Saudi Peace Offer Designed To Improve Standing With US

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - A recent Saudi Arabian peace proposal to end the Israeli-Arab conflict was most likely put forth to improve the desert kingdom's standing with the U.S. and is likely to fizzle out within a few weeks, Israeli analysts said.

Israel and Saudi Arabia have never had diplomatic ties. But the Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud proposed that the Arab world grant a "full normalization of relations" to the Jewish state in exchange for a "full [Israeli] withdrawal from all the occupied territories, in accord with U.N. resolutions, including Jerusalem," in an interview published last week in The New York Times.

The reference is to territories Israel captured from Jordan, known as the West Bank, and from Egypt, known as the Gaza Strip, during the 1967 Six-Day war.

Abdullah said he had written the proposal in a speech he planned to deliver at the upcoming Arab League Summit at the end of March but had shelved the idea when violence, which he blamed on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, moved to "an unprecedented level."

The U.S. has welcomed the Saudi initiative and said it was worth investigating. Secretary of State Colin Powell called it "an important step" and said he looked forward to seeing details emerge in the weeks ahead.

Palestinian Authority cabinet minister Saeb Erekat was quoted as saying that "a firm American and international position [of support] has to be taken" in order for the proposal to succeed.

PA Chairman Yasser Arafat said that he "appreciated and supported completely" the Saudi proposal, while several moderate Arab states have also welcomed it.

Israeli leaders have responded positively to the initiative. Government officials were quoted as saying that Sharon had asked the U.S. to try to arrange a meeting between himself and Abdullah in order to discuss the proposal.

Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said on Tuesday that the Saudi initiative should be viewed positively, and that "it contains innovative elements and should therefore be promoted, not rejected."

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said that Israel would welcome direct negotiations with Saudi Arabia without any preconditions and that Israel was trying to clarify the Saudi position.

Fizzle Out In Weeks

But Israeli analysts were less optimistic.

Zalman Shoval, a veteran diplomat and advisor to Sharon, said that Israel would explore any chance for peace but he does not think personally that this proposal will succeed.

"Obviously any Israeli government will not forego any chance or possibility to advance the cause of peace," said Shoval in a telephone interview. "It's possible that both the prime minister and the foreign minister will try to make some inquiries about Abdullah's initiative."

Emphasizing that he was not speaking for the government, Shoval said that the proposal is aimed at the U.S. and at the same time puts the entire responsibility on Israel.

"My own feeling is that the efforts which we shall make in this respect will turn out not to be worthwhile. It is mainly aimed at the U.S., not at Israel," said Shoval, who was twice Israeli ambassador to Washington.

As Shoval sees it, the proposal has two purposes: "to mend fences" with the Americans given the deep involvement of the Saudis in the September 11 terror attacks; and to try to break the strong U.S. support for Israel in the current conflict.

Fifteen of the terrorists were Saudi nationals and the al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden is financed largely by Saudi businessmen, many of whom have connections with the royal family, he said. Saudi Arabia also refused to give the U.S. the right to take off from airfields there in its war against terrorism.

"The second purpose is to try to do something about Israel's successful political campaign in American and the closeness of the administration with the Israeli government," Shoval said in reference to the support Washington has given Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Although the initiative may look good at first, Shoval said, it would be impossible for Israel to agree to it. Israel will never return completely to the 1967 borders, he said.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 dealing with the issue was left intentionally vague and is interpreted differently by Israel and the Arab world.

It calls for the "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict [1967 war]." But it also ensures the right of every state "to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries."

The Arab world argues that means all territories, while Israel, backed by U.S. leaders in the past have said that Israel's borders were previously indefensible and therefore Israel does not need to withdraw from all the territories. The word "all" was intentionally omitted from the drafting of the resolution.

"What is missing is any reference to the absolute need to forego the right of return," Shoval said in reference to the Palestinian demand that millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants be allowed to settle within the Israeli borders.

Israel rejects that demand outright saying that within a few years, demographically Israel as a Jewish state would cease to exist.

"It's really putting the onus on Israel," he said, adding that he thought the initiative would "peter out" after a few weeks.

"If all of a sudden after all these decades [the Saudis] are concerned with the Palestinians and the peace process - maybe Abdullah should do a Sadat and come for a visit," he said in reference the historic visit of Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem in 1977. "It's obvious it will never happen."

Knesset Member Yuval Shteinitz said it is a "very nice proposal" but "surprisingly" -- even after Israel and the PA signed the Oslo Accords in 1993 -- Saudi Arabia didn't want anything to do with Israel.

"They never stopped incitement in the media," Steinitz said. "I prefer not just to see such a political declaration but to see some serious shifts in internal media."

Prof. Efraim Inbar, of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, said that the Saudi proposal is not a new one. Saudi King Fahd already put forward the proposal in 1981, he said.

"The test is if [the Saudis] are ready to meet Prime Minister Sharon. It's easy to make declarations," Inbar said by telephone. "They were never willing to talk to us on a bilateral level."

No Meeting With Israelis

Israel's largely ceremonial President Moshe Katsav on Monday invited the crown prince to visit Jerusalem and present his initiative to the government. Katsav also said that he was ready to meet with King Fahd if he were to be invited to Riyadh.

But Saudi Arabia rejected on Tuesday the Israeli invitations to meet Israeli leaders to discuss the proposal until peace agreements were already signed an editorial in the state-run Al-Watan newspaper said on Tuesday.

"An exchange of visits - if it takes place - will only occur to solidify agreements that had been signed and not at the start of an initiative that the Israelis have yet to take a clear and specific stand on," the paper said.

The paper also said that the Arab League summit, Beirut at the end of March would be the "first and final authority to decide the fate of this initiative, especially because it concerns all Arab countries which must give its approval before it moves forward."

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