In an effort to jumpstart the peace process, Saudi Arabia has resurrected the idea of negotiating with Israel on the basis of a formula outlined by then Crown Prince Abdullah in 2002. Abdullah’s ideas were revised and adopted by the Arab League as a peace initiative that offered Israel “normal relations” in exchange for a withdrawal to the 1967 borders and resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue.
This initiative is a restatement of the Arab interpretation of UN Resolution 242. The problem is that 242 does not say what the Saudi plan demands of Israel. The resolution calls on Israel to withdraw from territories occupied during the war, not “all” the territories in exchange for peace.
In addition, Resolution 242 also says that every state has the right to live within “secure and recognizable boundaries,” which all military analysts have understood to mean the 1967 borders with modifications to satisfy Israel’s security requirements. Moreover, Israel is under no obligation to withdraw before the Arabs agree to live in peace.
“There are some who have urged, as a single, simple solution, an immediate return to the situation as it was on June 4 … this is not a prescription for peace but for renewed hostilities.”
– President Lyndon Johnson, speech on June 19, 1967
The Arab plan calls for Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights. The Israeli government has offered to withdraw from most, if not all of the Golan in exchange for a peace agreement; however, Syrian President Bashar Assad has so far been unwilling to negotiate at all with Israel.
The demand that Israel withdraw from “the remaining occupied Lebanese territories in the south of Lebanon” is at odds with the UN conclusion that Israel has completely fulfilled its obligation to withdraw from Lebanese territory.
The Arab initiative calls for a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem based on the nonbinding UN General Assembly Resolution 194. Today, the UNRWA says that 4.3. million Palestinians are refugees. The current population of Israel is approximately 7 million, 5 million of whom are Jews. If the Palestinians all returned, the population would exceed 10 million and the proportion of Jews and Palestinian Arabs would be roughly 60-40. Given the higher Arab birth rate, Israel would soon cease to be a Jewish state and would de facto become a second Palestinian state (along with the one expected to be created on the West Bank and Gaza Strip). This suicidal formula has been rejected by Israel since the end of the 1948 war and is totally unacceptable to all Israelis today. Israel does, however, recognize a right for all the refugees to live in a future Palestinian state.
Israel has agreed to allow some Palestinian refugees to live in Israel on a humanitarian basis, and as part of family reunification. Thousands have returned already this way. In the past, Israel has repeatedly expressed a willingness to accept as many as 100,000 refugees as part of a resolution of the issue. In fact, one government report said that Israel accepted 140,000 refugees in the decade following the Oslo agreement of 1993 (Jewish Telegraphic Agency, February 6, 2002).
The refugee issue was not part of Abdullah’s original proposal and was added at the summit under pressure from other delegations. Also, it is important to note that Resolution 242 says nothing about the Palestinians and the reference to refugees can also be applied to the Jews who fled and were driven from their homes in Arab countries. Another change from Abdullah’s previously stated vision was a retreat from a promise of full normalization of relations with Israel to an even vaguer pledge of “normal relations.”
The Arab demand that Israel accept the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital has been part of the negotiations since Oslo. Israel’s leaders, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, have accepted the idea of creating a Palestinian state in part of those territories, and Israel has even offered compromises on the status of Jerusalem, but the Palestinians have rejected them all.
It is also worth noting that most of the Arab League nations have no reason not to be at peace with Israel now. Israel holds none of their territory and is more than willing to make peace with the members of the League. Several members of the League had already begun to normalize relations with Israel before the latest outbreak of violence, and their principal critic was Saudi Arabia.
For the plan to have any chance of serving as a starting point for negotiations, the Saudis and other Arab League members will have to negotiate directly with Israel. In 2002, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he would go the Arab League summit to discuss the plan, but he was not invited. The Saudis were also invited to Jerusalem to discuss their proposal, but they rejected this idea as well.
In response to the renewed discussion of the plan in October 2006, Israeli Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit expressed a willingness to talk about the Saudi initiative. At the same time, it was reported that Olmert had secretly met a member of the Saudi royal family (Reuters, October 4, 2006). If the Saudis abandon the diplomatic boycott of Israel, their plan may yet serve as a starting point for negotiations.
By Dr. Mitchell G. Bard