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The Friedman-Saudi Plan

The Saudi peace plan rears its head again, bolstered by events in Gaza and the political shifts in America and Israel. Last week, it was the outrageous article by Saudi Price Turki al-Faisal, but today there’s a more serious attempt by the Saudi King – helped by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman – to update his plan and adapt it to the changing realities.

As is custmary for Friedman, this complicated issues is communicated in marketing-era pamphleteer fashion. It has a catchy name, “The 5-State Solution,” and a four-point, ready-for-consumption plan:

1. Israel agrees to total withdrawal from occupied territories.

2. The establishment of a Palestinian unity government (Fatah and Hamas), with “security assistance” by Jordan and Egypt in Palestinian territories.

3. An Israeli phased withdrawal to the 67′ borders.

4. Saudi funding of the cost related to Egyptian and Jordanian trustees.

In many ways, this renewed plan meets the need to change the original so that it’s more suited to the current situation “on the ground.” Rob Satloff of the Washington Institute calls it, in an article posted two days ago, “adapt, not merely adopt, the Arab Peace Initiative”:

If nothing else, the Gaza conflict exposed the fundamental flaw in the Saudi-inspired Arab Peace Initiative, which is that Arab states cannot simply offer peace with Israel as the pot at the end of the diplomatic rainbow after Israel reaches final peace settlements with the Palestinians and the Syrians; rather, a truly constructive role would have Arab states contributing to a peacemaking environment at every stage of this process. Senator Mitchell has wide latitude in working with Arab leaders to add both substantive elements and a timetable for incremental action to the Arab Peace Initiative. This could include what Arab states do with Palestinians (for example, specific disbursements of aid and changes of national policies on the status of Palestinian refugees) as well as what Arab states do with Israel (for example, trade relations, escalating diplomatic ties, interfaith and cultural exchanges).

This new plan answers some of Satloff’s concerns, but some remain unresolved. Saudi Arabia clearly shows some willingness to actively participate in peacemaking, and is also volunteering other Arab countries (Egypt, Jordan) to do likewise. But assuming that the other contours of the Saudi plan remain the same, there’s still no change in Saudi willingness for “incremental action” related to the improvements needed in Arab-Israeli relations (namely, the process of un-freezing Arab-Israel ties even before the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is completed). There’s also no change in the Arab position regarding Palestinian refugees.

But most of all, two of the actions suggested in this piece need to be much more specific on what the King wants. The first one is on Palestinian unity. Here’s what Friedman writes:

The Palestinians – Hamas and Fatah – agree to form a national unity government. This government then agrees to accept a limited number of Egyptian troops and police to help Palestinians secure Gaza and monitor its borders, as well as Jordanian troops and police to do the same in the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority would agree to five-year “security assistance programs” with Egypt in Gaza and with Jordan in the West Bank.

The Saudis have already involved themselves in Palestinian national unity negotiations that didn’t turn out so well. The so-called “Doha agreement” brokered by the Saudis was essentially an agreement making Hamas stronger and Fatah weaker. It also didn’t hold for very long. So the question should be raised again: what kind of Palestinian unity are the Saudis now talking about?

The other unresolved question has to do with the “security and governance metrics” that Palestinians will have to meet before the transition is complete. This is not a matter of intention – the King is ready to have metrics “agreed to in advance by all parties” – and to have the U.S. as “the sole arbiter of whether the metrics have been met.” The question, though, is of a more practical nature: can a metrics agreement be reached by “all parties”? And what happens in case metrics aren’t met?

One of the most daunting problems of past peace-processes was the tendency of both sides to never quite accomplish their commitments. The Saudi plan is somewhat encouraging when it offers to involve other parties in helping the Palestinians build their institutions, but this can complicate matters even further in case these attempts fails. This doesn’t mean the plan isn’t a good start – it only means that more details are needed before we can even call it a “plan.” Right now, it’s no more than an “idea.”


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