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Israel now open to once-rejected Arab peace plan

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 14, 2007



TEL AVIV

A five-year-old Saudi Arabian regional peace plan appears to be displacing the US's dormant "road map" as the initiative to get Arabs and Israelis back to the table.

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After initially rejecting the plan, which was adopted by the Arab League in 2002 and offers full Arab ties if Israel returns all territory occupied since 1967, Israel this week praised the proposal as a new starting point for talks.

The resurfacing of the plan highlights the growing willingness of US-allied Arab regimes to engage with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict directly. But there is still a wide gap between what Arabs are seeking – such as the return of Palestinian refugees – and what Israel is willing to give.

Regional diplomacy is also coming to the fore elsewhere. An international gathering in Iraq to begin deeper discussions on what the region can do to ease that country's problems preceded Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's expressed interest in the Saudi initiative. In the plan, Mr. Olmert said he saw "positive elements" and said that he hoped the Arab League meeting in Riyadh on March 28 would reaffirm the group of nation's position on normalizing diplomatic ties with Israel.

While there has been thawing in Israel's view regarding the plan, analysts are quick to point out that Israel has serious reservations with its key points. For instance, they say, Israel will not accept the plan's support for a right of return for Palestinian refugees to homes inside of the present-day Jewish state.

Also, the plan's call for a full withdrawal from the West Bank also runs counter to commitments by successive Israeli government to hold onto blocs of Jewish settlements.

The proposal, which is to be revisited by the Arab League later this month, also underlines Saudi Arabia's growing status as a regional mediator.

"The Saudi peace initiative looks at the Palestinian issue, but it takes other countries into account, as well. It's a region-wide approach by one of the main patrons of the Arab world," says Meir Javedanfar, the Tel Aviv-based author of "The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran," a book on the Iranian nuclear program.

"If we get [Saudi] support, they can apply pressure to all the countries that sponsor groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah," he says.

The road map, first introduced in 2002, focused on confidence building measures as a prerequisite for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks – fighting militants on the Palestinian side and dismantling unauthorized settlement outposts on the Israeli side – but the process has been mothballed as neither side met their commitment.

The Saudi initiative, by contrast, seeks agreement on a set of principles for Arab-Israeli peace as a jumping off point for regional negotiations.

Considering those principles represents a departure for Israel. It has traditionally preferred bilateral rather than multilateral talks because, analysts say, they fear having solutions imposed on them.

The plan is seen as highlighting Saudi Arabia's role as a regional counterweight to Iran's growing influence in the region. It also fills a vacuum of diplomacy at a time when the US influence in the Middle East has been constrained by growing violence in Iraq and little progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

"It reflects a burst of Saudi leadership such as we haven't seen," says Yossi Alpher, the coeditor of the online Middle East peace forum Bitterlemons.org. "It also reflects the failure of America's feeble efforts to deal with the Arab-Israeli peace process."

But analysts said it's unlikely that the Israelis and the Palestinians are capable of a peace deal in the near future because of Olmert's sagging approval ratings and internal strife among the Palestinians.

And yet, the Saudi initiative could potentially help Olmert find a new foreign policy direction after the Lebanon war destroyed plans to unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank. With its promise of a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace, analysts also say the Saudi plan helps Olmert divert attention from Lebanon war fallout and corruption scandals.

"The Syrian channel is blocked and talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are leading nowhere, and prompt yawns from the Israeli public," wrote Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Aluf Ben. "But if a proposal for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace goes out from Riyadh, especially if it is accompanied by summit meetings between Olmert and Arab leaders, it could broadcast a new hope to the public."

Israel may also be willing to give the Saudi proposal a second chance as they see the growing influence of Iran in its backyard. Iranian-backed Hamas's parliamentary victory in January 2006 coupled with the summertime Israel-Hizbullah war and Lebanon's sectarian struggle, have underlined the threats posed by Iran and other Islamic militants to pro-Western Sunni regimes and the Jewish state.

In an address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni described a changed region.

"Yes, there are threats. We can see the extremists headed by Iran, with its proxy Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian Authority," she said. "But there are also new opportunities. We can see the old divisions of the Middle East being replaced. Israelis, moderate Palestinians, and pragmatic Arab and Muslim leaders are moving into the same camp."

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