The Saudi plan for Middle East peace – now known as the “Arab peace initiative” – is an interesting, if somewhat suspicious idea. The Saudis have always invested more in the public relations component of the plan than in taking practical steps toward it its implementation. Thus, it is no wonder that the plan started not with a proposal to the Israeli government but with an article by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Since the appearance of that article, any progress on the plan has been more symbolic than substantive. The article by Turki al-Faisal in today’s Washington Post is just another link in a long PR chain.
Al-Faisal is a well informed figure in the DC, having served as the Saudi Ambassador to Washington for two years (he is now chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies in Riyadh). But his article misses an important mood-shift: while al-Faisal aims to convince Obama that he should “not miss this critical opportunity,” he neglects to notice that the new Washington has very little patience for those refusing to “engage” their opponents and enemies in direct talks. Obama is willing to sit for a chat with the Iranians, but Al-Faisal does not show a similar openness to engaging Israel :
At this point, the Saudi government is constrained from direct talks with Israel. Egypt and Jordan have been commissioned to meet with Israel on behalf of the Arab world. Once agreements between Palestine, Lebanon and Syria are reached with Israel, Saudi Arabia will join fully in ending hostilities and establishing diplomatic and normal relations with Israel.
This is a position that the Obama administration has good reason to reject. The Saudis can’t reasonably applaud change in the American approach while playing the same old Middle East game on their end. However, their plan is interesting, and presents some opportunities worthy of pursuit. A new booklet of articles published by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (Prevent Breakdown, Prepare for Breakthrough: How President Obama can Promote Israeli-Palestinian Peace) contains some illuminating recommendations, including some references to the Saudi plan. In the introduction, the Institute’s Rob Satloff recommends Obama “look for regional keys to unlock the bilateral impasse, in part by working to adapt (not simply adopt) the Arab Peace Initiative.” Wendy Chamberlin, President of the (more Arabist) Middle East Institute writes an article advocating the plan as a way to avoid a “dangerous impasse”:
Even in the current environment, the Arab Peace Initiative – adopted at the Arab League’s Beirut summit in March 2002 and since reaffirmed – provides an opportunity to advance final-status negotiations in a manner that could guarantee Israel’s security and help build a viable Palestinian state.
And while acknowledging that “The initiative is a statement of principles, not a detailed proposal, and much work would lie before the parties in terms of bridging gaps and defining the details of implementation” – Chamberlin believes that, “There is encouraging evidence of Arab commitment to engage in a meaningful peace effort with Israel-an effort that would be strengthened if it were collective.”
In the concluding chapter – the one containing the detailed recommendations for the next administration – the book’s editor, David Pollock points to some of the flaws inherent to the current state of the Arab Initiative:
[T]he Arab Peace Initiative offers Israel recognition under certain conditions. On the other hand, many of the same Arab governments that made this offer also give various forms of material, moral, and political support to Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction and dedicated to supplanting the rival Palestinian government that has formally offered to make peace.
Still, Pollock calls the plan “a valuable point of departure” and believes that both Israel and the U.S. should “echo this appraisal, without endorsing any details.” He calls for the following steps: Israel can say it’s ready to negotiate on the basis of the plan, should promise to maintain full freedom of access to the holy places in Jerusalem (this should be easy), and declare a moratorium on settlement activities (to see if such a thing can happen we need to wait first for a new Israeli coalition). But Pollock has some demands for the Arab side – demands that al-Faisal (in the Washington Post) does not see as essential: practical support for the solving of the refugee problem, ending the state of war as a “first step”, ending incitement, and an agreement to accept a reality of border modifications and recognize Israel as a Jewish State. Last, Pollock writes this:
[I]n November 2008, Saudi Arabia hosted a UN symposium in New York with senior Israeli officials in attendance. Why not hold another such event in a major Arab city, or accept a return invitation to Israel? Why not encourage Iran to participate as well?
Compare this suggestion to the half-hearted approach presented in the Al-Faisal article:
The Arab world is willing to pay a high price for peace, not only recognizing Israel as a legitimate state but also normalizing relations and putting a permanent end to the state of hostilities that has existed since 1948.
A “high price”? That’s an odd way to put it. Ending hostilities is not a price the Arabs will be paying – it’s the reward they will be getting, that we will all be getting, if an Israeli-Arab agreement is achieved.