Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Saudi Initiative: Definite Possibilities

The initiative has a lot of potential if obstacles can be overcome.

There is a positive buzz in the media at the moment about a revival of the 2002 Saudi initiative for Middle East peace. At first Israel seemed dismissive of the revival based on an initiative it has previously rejected, suggesting the initiative be amended slightly. This brought calls from prominent Arabs for Israel not to miss "a historic opportunity." As the revival of the initiative becomes more official and the U.S. gets on board, of course bringing Israel with, it seems that the Arabs may be the obstacle to their own prospects of bringing peace to this long conflict torn region.

Israel's main problem with the initiative is its incorporation of U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194, stipulating that all Palestinian refugees that want to return to their homes be allowed to do so and those who don't are compensated accordingly. Not only is this impossible for Israel because it would end their status as a Jewish state once and for all, but it is also impractical because most, maybe all of the homes and/or plots owned or inhabited by the expelled Palestinians no longer exist. This makes the Palestinians clinging to it an obstacle to their endeavours for peace. Not to mention the fact that many of the refugees have left the camps and made lives for themselves making it an obstacle worth toppling.

This problem with the initiative is the reason Israel has outright ignored its validity for five years. This is a shame because the initiative offers Israel a lot in return for the right of return as mentioned above, a full withdrawal from Palestinian territories occupied after the 1967 war and the creation of a Palestinian state. It offers the recognition of the state of Israel, full peace and normalized relations between all the Arab League member states and Israel. Normalization of relations with Israel was a taboo in the Arab world, for all states in the Arab League to ratify the initiative in 2002 was "a political revolution" as it was called in the Jerusalem Post earlier this year. The initiative was ratified again last year and all states have confirmed their continued committment to the initiative recently. Therefore the offer still stands. A political revolution in the Arab world at a time when Iran is gaining power in the region is an offer Israel really can't afford to sniff at.

That is why there has been a shift in Israeli attitudes recently, as the political momentum builds behind the revitalization of the initiative, which has reawakened support for it in the Arab world and picked up the support of the U.S.. Israeli politicians have recently been making statements to the effect that the initiative would warrant serious consideration were it slightly modified. Olmert said: "If moderate Arab countries try to advance the process along the lines of the Saudi initiative I will look at it as a very positive development" The Israelis expected the initiative to be changed so that the right of return allows refugees only to return to the new Palestinian state, not Israel. Apparently there has been a lot of manoeuvrings behind the scenes between Israel, the Saudi monarchy and the Arab league, as Saudi's monarchy attempts to have such modifications made.

Unfortunately they failed, the Arab league is to revive the initiative in its original form. Jordan's foreign minister Abdelelah al-Khatib told Reuters after a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in the Saudi capital: "The Arabs have agreed to reactivate the Arab initiative without changes. We reiterated that all Arab nations will adhere to the initiative as it is." This is understandable as it was not easy to have all the Arab states agree in the first place. To have them agree to less in return for the major concessions they are offering would have been understandably even more difficult, especially from those states who have nowhere near normalized relations with Israel, such as Syria and Lebanon. In this lies the obstacle, Israel cannot and will not accept the initiative in its original wording, therein requesting full right of return, in which case it is lucky that the initiative is being released in its original wording, but not in its original presentation.

The Saudi initiative was presented first in 2002 as an ultimatum, take it or leave it. Now, they are following suggestions and it is being presented as a platform for negotiations. Hence the positive buzz in the media. There is talk of representatives fom all the parties with a vested interest in the conflict being in the same room for the first time. That is Israel, all the Arab League member states (or one representative speaking on their behalf), and the Quartet: Russia, U.S. U.N. and E.U.. Olmert said of the proposed meeting: "If such an invitation would come my way, I would look at it in a very positive way," Olmert told a joint press conference with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. "Assuming I would get a visa, I would not hesitate to participate." Condoleeza Rice, currently on a Middle East tour promoting and trying to achieve a restart to the peace process said: "it was "premature" to talk about a major conference involving the Quartet, moderate Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians." Other U.S. officials confirmed the idea was under consideration.

Representatives from all those countries meeting, in the current climate, whereby the desire to unite in the face of a common enemy --Iran-- should give them more reason than ever before to find an agreement. Any agreement reached in that room at that historic time would be the most likely agreement to be adhered to by all parties in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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