In preparation for hosting an upcoming summit of Arab heads of state, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah has recirculated his five-year-old Middle East peace plan. The Prince first floated this proposal to President George W. Bush in April 2002. Theoretically, it has never been taken off the table. The proposal is commendable for its novelty. For the first time, the Saudis have persuaded 21 other Arab states to agree to conditions under which all would recognize the State of Israel.
The proposal has great promise if it’s a bargaining position subject to further negotiation. On the other hand, if the Saudis are asking Israel to accept or reject “a cat in a bag,” the Prince’s initiative remains a non-starter. That is because the proposal as it now stands contains elements which will only prolong regional instability.
The Saudis request that Israel withdraw to its pre-June 4, 1967, borders. Those boundary lines — “Auschwitz borders” in the words of then-Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban — gave Arab states the opportunity to attack Israel and desecrate Jewish religious sites. For 19 years after Israel became a state in 1948 the Arabs systematically destroyed or desecrated synagogues, schools, homes and other relics of two thousand years of Jewish residence in Jerusalem’s Old City. The Arabs fired regularly from the ramparts of Jerusalem’s Old City in the direction of West Jerusalem’s densely populated downtown residential neighborhoods. Syria launched frequent artillery barrages at Central Galilee, particularly against Kibbutz Ein Gev. Some members of that collective farm never slept one night of their childhoods outside a bomb shelter.
In suggesting that Israel withdraw to the pre-1967 borders, the Saudis’ territorial “remedies” exceed the nearly universally accepted parameters of United Nations Resolution 242. That resolution calls on Israel only to withdraw from some of the territories captured in June 1967 and not from every inch of land. A complete withdrawal would once again expose Israel’s dense population centers to artillery bombardment and Jewish religious sites to destruction and desecration.
The Saudi proposal implies that indefensible borders and desecrated religious sites would not be a problem if Israel would only enable the Palestinians to establish their own state in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The Saudis fail to mention that on at least three occasions Israel has offered to recognize a Palestinian state in virtually all of the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
The first offer came at the moment of Israel’s birth 59 years ago, pursuant to United Nations resolutions calling for Jewish and Arab states in what had been the British territory of Palestine. The Arab response was to attack the fledgling Jewish state and for Egypt and Jordan to seize precisely the territories the United Nations had set aside for a Palestinian state, namely the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
In 2000 and again in 2001 the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak repeated the recognition offer and did not even get a counter-proposal from the Palestinians. Instead Israel received a barrage of kamikaze-style bombings. When extrapolated over a population of seven million, those attacks have been even more devastating than the tragic attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.
The Arab rejection of Israeli offers to recognize a Palestinian state make clear the most serious flaw in the Saudi proposal. No political or territorial compromise on the part of Israel, including diplomatic recognition of a Palestinian state, retreat to indefensible borders or the relinquishment of protection of synagogues and Jewish religious sites, will satisfy extremist Islamic groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. These groups reject any recognition of the Jewish state and pledge continued violence against Israel. They are parts of the Lebanese and Palestinian Authority governments. The Saudi plan fails to specify how these extremist groups will be neutralized.
A peace agreement between Israel and 22 Arab states should be a result of negotiation and not a list of stipulations which one side must accept or reject. Furthermore, it should involve significant concessions from both sides and not only from Israel as the Saudis now require. Although called a peace initiative, the current Saudi proposal would promote conflict rather than peace in the region.
Dr. Jonathan Goldstein is a professor of history at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton and a writer for the History News Service.