Toward a Track-two Dialogue between Israelis and Syrians

by Gerald Steinberg
When the Israeli government accepted the foundations of the peace Roadmap, it rejected the explicit reference to “the Saudi initiative,” as endorsed by the Beirut Arab League Summit. This policy reflects the deep confusion and, at best, ambivalence in Israel regarding the contents that accompanied this document from the beginning, and the skepticism regarding its objectives.

On the one hand, the Saudi/Arab League Initiative appears to offer Israel the recognition, peace and security that have been denied since the Arab rejection of the 1947 UN Partition Plan. As the Saudi-Wahhabi regime is widely seen as a primary source of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rejectionism, such a change would be revolutionary. The promise of “full Arab normalization with Israel in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territories," as originally described in the New York Times by Tom Friedman, attracted support from the many Israelis who support a two-state solution. Furthermore, in an oped column in the New York Times, Henry Siegman claimed that the Saudis were also prepared to endorse small territorial exchanges and were willing to show flexibility on Jerusalem.

The attribution of authorship to Crown Prince Abdullah, who was known as a strong and public supporter of Hamas, suggested important changes, not only in Riyadh, but in the much wider Arab relationship with Israel. In the wake of the al Qaida attacks and their implications, Saudi Arabia’s regime seemed to understand that in order to avoid widespread instability, it was necessary to play an active role in reaching a compromise solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

However, a close look at the text and the circumstances raised substantial skepticism, reinforced by the history of Saudi policies, including the lack of support for compromise during the July 2000 Camp David summit. Israelis, like the rest of the world, first heard about the Saudi Initiative shortly after the September 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington. Releasing the plan through the back door, via American journalists, suggested that perhaps this was a limited Saudi PR effort to improve its image in the U.S., without substantive goals (although others have suggested that selecting Friedman, a widely-read columnist, to report on the initiative ensured wide distribution and discussion).

When the first official text was presented by Crown Prince Abdullah at the Beirut summit at the end of March 2002, his language was far more limited than in the opeds and U.S. State Department comments. Israeli analysts noted that territorial flexibility became “full Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab territories,” (rejected on the grounds that the 1949-1967 lines were simply based on the cease-fire with no standing in international law). In addition, the thorniest issue of refugees was framed as an integral part of the initiative, although the use of the ambiguous phrase “just and agreed solution to the refugee problem” seemed to mitigate the problem. Furthermore, the promise of “full normalization,” meaning tourism and trade to build confidence, had been watered down to “normal relations,” suggesting a minimalist “cold peace.” Still, a cold but comprehensive peace is better than none, and the Arab League discussion attracted a great deal of Israeli attention. The discussions were featured and some parts broadcast live on Israeli television, with extensive analyses, and columnists highlighted the implications and potential opportunities presented by the initiative and its very public profile in the Arab world. At this stage, many Israelis saw the process in a very hopeful light.

But when the initiative itself came up for debate and adoption in the Beirut summit, it was overshadowed by a stormy mêlée between the delegations regarding the broadcast of Yasir Arafat’s video-address, and then, by the brutal Palestinian terror attack that took place on Passover night at the Park Hotel in Netanya. As a result, it is not surprising that the Beirut meeting, which highlighted the chaos and divisions with the Arab League itself, was quickly swept off the Israeli agenda.

An examination of the other summit texts released alongside the peace initiative reveals more serious difficulties and contradictions from an Israeli perspective. The ambiguous and flexible language on refugees in the Saudi text was followed by a concluding statement repeating the standard and explicit claims regarding a “right of return,” which, for Israel has been a non-starter since 1948. In addition, the insertion of support for Hizbollah’s attacks, after the UN declared that Israel had met all of its obligations in Lebanon, and the standard demand for Israel to give up its nuclear deterrent, seemed to provide some members of the Arab League with plenty of reasons to avoid acting on the apparent commitment to end the conflict.

Given these difficulties, and the long history of confrontation and violence, it was understandably difficult for Israelis to view the Initiative in a positive light. When some officials and commentators presented the document as a “take it or leave it” peace plan, with no room for negotiation and compromise, rather than as a declaration of intention, Israelis inclined to be skeptical pointed to this aspect. .

These problems not withstanding, the positive elements in the text might have received more emphasis in Israel, had the Saudis, as the initiators of this proposal, halted long-standing policies reflecting standard characteristics of rejectionism and deep-seated hostility. Clear evidence showing increased financial and political support for Hamas terrorism provided directly from Minister of the Interior Prince Naif, was certainly inconsistent with real transformation, supporting the view that the primary goal was to salvage the Saudi image in Washington. In the UN and other international organizations, as well as sports groups, Saudi diplomats continue to campaign for the delegitimation of Israel. And the official Saudi mosques and media have not ended the savage attacks against Jews and Israelis, which is hardly compatible with a peace initiative.

Given all of these obstacles, a revival of the Arab League peace initiative will take far more than simple and passive repetition of the claim that the proposal is available for Israel to accept. An active program to sell the initiative and the sincerity of the members of the Arab League is essential, including the return of the Egyptian and Jordanian ambassadors to their posts and visits by academics and journalists to discuss these issues, and an end to the expressions of deep-seated hostility in the official press, speeches of government officials, and international organizations, such as the UN.

Substantively, this initiative needs to be couched in positive terms, inviting Israel to negotiate “just and agreed solutions” to all the issues, including boundary modifications, insuring unfettered access to all of Jerusalem’s sacred sites, and refugee claims on both sides. Building on such a solid platform, the Arab League peace initiative could provide a very important element in breaking the current impasse. The Israeli government, as well as civil society, including academics, journalists and business people, could then embrace this framework as a basis for real progress, providing a realistic approach to the end of conflict that is so urgently sought. Without broad regional involvement and support for a just and lasting peace, an end to the conflict will be even more difficult to reach.
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Toward a New Arab Peace Initiative
A Syrian Perspective on the Arab Peace Initiative
Between Two Hotels in Beirut and Netanya
The Arab Initiative Revisited and Revived
The Arab Peace Initiative, boosting moderates
Arab Initiative Can Bring Peace and Normalcy
An Israeli View of the Arab Peace Initiative
The Feasibility of Peace and the Arab Peace Initiative
There is No Alternative to Peace in the Middle East
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Other articles in this series

Toward a New Arab Peace Initiative by Ambassador Robert H. Pelletreau
A Syrian Perspective on the Arab Peace Initiative by Dr. Murhaf Jouejati
Between Two Hotels in Beirut and Netanya by Hazem Saghiyeh
The Arab Initiative Revisited and Revived by Tawfiq Abu Bakr
The Arab Peace Initiative, boosting moderates by Hassan A. Barari
Arab Initiative Can Bring Peace and Normalcy by Judith Kipper
An Israeli View of the Arab Peace Initiative by Ambassador Shimon Shamir
The Feasibility of Peace and the Arab Peace Initiative by Nizar Abdel-Kader
There is No Alternative to Peace in the Middle East by Sa’ad Eddin Ibrahim