SIEZING ON THE SAUDI INITIATIVE
Alon Ben-Meir - 20 March 2007
Dr. ALON BEN-MEIR – His exceptional knowledge and insight gained by more than 25 years of direct involvement with foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, have allowed Dr. Alon Ben-Meir to offer a unique and invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, ethnic conflict, and international negotiations.
A noted journalist and author, Dr. Ben-Meir is the Middle East Director of the World Policy Institute at the New School for Social Research, and a professor of International Relations and Middle-Eastern studies at the Center for Global Studies at NYU and at the New School. Born in Baghdad and currently residing in New York City, he holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University.
In addition to his essays on contemporary global conflict oriented issues, Dr. Ben-Meir writes a weekly syndicated column about current international policies and events, which is published by United Press International.
Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Dr. Ben-Meir began his career as a journalist. His frequent travels to the Mid-East and conversations with highly placed sources in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Israel, and Palestine provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness of and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news.
Dr. Ben-Meir is the author of numerous books, including: The Middle East: Imperative and Choices, Israel: The Challenge of the Fourth Decade, In Defiance of Time, Framework for Arab-Israeli Peace, The Last Option, and A War We Must Win. He expects to publish his latest book Defeating Terrorism in the summer of 2006.
Dr. Ben-Meir's views on contemporary international affairs are often sought out by major television and radio networks, and he is a frequent speaker before groups and organizations at venues as varied as world affairs councils and town hall meetings. He is a popular lecturer on international relations at a variety of universities besides the New York University and the New School.
The flurry of activity surrounding the reintroduction of the Saudi initiative at
the Arab League Summit in Riyadh in late March is entirely different from the
atmosphere when it was originally adopted by the Arab states during their Beirut
meeting five years ago. The convergence of ominous developments in the Middle
East in the wake of the Iraq war, especially the looming regional conflict
between Shiites and Sunnis along with Iran's ambition to become, armed with
nuclear weapons, the region's main power has precipitated rapid and
extraordinary realignments. Israel is now seen not only as the lesser evil but
as a possible strategic partner in deterring Iran. In addition, because Syria is
essential to any unification of the various Sunni groups, ending the
Arab-Israeli conflict has assumed new urgency.
It is in the context of these developments, that the Saudi initiative has become
so critical. The initiative calls on Israel to agree to full withdrawal from the
occupied territories; to arrive at a just solution to the Palestinian refugee
problem, based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194; and to accept a
Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as the capital.
Although Olmert's government rejects in principle the right of return and
does not subscribe to full withdrawal from the territories, the government sees
positive elements in the Saudi initiative, which was rejected by the Sharon
government after the Arab League's adoption in 2002. The significant new
factor that makes these developments possible is the separate but joint
recognition by Israel and the Arab states that the larger regional threat
emanates from Iran. If the Arab states want to prevent an all-out Shiite-Sunni
conflict, they know they must contain Iran's ambitions, and this means
finally ending their conflict with Israel. While the Middle East is in
unprecedented turmoil, the new reality offers a genuine opportunity to
dramatically advance the Arab-Israeli peace process.
Although this altered landscape strengthens the Israeli bargaining position, to
make serious progress and to persuade the Israelis to accept the initiative, the
Saudis must (1) add a reference to UN resolution 242, not only in the original
initiative's preamble, where it is already referenced, but also in provision
2, and (2) insist that the new Palestinian unity government accept the
First, referring to 242 in provision 2 can allay Israeli concerns over two
extremely sensitive areas: territorial withdrawal and the return of refugees.
First, the Security Council resolution 242 passed in November 1967 calls for
"withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent
conflict [the Six Days War, 1967] within secure and recognized borders."
Second, on the refugee problem, the resolution stipulates "achieving just
settlement of the refugee problem." It is critical to note here that 242,
supersedes the 1948 UN General Assembly resolution 194 which, in any case,
unlike 242, is not binding. Moreover, as the initiative itself notes, both the
Arab states and Israel have accepted 242, and, as such, it has provided the
basis for peace negotiations and agreements between Israel and Egypt and Israel
and Jordan. Referencing 242 in the body of provision 2 would simply strengthen
the Saudi initiative, making it consistent with the accepted basis of
negotiation between Israel and the Arab states, including the 1993-1994 Oslo
accords agreed to by Israel and the Palestinians. From the Israeli perspective,
resolution 242 allows some room for territorial negotiation to achieve
"secure borders," perhaps through limited land swapping. Also implicit
in the resolution is finding a humanitarian solution to the refugee problem
through resettlement in Palestinian territories and/or compensation because even
the principle of the "right of return" is a nonstarter for Israel.
Second, although Arab league resolution must be unanimous, for the revived Saudi
initiative to accomplish its ends the Palestinians must accept it. The approved
resolution should leave no loopholes for the Palestinians under the pretext that
no Palestinian state now exists. If the new unity Palestinian government rejects
the initiative the Arab states can hardly blame Israel for rejecting it. Indeed,
Israel would be hard pressed not to accept the initiative once the Palestinians
do. On the Palestinian side, the initiative represents another momentous
opportunity, especially for Hamas, to finally face the reality of Israel under
the Arab league cover, and so pave the way for earnest negotiations with the
objective of reaching a two-state solution. If the Palestinians press forward
sincerely, this would also allow the United States to exert greater pressure on
Israel to seize the moment.
A commitment to negotiate a peace agreement based on the general principles of
the Saudi initiative is, of course, a high-risk game. From the Israeli
perspective, the occupied territories are vitally linked to national security,
and the Jewish identity of the state is directly related to the kind of solution
brought to the Palestinian refugee problem. Thus, by accepting the Saudi
initiative, Israel believes it will be taking a considerable risk once it
commits itself to ending the occupation. For this reason, any Israeli
government, regardless of its political orientation, must be able to envision
the end-game with some certainty before it can make such a commitment. It is
understandable why the Saudis do not want to modify the language of their
original initiative. But inserting this additional reference to 242 just might
satisfy the Israelis to the point that they decide to accept the initiative.
The reintroduction of the Saudi initiative, in the wake of the ominous
development in the Middle East, since the Iraq war began four years ago, offer
the Israelis and Palestinians a momentous opportunity to end their century-old
conflict. Israel and the Palestinians will have only themselves to blame if they
miss this historic opportunity.