The Saudi Initiative: Fact or Fantasy?

At least the Saudis are consistent. It seems that every ten years or so, when relations with the United State deteriorate, they trot out a Middle East Peace Plan. In return, they are lavished with praise and financial assistance. In 1981, President Reagan applauded the “Fahd Plan” for its “moderation,” and then sold the Saudis AWAC radar planes.

Unlike the current Saudi Initiative, however, the Fahd Plan, at least, had details. It provided for dismantling all settlements built on the West Bank and Gaza after 9167, including the neighborhoods in Jerusalem (ex. Gilo, Ramot, etc.); freedom of worship for all religions; recognition of the right of all Palestinians to return to their homes with monetary compensation for those who chose not to do so; temporary UN supervision over the Gaza Strip and West Bank for a few months; the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital; and (the final and most important article for Israel) that “all countries of the region have the right to live in peace.” Although the Saudis did not explicitly pledge to recognize Israel, the Plan nevertheless faltered on both the Palestinian and Syrian fronts.

Then, in 1991, Secretary of State James Baker thanked the Saudis for “breaking taboos” by giving their qualified endorsement, after repeated American entreaties, to the idea of a Middle East Peace Conference.


Based upon current Arab reaction in the Arab press to the Initiative, this overture may fair no better than previous adventures. There is, however, one overriding element that tempts us. A genuine, comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement would, over time, nullify Israel’s strategic concerns that justify her possession of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights. Such a state of affairs would allow an Israeli withdrawal from the territories and the creation of a Palestinian state.

The problem is that Israel has been down that road before. There years ago, Prime Minister Ehud Barak was prepared to return the entire Golan Heights to Syria in return for peace. That offer was refused. In January 2001, a similar offer was made to the Palestinians, which included compensating Palestinians with pre-1967 territory in exchange for absorbing several of the larger settlements into Israel proper. And we know where that led – nowhere.

So what are we now to expect from the current Saudi proposal and what are its long-term implications?

At the risk of sounding cynical – the Saudi Initiative serves at least eight (8) possible purposes, any one of which would benefit Saudi political, economic and diplomatic ends: It would…

1) Counter US anger at Saudi financial support for Islamic fundamentalist mosques (that led to the 9/11 attacks where 15 of the 19 terrorist were Saudis). After 9/11, the Arabs and Islamic countries found themselves, and continue to find themselves, on the defensive. This is their chance to be seen as “moderates,” although greater wisdom suggests that the “honeymoon” won’t last beyond the mending of those relations

2) Pacify Washington because of Riyadh’s refusal to support both the American campaign in Afghanistan and the planned campaign against Saddam Hussein;

3) Prepare the ground for a denial of American airbases in Saudi Arabia, which could be sued to support an attack on Saddam Hussein’s germ factories. The argument would run something like…”How can Arab countries offer a peace initiative in the Middle East if American planes are bombing Iraq;”

4) Forge a unified Arab diplomatic front purely for the purpose of casting Israel as an obstacle to the peace process (read: American pressure on Israel to change its policies);

5) Float a trial balloon to test Arab and international reaction prior to the Arab League meeting in March;

6) Express concern, probably real, that the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict might destabilize their regime and the entire region;

7) Motivate the Israeli opposition into believing that there really is a Saudi Arab “peace partner,” provided that the Sharon government can be removed; and/or

8) Put forth their view that the Palestinian intifada poses a dangerous economic threat to countries of the region. (In fact, almost all of Jordan’s sources of funding have run out, and Egypt urgently needs a few billion dollars in American aid to develop further sources of employment for its millions of unemployed. Its tourism industry has almost completely dried up and would represent sound fiscal policy for the Arab world).

Whatever the true reasons behind the Initiative, the notion (or illusion) of Israelis and Arabs living in peace with one another in the Middle East after over a half century of unrelenting hatred and bloodshed carries a certain fascination. For the optimists among us, the Initiative opens a horizon that Israel has long sought – not only recognition of its existence and the right to live in peace (as the 1981 Fahd Plan proposed), but full normalization. If true, that would represent a major strategic change in the Arab position. It would offer Israel political, economic and cultural normalization in return for a negotiated withdrawal from the occupied territories. It would allow Israel to retain sovereignty over Jewish religious sites (including the Western Wall) and residential areas in East Jerusalem, and even, apparently, to hold onto the larger settlements just beyond the 1967 lines in exchange for equivalent territory elsewhere. From a diplomatic perspective, it would mean the realization of a new Middle East; economic and cultural cooperation; Israelis dining at Damascus restaurants; Israelis selling merchandise at stalls in the international market in Dubai, an Israeli flag flying in Riyadh; Israeli program engineers, scientists and agronomists in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia; Israelis touring the sites of ancient Mesopotamia, and a gas pipeline from Qatar to Israel.

In short, it would represent a Middle East at peace with itself.

But is any of this real or is it just fantasy? Even if the Arab League unites behind Saudi Arabia’s proposal when they meet at the end of March…then what?

There is the slight matter of “details” (or, shall we say the absence thereof). The Saudi Initiative makes no mention of the refugee issue. It leaves open the question of Jerusalem and the concessions that both Israelis and Palestinians will be required to make. It does not recognize any phase-in time period between Israel and each individual Arab state (as was the case in the treaty concerning the return of the Sinai to Egypt), but contemplates one comprehensive, overall peace settlement between Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Palestinians.


– How would the Lebanese refugee issue be resolved where Beirut’s main interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is how to get rid of 300,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon?

– How will Arab governments deal with their religious establishments and “street people” who, (with government support) have vilified Israel for decades and are now being asked to normalize relations with the Jewish State?

– Would the Arab League agree to a peace treaty that did not include the “right of return”…which would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state?

– Can Syria give its seal-of-approval to a deal that would resolve the Syrian-Israeli issue on the Golan Heights, but leave unresolved Lebanon’s refugee demands on Israel?

– Will any solution formulated by Israel and the Palestinians be acceptable to the Saudis, and would Saudi Arabia be willing to allow Arafat to make concessions on Jerusalem?

– How exactly do the Saudis intend to “guarantee Israel’s security” if Israel agrees to withdraw from the territories?

– How is Israel to measure “sincerity” and “trust” when Arab children have been taught from birth to believe that the Holocaust was a hoax, that Jews have no historical claim to their ancient homeland but are merely modern usurpers, and that Arab suicide bombers are “martyrs” when they kill Jews?

– Where does Iraq figure into this comprehensive peace settlement? Unlike the European Union, the Arab League requires a unanimous vote, which means that the lowest common denominator will always be the least compromising position.

This is a very long road, and there are minefields everywhere. Rather than lauding the Saudis for their re-worked Initiative, Western governments should calculate the price that Israel will be required to pay in order to secure a workable peace settlement with her adversaries.

I suspect that, in the phased negotiations that would follow any genuine Arab League Initiative (and that would be a fantasy worth waiting for), Jerusalem will remain united (although certain boroughs may be recognized as the Palestinian capital), the West Bank and the Jordan Valley will not be totally returned (although some form of a land exchange with the Palestinians will take place), and a return of Arab refugees to their homes in Israel simply won’t happen (although some formula for equitable compensation will be determined).

And as for the erstwhile Mr. Arafat…he will lose his guerilla war and, under a more realistic leadership, Palestine will become a contiguous state with Israel, unburdened by military expenses and Islamic fundamentalism, and its people will become the pride of the Arab world as they were a millennium ago when the Arab-Muslims ruled Spain and laid the foundations for the European Renaissance.

All this depends not on American brokerage, nor Arab generosity, nor European Union, NATO or UN intervention, but on when the Palestinians themselves decide to take control of their own destiny.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *