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Israel Warms Up To Saudi Arabian Peace Plan

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: 'Saudi Plan Has Positive Elements: We're Watching Its Acceptance By Arab World'

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni: 'If Saudi Plan Gets Off Return Of Refugees & Focuses On Borders It Will Create Good Situation'

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Arabian peace proposal of several years ago is back in the limelight. When first presented, it called for the Arab world to make full peace with Israel in return for a total Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders. But a short time later, a Beirut summit meeting added the so-called right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. IsraCast examines various aspects of the plan that splits the Israeli political spectrum.

An Arab summit meeting is scheduled for Riyadh this month against the backdrop of the current confrontation between Sunni & Shiite Muslims and the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, a specter that threatens moderate Arab states no less than Israel.

FM Livni

Can the Saudi Arabian peace plan present a new regional move to resolve the Israeli- Palestinian conflict? With the Saudis again pushing their proposal in advance of the upcoming Arab summit, Israeli leaders are warming up to it, albeit on condition. At Sunday's cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke of its 'positive elements' and he was checking out the possibilities. Now on a trip to the U.S., Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni also welcomed the Saudi idea of the entire Arab world finally making full peace with Israel. As for the condition that Israel totally withdraw to the 1967 borders Livni said: ' If the Arab world is now ready to negotiate on the question of borders for the Palestinian and Israeli states this is already 'a good situation'. But Livni added U.N. resolution 194 that calls for a return of millions of Palestinian refugees to Israel was a non - starter. The Foreign Minister contended it ran counter to the two-state solution - one Palestinian and one Israeli. The Palestinian state and not Israel would have to be the solution for the refugees. Livni had been explaining this to foreign leaders including Arab and there was a growing acceptance from U.S. President Bush on down that the demand for the refugees returning to Israel contradicted the two state solution. Livni had also made this clear in her secret contacts with Palestinian officials. As previously reported by IsraCast, Israeli officials has been trying to persuade the Saudis, through different channels to soften the right of return demand in their peace proposal before the Arab summit meets. If so, it could open the door to a new negotiating track in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Palestinian reaction: Hamas which is now the ruling party in the current attempt to form a national unity government with Fatah still calls for the destruction of Israel, no ifs ands or buts. So what are the chances the Saudi proposal will ever get off the ground? Palestinian moderate Sufian Abu Zaida is optimistic despite the Hamas position. First he told Israel Radio that Israel's new approach to the Saudi plan is 'very, very encouraging'. Abu Zaida said that in the Palestinian power sharing, Hamas has deposited Israeli contacts in the hands of President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah. Therefore, there would be no problem at all in starting up negotiations on the Saudi proposal. But what if Hamas eventually torpedoed it? Abu Zaida replied that Hamas knew its limitations and would balk at trying to sabotage an Israeli-Palestinian deal that won widespread support. As for Israel's concern over the Palestinian demand that all refugees be allowed to return to Israel, Abu Zaida replied that Israelis are raising what he called 'irrelevant fears'. In his words there is general acceptance that no negotiated peace agreement could ever return millions of refugees to their former homes in Israel. While he understood Israeli apprehensions, Israelis would also have to take Palestinian concerns into account.

Israeli Opposition: The Likud opposition party rejects the Saudi proposal out of hand. Knesset Member Yisrael Katz warned it would force Israel to give up East Jerusalem and all the territories including the Golan Heights. Not only the Palestinians but also the Arab world would demand the return of the refugees which would spell the end of the Jewish state. In his view, Olmert and Livni were guilty of 'total irresponsibility' by flirting with the Saudi proposal. He went on to say that after fumbling last summer's war in Lebanon, the Prime Minister was now trying to recoup his loss of public confidence by drumming up a new diplomatic effort; one fraught with danger. Katz questioned how an Israeli government would be willing to negotiate with a Palestinian partner that includes Hamas which publicly declares its intention to wipe out the Jewish state.

Regional Picture: Rightly or wrongly, the moderate Arab states have long contended that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the major cause of stability in the region. In light of the threat of a nuclear armed-Iran they are ready and eager to form a U.S. lead coalition to check Iran's regional ambitions. But their public opinion at home demands a resolution of the Palestinians' plight. So as important as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be, its ramifications are far-reaching when it comes to building a coalition of moderate Arab states to face Iran. That's why the old Saudi peace plan is back on center stage. The latest Olmert-Abbas meeting in Jerusalem again indicates that if left on its own, the Israeli-Palestinian track leads to nowhere. It's a very long shot, but if some contractive ambiguity is applied to the refugee question and the Arab world weighs in with all its diplomatic clout, perhaps there could be a ray of light for achieving a peaceful end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

David Essing

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