Why a Saudi Peace Plan Has Mideast Buzzing

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Israeli soldiers guard a post on the border between Egyt and Israel

There's not much new in Saudi Arabia's new peace offer to Israel. But what has Mideast players buzzing is the fact that it emanated from the traditionally-aloof Saudis, quickly garnered Arab moderate support and even elicited positive responses from the U.S. and Israel.

Where did it come from? Two weeks ago, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman reported that Saudi Arabia's de facto leader, Crown Prince Abdullah, had authorized him to make public an unprecedented offer: full normalization of relations with the Arab world if Israel withdraws to its 1967 borders. Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights in the war of June 1967, and Abdullah is advocating that the latter be handed back to Syria and the two Palestinian enclaves become a Palestinian state.

All of which is familiar territory to old Middle-East hands — in essence, the new proposal simply restates the principles of U.N. Resolution 242, which in turn form the basis of the Oslo peace process of U.S. policy on the conflict — "withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the (1967) conflict" and "termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force."

The proposal itself might be old news, but the Saudis have never before taken an active role in pushing for peace with Israel. And Abdullah is weighing taking his proposal before the Arab league, to win support for an unprecedented pan-Arab peace offer.

So why now? No single issue stokes the fires of the Arab street as fiercely as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians does — that's why it takes center-stage, for example, the propaganda of Osama bin Laden. As the situation deteriorates, Abdullah is worried that failure to resolve that conflict soon may imperil the ability of moderate Arab regimes to work with the U.S. in the region, and eventually even their own survival in the face of extremist challenges.

For the Bush administration, the Saudi proposal represents an opportunity to break out of a diplomatic straitjacket. Over the past three months, Washington's focus has been almost exclusively on pressuring Yasser Arafat to act against terrorism. But the Bush team's efforts — like Israel PM Ariel Sharon's — have failed to stop a dramatic escalation of violence of late. And that's causing consternation among the Arab allies Washington wants to recruit for a war to topple Saddam Hussein. Other parties mediating the conflict, including Israeli peacemakers such as foreign minister Shimon Peres, have long emphasized that progress depends on linking cease-fire efforts to negotiations over Palestinian statehood. The emergence of the Saudi initiative offers Washington a stalking horse, potentially allowing it to revive political negotiations without appearing to directly reward Arafat.

The Saudi proposal also dovetails with both European peace plans and one jointly developed by Peres and Arafat deputy Ahmed Korei (Abu Ala). Even the Fatah militants responsible for the most recent wave of shootings and bombings appear to have acknowledged the 1967 borders as some form of boundary — almost all the attacks conducted in the past three weeks have been conducted outside of Israel's 1967 borders.

Despite a strong element of wariness, Sharon's office on Monday described the Saudi initiative as a "positive trend," although aides hastened to reject the notion of Israel withdrawing to the 1967 borders. Peres was more effusive, retaining the right to negotiate the precise boundaries but calling Abdullah's plan "a fascinating, interesting new opportunity." Even some members of Sharon's own party, such as justice minister Meir Sheetrit and President Moshe Katsav, called for immediate dialogue with the Saudis over the proposal.

The potential emergence of a new diplomatic initiative puts Sharon in a difficult position. A fierce opponent of the Oslo Accords and a long-time champion of Israeli settlement in the territories occupied in 1967, the Israeli leader can't find much to like in what the Saudi proposal requires of Israel. And yet he can't afford to ignore it, either. The principle of negotiating a withdrawal to something close to the 1967 borders is a recurring theme of all of the long-term peace plans currently in circulation. And Sharon, at least for now, lacks an alternative. He remains in deep political trouble at home for his failure to deal with an Israeli security crisis that has substantially deepened on his watch. And even many hawkish Israelis are concerned that the negotiating terrain of long-term solutions not be left entirely to Palestinian allies and Israeli doves.

The Saudis, and even Peres, have urged that negotiations towards a long-term solution be revived even before a cease-fire is achieved. Washington and Sharon will likely prefer to emphasize efforts to reduce day-to-day violence. Still, it's becoming increasingly clear that the debate over Israel's security is becoming inexorably linked with the question of its long-term intentions in the West Bank and Gaza.

And in the Middle East, that may be progress.