Five years ago when Saudi Arabia unveiled a set of proposals to re-start the stalled peace process, Israeli reactions were either dismissive or downright hostile.
Now, however, Israeli officials are looking to the same set of proposals as the only light flickering at the end of a deep tunnel.
Attending a seminar on European-Israeli relations, in Berlin over the weekend, I was surprised that that almost all Israeli participants pinned so much hope on what they dubbed “The Saudi Peace Plan.” Even confirmed Likudniks who had always maintained that, as far was Israel was concerned, nothing good would ever come out of Saudi Arabia praised the Mecca agreement between Hamas and Fatah and expressed support for the “Peace Plan” promoted by Riyadh.
There is no doubt that the change in the Israeli attitude is partly due to pressure from the Bush administration in Washington. The re-emergence of the State Department as the principal architecture of US foreign policy, translates into a more even-handed attitude on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Gone are the days when Israel, under Ariel Sharon, could count on almost unconditional support from George W Bush.
More importantly, Israel finds itself faced with a political crisis in which a dysfunctional government is unable to provide day-to-day leadership let alone tackle the life and death issue of peace with the Palestinians. Ehud Olmeret and his Kadima (Forward) coalition won the last election with a promise of implementing the Sharon Plan that was based on a clear principle: as the victor in war, Israel has the responsibility to shape the kind of peace with which it and the Palestinians can live together, if not as friends at least as neighbours.
Having abandoned Sharonism, the Kadima coalition looks like one of Pirandello’s six characters in search of an author. One option is to return to the time-tested “wait-talk-wait-talk-wait” policy of Yitzhak Shamir that, although it did not produce peace, kept Israel in the driving seat during a crucial decade. Another option was to revive Ehud Barak’s poked-style diplomacy in the hope that something good will come out of it.
However, both those options could be exercised on two conditions.
The first was the presence of a strong American partner capable of projecting power and influence in sufficient doses, when and if needed. It is clear that the US, plagued by its own political civil war, is in no position to develop credible policies on any issue for at least another two to three years.
The second condition was the presence of a Palestinian partner prepared to accept the existence of Israel as a given fact and willing to engage in prolonged negotiations that did little to improve the here-and-now of the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza.
It is clear that, while Fatah under Mahmoud Abbas, continues to take Israel’s existence as a given fact, Hamas, which still dominates the Palestinian scene, does not.
The Mecca agreement might have injected some ambiguity into Hamas’s position on this crucial issue. However, those willing to read between the liens know that Hamas remains at the opposite side of the dividing-line as far as the future of Palestine is concerned.
On one side of that dividing-line, we find political movements and countries that preach a one-state solution.
Their argument is simple: the creation of Israel was an historic injustice that must be rectified by its disappearance as a Jewish state. Thus, the 22,000 square kilometers that constitute the state of Israel today should be combined with the 5000 square kilometer territory of the West Bank and Gaza to form a single country.
The more radical advocates of the one-state solution insist that most Jews should leave the region and return to the original homelands of their parents or grandparents. The less radical ones, however, are prepared to allow Israeli Jews to remain in what would be a Greater Palestine where, thanks to demographic factors and a massive return of Palestinian refugees especially from Jordan and Lebanon, they would soon be in a minority.
Interestingly, the one-state solution was originally popular in Israel. At a time that the demographic factor worked in favour of Israel, sustained by the hope of persuading millions of Soviet Jews to come and settle in the” promised land”, the partisans of Greater Israel advocated a straight annexation of West Bank and Gaza.
In one of the most interesting reversals of history, today some 80 per cent of the Israelis reject the one-state formula. And, yet, support for it is rising among Palestinians. ( According to the latest polls, some 45 per cent of the inhabitants of West Bank and Gaza back the one-state formula, which roughly amounts to the share of votes that Hamas received in the last election.)
In 1967, all but two Arab states (Tunisia and Morocco) explicitly supported the one-state formula. Today, Libya is the only member of the Arab League to do so. Also in 1967, no non-Arab Muslim state explicitly supported a one-state formula. Today, the Islamic Republic in Iran is trying to establish itself as the leader of one-state camp, and hopes to persuade Syria to join.
The Saudi peace plan is attractive precisely because it reflects the overwhelming support that exists for a two-state solution. The plan was initially approved at the Arab summit of Beirut five years ago and has received the backing of key Arab and Muslim countries in the past few weeks. Later this month it is certain to be re-endorsed , perhaps unanimously, at the Arab summit in Riyadh. Still, later it is likely to be endorsed, again almost unanimously, by a summit of 57 Muslim majority countries.
Never before has there been such level of popular and diplomatic support for a two-state solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict.
And, yet, it would be naïve to forget one fact: Like other peace initiatives, the Saudi plan has a fixed shelf life. It could be killed if the two sides, or either of them, try to turn it into a process dragged on for years. The Oslo exercise failed because it amounted to a journey in which each stop was to be negotiated while the final destination was never determined.
The idea was to build confidence before making peace. History, however, shows that nations make peace and build confidence at the same time. How can you have confidence in someone with whom you are not at peace?