A path emerges to Mideast peace

Vice President Cheney begins a Mideast tour on Sunday as Arab foreign ministers meet in Cairo.

There is a way out of the Israeli-Palestinian maelstrom.

If Saudi Arabia's Middle East peace initiative is carefully nurtured, analysts say, it could provide a viable framework for peacemaking. But its success depends on the kind of support the initiative receives from Arab states, the US government, and Israel's "peace camp" - those who favor a negotiated solution with the Palestinians.

No one is sanguine about all these elements coming together, but the three-week-old initiative is maintaining at least some momentum. President Bush and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak discussed the idea in Washington this week, Arab foreign ministers will focus on the matter this weekend in Cairo, and Vice President Dick Cheney will address it during a Middle East tour that begins Sunday.

"Any initiative that comes from the Arab world makes me considerably more optimistic," says Ze'ev Maoz, an Israeli political scientist, "because it has the potential ... to lower the psychological barriers that many Israelis have in terms of making concessions for peace."

The conflict is reaching its most intense level since it began more than 17 months ago. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he wants to "beat" the Palestinians until they sue for a cease-fire. Israeli forces are using warplanes, helicopters, and tanks to assassinate suspected Palestinians militants, raid Palestinian refugee camps, and demolish structures associated with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinians have carried out numerous suicide bombings, sniper attacks, and indiscriminate shootings this week. The rhetoric of Palestinian militants suggests they remain committed to using force to oppose Israel's occupation of their lands.

The overall death toll is approaching 1,400, of whom more than three-quarters are Palestinians. Nearly 120 lives have been lost over the past week.

In the midst of this bloodshed, Mr. Arafat and Mr. Sharon are saying little about the idea aired three weeks ago by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud: If Israel were to withdraw fully from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and allow the Palestinians to have their capital in Jerusalem, the Arab states would make peace with Israel.

While the initiative ultimately revolves around an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, analysts identify three key forces whose handling of the initiative at this stage may determine its fate.

The Arabs: On Tuesday, Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, endorsed the Saudi plan, improving the chances that Arab leaders will reach a consensus in its favor when they meet in Beirut at the end of March.

Mr. Assad's expression of "satisfaction" followed a meeting with Prince Abdullah, and he may have heard mollifying words about two Syrian concerns: that there be no compromise on the return of all the Syrian land now in Israeli hands, and that the right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes inside Israel be respected.

These subtleties are potential deal-wreckers. Syrian and Israeli efforts to reach a peace deal foundered in early 2000 over a strategic but tiny portion of land - some 240 square yards in Mr. Maoz's estimate - that is part of the land Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

The mass return of refugees, some of whom are in Syria, is unacceptable to Israel. The refugees are those who fled or were forced to flee Israel in 1948 and their descendants; any large-scale return would turn the Jews in Israel into a minority. The inability to resolve this issue is a major reason for the failure of attempts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace in 2000 and early 2001.

Thus, the weary-sounding comment of Shimon Peres, Israel's foreign minister and its leading advocate of a negotiated settlement: "It's a positive approach," he said this week of the Saudi initiative, "but I'm afraid there is an attempt by too many parties to add 'the old stuff' to make it an impossible proposal."

Even so, Palestinian political scientist Ali Jarbawi says, "it is extremely important for Arabs to tell the world that we are sincere and this is our plan." Mr. Jarbawi says he hopes the Arabs will put forward a multistage plan that will lead to peace, but one that is valid for a limited period of, say, six months. A deadline, he says, will put pressure on Sharon and the US "to move."

The US: Most analysts agree that US involvement is crucial to the success of the Saudi initiative and that the US response has been less than wholehearted, so far. But the central hope is that President Bush's ambition to overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may demand a more concerted US effort to bring peace to the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The US has managed to wage war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda without significant Arab involvement. But prosecuting the "war on terrorism" without such assistance "would be more difficult ... if we make Iraq the showcase of Round 2," says William Quandt, a Middle East expert at the University of Virginia.

The Israeli "left": Tel Aviv University professor Maoz says Israeli supporters of a negotiated solution are "regrouping because they are starting to realize that a policy of applying force just for the sake of applying force, without any sort of political vision, doesn't lead anywhere."

Israeli and Palestinian observers see this development as a positive sign, since peacemaking efforts have only been possible with broad support from the Israeli public.

At the same time, the number of Israelis agitating for negotiations now is far smaller than the mass backing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process received during the 1990s.

Still, the Saudi initiative addresses a longstanding Israeli concern: the fear that talk of a two-state solution - Israel and Palestine side by side - would merely give the Palestinians a stronger foothold from which to continue attacks against Israel. With the Arabs as a whole guaranteeing such a vision, this fear becomes harder to sustain.

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