Daily news reports from the Middle East have taken on a grim sameness; they are recitations of the deadly tit for tat we’ve come to expect over the past several months. Last week was, in some ways, no different. A 15-year-old Palestinian girl rushed at Israeli soldiers with a knife and was killed. Three pregnant women, two Palestinian and one Israeli, were shot. And Israeli tanks carried out major assaults in two Palestinian refugee camps.
But even as the casualties mounted, so did interest in … and support for … what has been termed the “Saudi plan” for Middle East peace. On one level, the intense interest is puzzling. To begin with, the “plan” is nothing formal. Its general outline was presented in a column by the influential New York Times writer Thomas Friedman. He reported that Crown Prince Abdullah was considering making a speech at the upcoming Arab Summit that would suggest offering full peace between the Arab world and Israel if Israel would fully withdraw from the territories it occupied in the 1967 war.
Even if the crown prince does give the speech, the likelihood that this public Saudi position would quickly be translated into a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict is remote. The initiative is, nonetheless, very important and is generating excitement, in part, for what it has already accomplished.
First, the initiative immediately changed the discourse within the Middle East.
For months now, the rhetoric in the region has hardened in the face of a tragic cycle of violence that has victimized Palestinians and Israelis. In the Palestinian areas, a sense of helplessness and humiliation is greater today than ever before. And for Israelis, the sense of insecurity and hopelessness about the prospects for peace is also greater than before.
In this environment, it is easy to understand why militant voices are the ones that dominate the debate and why moderates go silent, or sometimes even echo the voices of the militants.
Suddenly, the very prospect of a peaceful way out has changed the debate. The front-page stories in Middle Eastern newspapers are focused on the possibility of reviving a peace process. And moderate voices, desperate for an opportunity to be heard, are now more vocal in Israel and the Arab world.
Because the initiative is being floated by Saudi Arabia, it is especially important in the Arab world. The country has strong Arab and Islamic credentials; its stance is important not only in affecting public perceptions, but also in influencing the positions of other Arab governments.
The mere fact that the Saudis are voicing a potential acceptance of Israel and normal relations with the Arab world is important for moving public opinion, especially at a time when much of the rhetoric is more about war. Other Arab governments, meanwhile, are often swayed by Saudi Arabia’s considerable political clout. Some Arab countries also find it hard to oppose the Saudis because the country provides important economic support to them.
The second major benefit of the Saudi initiative is that it brings a new player into the mix. It has become clear over the past year that the level of trust between Israelis and Palestinians is so low that they are unlikely to be able to break out of the cycle of violence on their own.
If history is any guide, movement is much more likely to occur because of an outside intervention. I and three fellow professors recently published findings from studying twenty 20 years of daily interactions in the Middle East. What we found is that, over time, the parties normalized reciprocity and continued to respond in kind to the other parties’ actions, even if the outcome was destructive for both. They didn’t seem to learn from the pain they suffered or to recognize that since violence hasn’t worked, they should try cooperation instead.
What has driven the Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table in the past was external diplomatic intervention, rare courageous leadership, or dramatic changes in the incentives available to the parties.
In this case, a possible Saudi role in negotiations, especially if backed by other Arab states, offers new incentives. For Israel, the incentive to talk is that it could gain acceptance among Arabs at a time when Israelis believe many Arabs are out to destroy the country. For Palestinians, the support of other Arab states would be empowering, especially on issues that are important not only to Palestinians but to other Arabs and Muslims, such as Jerusalem. They would thus know that once they negotiate a deal on these issues, they will have the support of the Arab world.
And for the American mediators, who had been running out of options, the incentives offered by broad Arab cooperation open new possibilities: The United States could now coordinate with Saudi Arabia and other countries to offer Israelis and Palestinians a vision of peace that contrasts with today’s painful realities.
A third benefit of Crown Prince Abdullah’s initiative is that it begins a process of improving the Saudi-U.S. relationship after months of strain following the tragedy of Sept. 11 and the discovery that many of the perpetrators were Saudi citizens. While this initiative alone will not repair the harm done to the relationship, it should certainly begin to change some Americans’ perceptions that Saudi Arabia is unwilling to play a constructive role in brokering Arab-Israeli peace. American diplomats have been critical of Arab states, especially since the collapse of the Camp David negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in July 2000, arguing that the states were not providing enough support for peacemaking.
While this initiative … or more appropriately “”vision” … that the Saudis have put forth is thus a very important step in an otherwise depressing climate, it merely opens an opportunity to be exploited. The obstacles remain great.
Necessary first step
The cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians has to be broken before anyone can pursue serious negotiations about a final settlement. And the objectives of the Palestinian and Israeli leaders, neither of whom can be ignored, are anything but harmonious.
Israel remains opposed to the full withdrawal that the Saudi plan suggests, and the Saudis said nothing about the issue of the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
Finally, it is not clear that the Bush administration believes that the environment is ripe enough for the sort of diplomatic push that would be required to begin working toward the comprehensive peace envisioned by the Saudi proposal.
The United States has played an important role in every successful Arab-Israeli peace negotiation in the past three decades, and its role remains important today.
The task of peacemaking, therefore, remains daunting. But, for now, every bit of hope helps.