Cautious peace steps at Saudi summit

The meeting fell short of delivering the progress expected on a Saudi-led push for peace with Israel.

A meeting of Arab and Muslim leaders here that ended Thursday provided a venue for Saudi Arabia to put some distance between itself and the US, hand-wringing about the possible spread of Iraq's civil war, and negotiations to resolve the growing crisis between Iran and Britain.

But it didn't deliver as much progress as expected on the key issue – called "the crux of the crises in the region" by the Saudi foreign minister – everyone was talking about beforehand: a revived push for peace with Israel led by Saudi Arabia.

The so-called Arab Peace Initiative was proposed in Beirut by Saudi King Abdullah – then the crown prince – and accepted by the Arab League in 2002.

At Thursday's summit, Arab leaders reaffirmed their support for the Saudi proposal, which offers full recognition of Israel by the Arab states in exchange for a return of Palestinian land seized in the 1967 war, East Jerusalem as the Palestinians' capital, and the return of Palestinian refugees to their former homes.

Saudi Arabia appears to be convinced that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key issue inflaming Islamist revolutionaries in Arab countries, and gives Iran a wedge in gaining regional influence by inflaming anti-regime sentiments.

That potential threat, along with instability in Iraq, make the Saudi kingdom more eager for peace. Securing a deal that Palestinians can live with would appear to go a long way to securing its interests in the region, Saudi experts say.

But Israel considers the right of return a threat to its survival, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni called for Arab concessions before moving forward. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres has called for negotiations, though. "You come with your positions, and we will come with ours," he told Israel Radio.

Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa shot back at press conference in which he sat next to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal: "The response from Israel is that they want normalization and nothing else ... they come to us asking for the Arab position to be amended. No, we say, why should we?"

Representatives of the US, the European Union, United Nations, and Russia – who together comprise the so-called Quartet of Middle East mediators – plan to meet with various Arab states and Israel in the next few months.

But until there is significant compromise from one side or the other, the bar for success on the Saudi plan is still high.

King Abdullah called for a lifting of Israel and America's "unjust embargo" on the Palestinian territories, which would allow the "peace process to move in an atmosphere of justice away from humiliation and compulsion."

He also described the US presence in Iraq as an "illegal foreign occupation,'' unusually harsh words from a close ally that comes at a time when Saudi Arabia is increasingly decoupling its diplomatic efforts from America's.

Other steps taken at the conference included:

•Calling for a nuclear-weapon free Middle East "without double standards," a reference to Israel's suspected nuclear capacity. Members also said all countries have "the right to possess peaceful nuclear energy." Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

•Promises to establish an Arab peace and security council that would function like the United Nations Security Council.

•Helped broker an agreement, according to Prince Faisal, between the UN and Sudan to support an African Union peace-keeping force in Sudan.

But with all that, the Israel-Palestinian conflict dominated the agenda.

Faisal was even clearer in insisting that the ball is in Israel's court. "This has always been the course of Israel. Whenever the Arabs come with frank and clear-cut steps toward peace they reject it. They don't reflect the positive stance of a state that's acting in favor of peace."

Arab leaders have said they refuse to amend the Arab Peace Initiative. But many analysts say Arab and Palestinian compromise on the refugee question would be the key to hammering out any eventual agreement.

Daniel Levy, a key member of Israeli negotiating teams with the Palestinians in the 1990s and now senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, says Israel should make clear that it will meet all the land demands in exchange for compromise on the return of Palestinians.

"Every time [Foreign Minister] Livni says 'refugee' someone sitting next to her should say '67,' " says Mr. Levy. He also says a more careful tone from Israel could be helpful.

"If you want the Saudis and the Arab League to make certain modifications ... is sending the foreign minister to say, 'This is what you have to do, Arabs,' the right way to go about it?"

Mr. Moussa's comments seemed to reflect the Arab anger that Levy mentioned. "The Arab stance is that nothing should be given free. Thus far we have only received negative messages which do not deserve normalization," he said.

Though the Saudi effort has been seen in some quarters as a turning point, this is far from the first time that Israel's erstwhile Arab enemies have pushed for peace. And unlike now, past efforts have come when the Israeli and Palestinian leaders were stronger. Today, a divided Palestinian leadership and a weak Israeli prime minister make reaching a final agreement harder.

In 1991, the Syrians, Jordanians, Lebanese, and Palestinians all sat down with the Israelis in Madrid to discuss peace, and the Egyptians and the Saudis played a key role behind the scenes. That kicked off a series of talks that ended without agreement.

In 2000, there was strong Arab backing for the Camp David summit hosted by President Clinton that presented to then leader Yasser Arafat a deal that envisioned a return of 97 percent of the territory the Israelis seized in the 1967 war and East Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital. Mr. Arafat, since deceased, famously rejected that deal.

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