Tuesday, February 26, 2002
More stuff on the Saudi peace proposal, from JPost and Ha'aretz. My take in brief: the proposal is real and meaningful AND is primarily a PR exercise. Let me explain. The Saudi ruling family is genuinely worried that, once the axis of evil is dealt with, the U.S. will turn on them next. This is not at all implausible. The Saudis have not been particularly helpful post-9/11, and their religious ideology is one major cause of 9/11 in the first place. They need to do something to get back in the Americans' good graces. What better than to try to cut the Gordian knot of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Abdullah has simultaneously raised Saudi Arabia's profile (as the ones who can deliver the "Muslim street" on a deal with Israel) and indicated that his regime will be part of the solution, not part of the problem. So the motivation is PR. But the substance is real, for 3 reasons.
First, this is the first suggestion by Saudi Arabia that it would be willing to recognize Israel. Since that government is charged with guarding the holiest places of Islam, and considers itself more generally the center of the Muslim world, and since Islamic rejection of the notion of a Jewish state is the most intractable aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict, this is an important development.
Second, while it is clear that the '67 borders are to be a point of reference, it does appear that Abdullah is willing to contemplate adjustments to those borders that are compensated. This is essential for Israel because the '67 borders are both unacceptably insecure and would involve giving up central parts of the Jewish patrimony, such as the Western Wall.
Third, it changes the dynamic of the diplomatic process that has always proceeded alongside the war process. Netanyahu and Barak agreed that it was not in Israel's interest to keep making interim agreements with Arafat and getting nothing in exchange; that's why Barak, who genuinely wanted an agreement, took the risk of pushing for final status talks. Even at this late date, I think they were right; the Oslo process was a salami process, and the time had come for Arafat to make peace or declare his true intentions. We all know what he did. Arafat's recourse to war has always had one primary purpose: to achieve concessions by violence without surrendering anything at the negotiating table. But so long as Israel is unwilling or unable to destroy the PA, and so long as the PA can hold out, this is a losing dynamic for Israel, because the diplomatic pressure to do something to end the violence will ultimately force them to agree to a cease-fire that gives Arafat something in exchange for simply ending the violence - in other words, that rewards him for terror. Check out this editorial in JPost if you want to see what the situation is doing to Sharon's position with his own supporters. By pushing once again for a complete solution to the conflict, the Saudi Crown Prince has changed the dynamic back to one that ultimately favors Israel (presuming, of course, that Israel wants an agreement and a two-state solution).
The main thing that the proposal does not begin to sketch out is: what will preserve Israeli security after a deal? Any answer to that question must deal with the fact that Arafat now presides over a terrorist state. The existence of a state of that character is incompatible with Israeli security, and no possible agreement for, say, sharing Jerusalem can be worked out absent a resolution of the nature of the regime that governs the Palestinians. I continue to believe that the only answer to this question must be some kind of international wardship for the Palestinian areas. Arafat must be removed, or at minimum his forces must be completely disarmed. Agreement on this is a precondition for any kind of peace agreement, not something we can hope will happen as a result of a peace agreement.
Israel should encourage the Saudi proposal, and in precisely the terms that it has been encouraging them. If the Saudis genuinely have accepted Israel's right to exist, then they should have no problem making their proposals to Israel directly. Recognition does not mean peace; peace and diplomatic relations will follow the resolution of the conflict. But if Abdullah were to go to Jerusalem - or invite Sharon and/or Katsav to Riyadh - that would complete the parallel with Sadat in 1978. It will be objected that this is expecting too much of Saudi Arabia - that Abdullah has already made his gesture, and now it is Israel's turn. This is incorrect, because Israel's existence should not be a question at this date; what is a question is how to resolve the position of the Palestinians and what Israel's borders are. The starting point for dialogue, with every one of the states or entities that warred against Israel, was for them to recognize Israel. Once this is done, negotiations can begin, and in both Egypt's and Jordan's case, Israel's erstwhile enemies got pretty much everything they wanted from Israel as a result of these negotiations. The same precondition should exist for Saudi Arabia. But, to be fair, Israel needs to be prepared to offer something if Abdullah does go to Jerusalem. The one thing that cannot be offered is any notion that there is a Palestinian right to "return" to sovereign Israeli territory. And in this regard, note that all the commentators on the Saudi proposal have pointed out that it did not mention such a right. Israel also cannot accept a return to the '67 borders. That leaves really two possible concessions that Israel can make.
One, Israel could agree in principle to giving different religions full sovereignty over their respective holy places - i.e., Muslim sovereignty over the Temple Mount (or at least the surface thereof). The main value of this concession is that it is a religious one rather than a national one. It is not, therefore, a concession to the Palestinians. Israel could just as easily cede control of the mosques to Jordan, or Saudi Arabia. (Whatever formula is ultimately becomes the basis for a resolution of the conflict will have to postpone certain religious questions to the Messianic future - after all, Israel cannot renounce Jewish claims to the Temple Mount, but only declare that the State of Israel will not press these claims, but leave them to the Messianic Age.) The only real downside is that it concedes in principle the division of Jerusalem. But even this it doesn't do to any significant degree, since Barak already agreed to this and, in any event, Israel does not want to absorb the entire non-citizen Palestinian population of Jerusalem.
Two, Israel could agree in principle to the '67 borders as the starting point for negotiations, on the understanding that any adjustments to these borders would be compensated, either financially or with land elsewhere. This would be a major concession, in that Israel has never accepted the '67 cease-fire lines as diplomatically significant in any way. Moreover, once conceded, Israel could never retract such a concession. Most problematically, this would be a national concession to the Palestinians, who have done nothing to merit such a concession. On the other hand, this is another matter where, realistically, if there is to be a two-state solution, Israel will most likely wind up negotiating from the position of the '67 cease-fire lines eventually anyhow, and come up with some scheme for retaining military control of the Jordan Valley, sovereignty over the largest settlement blocs, etc.
The big question still needs to be resolved: how can we have a two-state solution without compromising Israel's security given that the PA is a terrorist entity? And, if there is not to be a two-state solution in the near term, how and by whom is the Palestinian population to be governed? Abdullah's proposal does nothing to help answer the first half of the question; indeed, it changes the topic. For Israel to put the spotlight back on this key question, the government needs to be supportive of the proposal at least in principle, and see if it leads to anything, in spite of the diplomatic risks of doing so. As for the second half, if it does turn into something real, Abdullah's proposal may open a small door to the de-Islamicization of the conflict. If Arafat, say, does not follow Abdullah's lead, then Saudi Arabia becomes another potential partner for the Western powers in constructing an international administration of the territories to replace Arafat's regime. It should be recalled that, in the Camp David talks between Israel and Egypt that led to their peace treaty, Israel agreed to a framework for solving the Palestinian situation, and this framework was rejected by the Palestinians. It is not at all unlikely that, if Abdullah's overtures actually come to something, Arafat will do the same all over again, probably over the so-called "right to return."
I do want to stress, I'm taking these proposals with a big heaping helping of salt. Saudi Arabia is a deeply corrupt regime significantly implicated in September 11th. I do not think that the larger war being waged against the West will be ended so long as the Saudi theocracy dominates the Islamic world. That said, the rest of the world is taking the proposal very seriously indeed, so I am, too. I never would have expected I would think nice things about President Musharraf of Pakistan either, after all.