Hamas. Yet, the Saudi plan is also one of the most significant chances for peace that the region has seen in a long time, and it can certainly be taken as a starting point for negotiations. Meretz USA has been saying for months that now is the time to take a stand for peace: what are we waiting for?
Also of note:
* Peace Now reported this week that an Israeli government register shows that 32.4 percent of land held by Israeli settlements is privately-owned.
* A Haifa university survey showed that two-thirds of Israeli Palestinians would remain in Israel and “would approve of it as a democratic Jewish state” were a Palestinian state to be established. The poll also shows 68.4 percent of Jews in Israel fear an Arab uprising.
* Last week, B’Tselem accused the Israeli army of using human shields during a West Bank raid. The Israeli military police have launched an investigation into the matter.