As European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana sought further clarification this week of a Saudi statement that promised true Middle East peace, the idea that Israel would no longer be virtually isolated amid hostile Arab neighbors brought a glimmer of hope to Israelis still reeling from a week that left some 70 Israelis and Palestinians dead.
“I think it’s a significant breakthrough,” said Moshe Maoz, a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “If we now proceed without previous conditions, it might work because both sides are exhausted and want a settlement. The majority of the people want to kill one another, but they also want a settlement; it’s a schizophrenic attitude.”
According to the statement of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto leader of his country, Israel would be offered peace, security, trade and normalized diplomatic relations with the Arab world in return for a withdrawal to its 1967 border. Abdullah made the offer in a conversation with New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman, and his aides later expanded upon it in phone conversations with Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Boaz Ganor, director of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, told The Jewish Week that from what he had read, the Saudi proposal was “vague and not a concrete plan. But I do believe it is a good suggestion coming from Saudi Arabia in that it includes a kind of acknowledgement of the existence of Israel. An acceptance of Israel definitely can contribute to peace.”
Siegman, in a phone conversation from Paris, said Abdullah is very flexible when it comes to Israel’s borders and that he would recognize almost any border acceptable to the Palestinians, provided parts of East Jerusalem became the capital of a Palestinian state.
image2goeshere Thus, he said, a proposal advanced during the Camp David talks in June 2000 that called for a land swap would be acceptable. That proposal called for Israel to retain settlements near Jerusalem that are home to 80 percent of Israeli settlers, and in return give the Palestinians land in Israel proper that would be comparable in quantity and quality.
In addition, Siegman said the Saudis do not preclude “Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem over heavily Jewish populations and over the Kotel [Western Wall] as well. That is as much as the Saudis can be expected to say. They are not saying that they will negotiate for the Palestinians or specify which areas of Jerusalem the Palestinians may have. That needs to come from [Israeli and Palestinian] negotiations.”
Siegman said also that the Saudis left out any mention of the right of return to Israel of more than 3 million Palestinians because “that is not a hot-button issue for the Saudis. If the Palestinians reach an agreement that satisfies them on this issue — at least in principle so that Israel’s existence would not be threatened — the Saudis would endorse it.”
Asked about the Golan Heights, Siegman said that is a territorial conflict that Israel must resolve with Syria. Abdullah’s primary concern, said Siegman, is the Palestinians because of what he perceives as Israeli aggression against a helpless people.
King Hussein of Jordan is reportedly working behind the scenes to encourage Abdullah to publicly state his proposal at the Arab League summit in Beirut March 27-29. Siegman said such a move would provide more public relations value than anything else because Palestinian President Yasir Arafat and most of the Arab world “have already come on board” in support of the Saudi statement.
Zalman Shoval, a foreign policy adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, expressed skepticism about the Saudi initiative, saying in a phone call from Tel Aviv that if Abdullah was serious he would have pursued it through secret channels rather than by telling a reporter.
“This has all the characteristics of a public relations exercise with the addressee being the United States and not Israel,” he said, referring to Saudi Arabia’s interest in fostering better relations with the U.S. following Sept. 11.
He said he would like to hear from Abdullah himself and not Siegman on how flexible Saudi Arabia would be on the issue of borders. And he said that Sharon has asked for more details of the Saudi offer.
Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the Saudi statement was “certainly something Israel cannot ignore. … But in the end, Israel is not going to negotiate with the Crown Prince but with the Palestinians.”
Steven Spiegel, a consultant to the pro-peace process Israel Policy Forum, said that if the Saudis are “ready to accept a Jewish presence in Jerusalem, if they are ready to accept the 1967 borders and full normalization, it is a significant development.” Even more important, he said, is that the Saudi offer does not mention Palestinian refugees, which in the past has “always been the real deal breaker.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, was less enthusiastic, calling the Saudi statement “mostly a rehash of the old stuff. We’re not even sure he’s going to publicly offer it.”
But Shoval said it “could potentially be a positive step once [Abdullah] makes it official and clarifies that first the violence has to stop.”
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer made the same point this week, saying that although the proposal was “a note of hope,” it “doesn’t in and of itself change anything on the ground in the Middle East. The situation remains a very complicated situation and a very violent one.”
Ganor said the “one thing Israel is trying to accomplish is to make it clear to Yasir Arafat that violence does not pay. What we are seeing today is his belief that violence pays.”
Shoval pointed out that in the last two weeks Arafat has “stepped up the violence. All of the terrorist attacks have come from organizations directly answering to him.” In spite of an agreement that during Purim and the four-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which ended Monday, that the two sides would refrain from military action, “we are still burying our dead from attacks of the last few days.”
Just this week, two people were killed and two wounded — including a pregnant woman — in two separate attacks in Gush Etzion. And a police officer was killed and eight others injured when a Palestinian gunman opened fire on Israelis at a bus stop in northern Jerusalem’s Neveh Ya’acov neighborhood. Doctors said one bullet penetrated the pregnant woman’s womb but did not harm the baby or any of the mother’s internal organs.
“You could say that the baby actually saved her mother’s life,” a doctor told the Israeli daily Haaretz.
The Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade issued a leaflet saying the attacks were a “gift” to the widow of a Palestinian shot and killed Sunday at an Israeli military checkpoint south of Nablus while he was driving his pregnant wife to a hospital. Israeli authorities said shots were fired at the car after it raced through the roadblock. The woman was shot and wounded. She was the second pregnant woman to be shot at that same roadblock in two days.
Terror attacks were averted in Haifa Tuesday, when a Palestinian terrorist was disarmed before he had a chance to open fire, and in the West Bank settlement of Efrat last Friday, when a Palestinian wearing a belt packed with explosives was shot and killed by a customer before he had a chance to trigger the explosives in a supermarket.
At least 890 Palestinians and 275 Israelis have been killed in 17 months of violence.