Arab peace plan faces first round
Saudi Arabia's land-for-peace proposal will be put to a vote tomorrow as Arab leaders convene in Beirut.
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There's another potential deal breaker as well. The initiative may sink under the weight of an Arab demand, for example, that Palestinian refugees who hail from areas inside Israel be allowed to return to their homes of decades past.Skip to next paragraph
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But even the serious consideration being accorded the initiative demonstrates anew how the Arab approach to Israel has evolved from militancy to peacemaking. After Israel's stunning victory in the 1967 war, the Arabs resolved to increase their military strength, a strategy that resulted in the 1973 conflict.
Despite initial Arab successes on the battlefield, the Israelis prevailed, in part because of a massive infusion of US military aid. The war then paved the way for Egypt's 1979 treaty with Israel, a separate peace that wrecked any further hope of unified Arab belligerency against the Jewish state.
In 1981, acting on an earlier Saudi initiative, Arab leaders met to discuss a comprehensive peace deal with Israel, but the meeting splintered into discord after a few hours. They reconvened several months later to adopt a modified plan that faded into insignificance.
Following Mr. Arafat's 1988 renunciation of armed struggle, Arab states increasingly adopted peace with Israel rather than its eradication as their strate- gic goal. But not until the Prince Abdullah initiative this year have they seriously contemplated a collective offer of peace for land. Indeed, says former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Akins, President Bush's recent invitation to Abdullah to visit the presidential ranch in Texas is partly "a signal to the Israelis" that the US sees some hope in the Saudi plan.
Arab summits have typically afforded leaders a forum to rail against Israel without taking concrete action that might sap the long, slow momentum toward reconciliation. Arab leaders have relied on rhetoric to appease public sentiment at home, which has generally been harshly critical of Israel.
The US is still determined that peace must begin with a cease-fire, and US envoy Anthony Zinni has mediated for more than a week in an effort to get the two sides to refrain from violence. "In that sense," says the US official, "we're still ... at apples and oranges the apples being the two sides at each other's throats, and the oranges being a peace proposal that talks about final outcome."
Despite widespread frustration among Arabs over the US government's approach to the current phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict short periods of mediation mixed with long stretches of support for heavy-handed Israeli military action the Saudi initiative is coming into focus in part because of US diplomatic activity. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1397, sponsored by the US and passed this month, refers for the first time to the "state of Palestine," a phrase that President Bush and other US officials have also uttered in recent months.
"Now the Arabs, and the Palestinians too, think there is a light at the end of the tunnel," says Masri, the former Jordanian prime minister. "In return for this, the Arabs are ready to collectively say something constructive."
Nick Blanford in Beirut, Lebanon, Howard LaFranchi in Washington, and Mike Theodoulou in Nicosia, Cyprus, contributed to this report.