Saudi Summitry

Will the U.S. run with the Arab League's peace proposal?


Beirut—As Israel reeled from a suicide attack in a Netanya hotel on Wednesday, George W. Bush declared, "I condemn it in the most strongest of terms."

The president's double superlative may have emphasized his outrage, but as the retaliatory Israeli offensive against the Palestinian town of Ramallah underscored, much more than outrage will be expected of Bush in the coming months if Palestinians and Israelis are to make peace.

That is because the Netanya bomb went off just as one of the more interesting Arab League summits in recent memory stumbled towards an acrimonious end to its first day at a different hotel, Beirut's Phoenicia Inter-Continental.

On the table was a Saudi initiative, first floated by Crown Prince Abdullah to Thomas Friedman of The New York Times. It offered Israel normal relations and security in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from all Arab lands occupied in June 1967, recognition of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as capital, and a "just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem."

The acrimony in Beirut was provoked by Lebanon's president, Emile Lahoud. As summit chairman his job was to call on Arab representatives to address the chamber. The Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, confined in Ramallah, waited for his turn to speak by satellite link-up. Astonishingly, Lahoud ignored him. The Palestinian delegation walked out in protest. Others followed, and the summit looked set to collapse.

Saudi mediation soon turned things around and the conference was saved. However, what had occurred was a bold effort by Lebanon, no doubt at Syria's behest, to undermine the Saudi initiative by breaking up the summit. The Syrians oppose normal relations with Israel, fearing this will destabilize their unyielding, security-crazed political system.

The Bush administration will have to bear this in mind as it devises a response to the Saudi proposal, which the Arab League formally adopted yesterday. Whether the plan has been superceded by Israel's subsequent military actions in the West Bank remains to be seen. Even so, the plan's approval showed the Saudis could deliver a valuable offer from otherwise divided states that rarely miss an opportunity to disappoint. This should help paper over post-September 11 animosities between Washington and Riyadh.

Since it took office the Bush administration has been at sea over what to do in the Middle East. One problem is that it has based its indecisiveness on a sound premise: The Palestinians and Israelis are so far apart in their aspirations that diplomatic intervention is impossible. Consequently, the U.S. is better off containing the conflict until the parties are ripe for a deal.

However, the administration also insists that it alone can eventually breathe life into a regional settlement. As Vice President Dick Cheney told NBC news last week: "The fact of the matter is, there isn't anybody but us. Left to their own devices, the Israelis and the Palestinians have been unable to resolve [their] differences."

What Cheney did not mention is that the U.S. has nothing to offer, either. For months the administration has backed a two-step strategy that no one actually believes in: movement towards a ceasefire plan named for CIA director George Tenet, to be followed by an exchange of short-term confidence-building measures known as the Mitchell plan.

Neither plan addresses, nor was intended to address, a fundamental question: the kind of Palestinian state that will emerge. The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, wants at most to offer the Palestinians a small state in parts of the West Bank and Gaza at some ill-defined point in the future, with few if any concessions on Jerusalem and refugees.

The Palestinians, in turn, are beyond interim deals like the Tenet and Mitchell plans. They perceive their fight against Israel as a war of national liberation, with their minimal objectives the conditions outlined in the Saudi plan. Arafat refuses to crack down on his militants because he has been offered no ultimate political horizon. Without the contours of a final solution, Arafat believes that halting the Intifada will only benefit Israel.

He is not altogether wrong. When Bush took office he erred by accepting Bill Clinton's edict before his departure that the failure of two rounds of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations—at Camp David in July 2000 and at Taba, Egypt, in January 2001—compelled him to declare null all agreements reached in both locations. The U.S. thus threw out the baby with the bathwater, abandoning even Palestinian and Israeli points of convergence.

The irony is that both gatherings pushed Israelis and Palestinians closer to a final peace deal than they had ever been before. By discarding points of agreement, Clinton and Bush deleted the memory of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiating track. This also prevented the U.S. from defining what a mutually acceptable peace settlement might look like, with the details to be filled in by the parties themselves.

Thanks to the Saudis a political horizon now exists. What emerged from the Beirut conclave was an inventive offer that defied the tide of anger in the region aroused by the Intifada. Pointedly, it was directed at Israeli public opinion and came accompanied by a most amiable Saudi interpretation of the type of "normal relations" the Arabs promised Israel.

In an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, noted: "We envision a relationship between the Arab countries and Israel that is exactly like the relationship between the Arab countries and any other state." He defended Israel's right to live within its 1967 borders in "serenity".

By welcoming the proposal, the Bush administration may have found an endgame to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nothing in the Saudi (now Arab) proposal was new, yet everything has changed. The Arabs are bluntly offering Israel what it has always demanded. If Israel refuses, its quarrel may no longer be merely with its neighbors, but also with the U.S.