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If Saudis Want Peace, Let Them Emulate Sadat

July 19, 2007 By:
Douglas Bloomfield
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 The Middle East is in for another round of pseudo-diplomacy as the Arab League prepares to send a delegation to Israel that is something less than its "historic" billing in the media. Of course, nobody takes this very seriously because they know nothing will come of it.

The Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers are making another trip to Israel -- this time saying they represent the Arab League -- ostensibly to talk up the league's peace proposal, but none of the group's other 20 members takes it seriously enough to bother going along.

That includes the Saudis, whose king has taken credit for a proposal the Riyadh royals now say they've shelved. The king's top priority is establishing salaam, or "peace," between Hamas and Fatah, as well as reconstituting the short-lived Palestinian unity government he brokered this spring in Mecca.

The Saudi monarch is apparently so committed to rescuing Hamas that he snubbed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas when both were in Jordan because he opposes efforts by Fatah and the West to isolate the Islamic extremist party in the wake of its violent takeover of Gaza.

A Saudi political commentator and editor of a semi-official newspaper said that King Abdullah worries that the absence of the unity government helps only Israel. Fatah might disagree, but the king doesn't appear interested in hearing from its leader as he focuses on protecting the rejectionist Hamas, not helping the moderates who support peace with Israel.

The failure of other Arab diplomats to join the delegation undermines the league's credibility and tells Israelis the new initiative is not really serious. The group's terms remain: There is to be no contact with Israel until it accepts the terms of the all-or-nothing Saudi proposal.

When the proposal was first tabled five years ago, Israel rejected it. When it was revived earlier this year, Israel's embattled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert couldn't say enough good things about it, and practically begged the Saudis to discuss it, but they turned him away. No way, replied the Saudis. Their message to Jerusalem: no talks until you accept all our terms, including total withdrawal to the 1967 borders and recognizing the Palestinian "right of return."

The Saudis are believed to fear that anything short of that might be interpreted as normalization, which they feel is the only card they have to offer Israel, and which they're holding back at least until they get everything they want.

It is unrealistic to expect an enthusiastic response from Israel when neither the Jordanian king nor the Egyptian president is willing to set foot in the Jewish state, and no other Arab leader is ready to make the trip.

Given unrealistic Saudi demands, the violent stalemate will only further deteriorate, and the Palestinians, who the Arab League says it wants to help, will be the ones to suffer the most.

Israel, with its booming economy and strong military, can absorb the snubs and the low-intensity warfare, and voters may turn to hard-liners like Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu in the next election, who's much less inclined toward compromise than Olmert or Labor's Ehud Barak.

What will it take to really launch a peace process that could galvanize Israelis and Palestinians?

Start with bold leadership on both sides willing and able to take dramatic steps for peace -- something missing all around.

Israel will have to do more than just remove a few roadblocks, dismantle some illegal outposts, free a handful of prisoners and release frozen Palestinian tax revenues.

The Arabs will have to send a real delegation to Israel, not the same old wine in a different old bottle, and drop their all-or-nothing demands. What Arab leaders -- perhaps understandably, given their own authoritarian perches -- fail to understand is that Israeli public opinion, unlike its Arab counterpart, really is a driving force for peace, but it needs to be motivated.

Egypt's former President Anwar Sadat demonstrated that by going directly to the Israeli people, so that he could turn around a country and a prime minister who months earlier had vowed not to surrender even a single grain of Sinai sand.

Can you imagine a Saudi king with the courage to deliver a message of peace and reconciliation from the podium of the Knesset?

Douglas M. Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist.


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