The Saudi Gauntlet Should Be Picked Up


 Akiva Eldar




 Monday, 25 February 2002

t the weekend Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper said Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah's plan was a window of opportunity for full Arab acceptance of Israel. In its lead editorial, the daily wrote that, with this proposal, the Arabs were opening widely, right before the eyes of the world and the eyes of Israel's citizens, a window for the attainment of a lasting peace in a region that has not known even a single moment of stability. 

The newspaper, closely linked to the regime in Riyadh, took pains to point out that the Saudi proposal was directed at Israel's citizens, not its government. Apparently, the Arabs have concluded that Israel's present government will not move even one prefabricated structure for the sake of peace. The Arabs, it would seem, have begun to understand that if they do not address their neighbors in Israel, we all will meet at the bottom of the abyss. 

Essentially, the Saudi plan is based on the Clinton outline of December 2000 and on the January 2001 Taba understandings founded on that outline. Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat recently told a delegation of Israeli Leftists that he wanted to renew the peace talks at the point where former prime minister Ehud Barak had broken them off at Taba. Let us assume the Palestinians would accept all Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's security demands and, as a bonus, hand over Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi's assassins (why are these killers more important to the National Union than those who sent the murderer of the children of settlers in Karnei Shomron?) Is there still even a breath of a chance that in return for the security clock's hands being turned back to the quieter days of the pre-intifada era, Sharon would turn the political clock's hands back to where they become stuck 13 months ago in Taba's sands? 

Saudis are not illiterate. They apparently read the interview with Sharon that appeared in The New York Times on September 8, where the prime minister referred to the section in the Mitchell Report's recommendations concerning a freeze on the expansion of settlements. "There are young soldiers coming back from the army," the prime minister explained. "They want to get married. What are they going to do? They have to get a formal agreement for marriage from Arafat?" 

The Saudis have also apparently read the reports that the Sharon government has never discussed or even ratified the Mitchell Report. The reason is not neglect or negligence; this is simply one more trick being used to evade the diplomatic track. National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu cabinet ministers Avigdor Lieberman and Binyamin Elon would not sit for even one minute in a government that adopts a document that states that the Israeli government "should freeze all settlement activity, including the `natural growth' of existing settlements." 

The Saudis are no fools. They certainly understand that their plan is irrelevant for a government that hides behind the false argument that the Mitchell Report (which, as already noted, it has never ratified) stipulates that a freeze on the settlements and the resumption of peace talks are conditional upon cessation of the violence. In cabinet votes, Sharon has never voted for any peace agreement, including the one with Egypt, and, in the Knesset vote, he abstained on the peace treaty with Jordan. Why should the Saudi plan be treated with any more respect than the Egyptian-Jordanian plan, the French initiative, the Peres-Abu Ala outline, or Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's new idea? 

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for the adoption of the Saudi plan's principles, the United States has sent a senior representative to Riyadh to look into the plan's details and the Arab press is talking about "normalization." However, peace cannot be "imported." If initiatives like the Saudi plan are to bring Israel from the killing fields to the negotiating table, Israel's citizens must first of all replace the present government. It is vital that the protest begin in the streets; however, it must eventually express itself in the ballot booth. Thus, this is precisely the time when a serious, responsible opposition should pick up the Arab gauntlet and place it, the trumpets blaring, at the top of the political agenda. 

Labor's indifference recalls Barak's reaction to then-American president Bill Clinton's suggestion that the leaders of Saudi Arabia and all the Gulf states participate in the signing ceremony of the Syrian-Israeli peace treaty. Barak said he had no need for 20 galabias. Who knows what would have been the fate of the peace initiative of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, if, instead of Menachem Begin and Moshe Dayan, he had encountered in Jerusalem Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Shimon Peres?


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