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Dancing With The Saudis

Dancing With The Saudis

The promise of Saudi Arabia Wednesday to attend this fall’s American-sponsored regional conference on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis received mixed reviews from analysts — one called it a “welcome development” while another was wary of strings that might be attached.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told a press conference that his country is “interested in the peace conference … and will discuss it and we will make sure that we attend the conference.

”David Makovsky, a senior fellow and director of The Washington Institute’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process, said he would “have to see the fine print, but it is a good beginning and it might encourage other [Persian] Gulf states” to attend.

But Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, was skeptical of the Saudi pledge, noting that after the Gulf War the Saudis promised to attend an academic conference in Washington with Israeli academics — as well as to host a dinner there — and then failed to appear.

“There is no reason to think they will actually show up” now, he said. “They will make promises and their names will appear on the program, but I am confident they will not show up.”

Although their attendance at a conference with Israel would be seen by some as a diplomatic breakthrough, Steinberg said “there is no such thing as a diplomatic breakthrough unless it is sustained. [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat’s visit here was a breakthrough because it was followed and preceded by lots of meetings. So you have to treat this with a certain amount of skepticism.”

Cautious optimism was voiced by Moshe Maoz, a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who said that although Saudi attendance at the conference was important, he was wary of any conditions they might impose.

“Will they insist there must be a stage where final status issues will be negotiated?” he asked.

“The main thing is the result of this summit,” Maoz said. “There is a chance that the Israelis and Palestinians will create relations that will be a model for others and that could lead to a Palestinian state next to Israel. The Palestinians need to hope that it will really lead to a state with its capital in Jerusalem and a solution to the refugee problem. This is heavy stuff and the question is what can be done to establish a mechanism” to lead to such an agreement.The Saudi announcement came one day after a published report claimed that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were holding secret talks in an attempt to iron out a peace agreement that would resolve all issues, including Israel’s future borders, the future of Jerusalem, and Palestinian refugees. Just last week, Olmert said he intended to negotiate with Abbas about the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Olmert wants to negotiate an Agreement on Principles with Abbas that would deal with a Palestinian state’s institutions, economy and customs arrangements. Only after that agreement is reached will Olmert want to discuss the tough issues like borders, the paper said.

It also said Olmert was prepared to offer Abbas 90 percent of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; swap land for Israel’s continued control over large settlement blocs in the West Bank; build a tunnel to connect the West Bank and Gaza to give the Palestinians territorial contiguity; and allow a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, which in the past Olmert said could be in outlying Arab neighborhoods while Israel continued to retain the Old City and its environs.

Haim Ramon, Israel’s vice premier and a close ally of Olmert, said recently that Israel’s “occupation of the territories threatens our very existence, our legitimacy and our international standing.”

Makovsky said there are two schools of thought in Israel regarding peace talks. One view, held by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, would like to see the whole thing hammered out so that Israel would know what it would get in return for making concessions. The other view, held by Ramon, “believes that trade-offs are not feasible at this time and that if an all or nothing [approach is adopted] we will be left with nothing, so let’s do what we can do.”

“Olmert is closer to the Ramon school [of thought] that is focused on what the domestic political traffic can bear,” Makovsky said.

The Financial Times reported this week that the Bush administration was working to create interim statehood for the Palestinians before Bush left office, and that the pace of diplomacy has accelerated since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June.But Maoz said an interim solution does not necessarily mean a state with its capital in Jerusalem.

“The Palestinians want a blueprint — as do the Arab countries — and Israel is reluctant to make a long term commitment, especially regarding borders, Jerusalem and refugees,” he said. “It does not mean Israel has to commit to concessions but that it has to start negotiating about them.”

But Steinberg said such talks would be futile.

“Abbas is too weak to say we he will give up the right of return, and Olmert cannot afford to make any controversial decisions,” he said. Steinberg said that although Israelis are ready to accept a two-state solution, they are “not ready to accept the [Palestinian] right of return or to give up Jerusalem.”

Richard Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, said it would take a “quantum leap in popularity for Olmert to make a deal” with Abbas that the Israeli public would accept.

Olmert’s popularity rating is now about 8 percent, according to recent polls.

Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the U.S. is the key to working out a peace agreement.

“It is very, very hard for them to make concessions to each other because both are weak and have domestic constituencies,” she said. “It would be easier if they can say the U.S. made them do it. … If it can be made to work now, it is going to take a huge effort because things are very, very bad and both [men] are very, very weak.”

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