At the end of November the London-based Arab daily, Al-Sharq il-Awsat, reported that the king of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, following complicated back surgery, was clinically dead. So far, the story has not been confirmed − and one might hope that reports of the king's death are greatly exaggerated and that he is making a good recovery − but mention of Abdullah inevitably brings to mind that he was the instigator of one of the most surprising episodes in the long-drawn-out Arab-Israeli dispute.
A summit conference of the Arab League had been arranged for March 2002 in Beirut. At that time Abdullah was Saudi’s Crown Prince, although he had been effectively ruling the kingdom on behalf of his ailing father, King Fahd, since 1996. On the 20th of March, a few days ahead of the summit, he electrified the assembled Arab foreign ministers by floating a peace plan for Palestine-Israel.
Basically, he called for peace with Israel in return for Israel withdrawing from all territories captured in the 1967 war. There was a significant condition: a "just settlement" of the Palestinian refugee crisis based on UN Resolution 194 (a sort of "right of return" or, for those who do not want to go back, agreed compensation). However, Abdullah did not specify whether refugees, now perhaps including third or fourth generation descendants of those who left the region in 1948, were to be "returned" to Israel or to the Palestinian state that would be created. The plan was discussed for a week, amendments were incorporated (notably a clause which prevented the 350,000 or more Palestinians living in Lebanon claiming Lebanese citizenship), and it was adopted on the 28th of March 2002. The Arab League has since readopted the Initiative on several occasions, notably at the Riyadh summit in 2007.
The quid pro quo for Israel’s agreement to the plan would be that all 22 Arab States would consider the Arab–Israeli conflict over, sign a peace agreement and establish normal relations with Israel.
Israel has never made an official response to the proposals, but reactions have divided as might be expected between right- and left-wing political opinion. Following the Riyadh summit, Benjamin Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition, rejected the plan outright; previous prime minister Ehud Olmert expressed reservations, but welcomed the initiative as a "new way of thinking. The willingness to recognize Israel as an established fact,” he said, “and to debate the conditions of the future solution, is a step that I can't help but appreciate."
Perhaps the median view was set out by Israel's president, Shimon Peres. He applauded the "U-turn" in the Arab attitude towards peace with Israel as reflected in the Saudi initiative, though "Israel wasn't a partner to the wording … it doesn't have to agree to every word."
In March 2009, shortly after President Obama took office for the first time, and optimism was the order of the day, George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, announced that the new administration intended to "incorporate" the Saudi initiative into its Middle East policy. That intention has never been clarified, and if it has indeed been implemented, it has been done without much of a fanfare.
Now we learn that Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is urging the Arab League not to withdraw its 2002 peace plan, since he himself is planning to call for renewed negotiations with Israel for six months, on condition that Israel freezes construction in West Bank settlements and east Jerusalem during that time. How he intends to reconcile this initiative with his other stated intention to seek a reconciliation with Hamas, the de facto government in the Gaza strip, he does not specify. In fact it is a circle that is impossible to square. As Hamas’s leader, Khaled Mashaal, made perfectly clear during his visit to Gaza, the destruction of Israel remains his goal. Negotiations, peace initiatives, recognition of Israel − all are anathema to Mashaal and the terrorist organisation he leads.
Abbas cannot both run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. His apparent attempt to do so leads to the inevitable conclusion that this is yet another of his moves calculated to generate favorable world media attention, but actually designed to circumvent any genuine effort to reach an accommodation with Israel.
The Arab Spring was initially seen by the West as the Arab masses clamouring for democracy and throwing off the shackles of dictatorship. The reality has proved rather different. Jihadists and other Islamist extremists like the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) have used the various national rebellions to stir the pot of disaffection and advance their particular cause. The MB, still holding the reins of power in Egypt, is at one with its progeny, Hamas, in its basic objective regarding Israel – namely it seeks Israel’s ultimate elimination. It is perhaps significant that while the advance text of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s address to the United Nations on September 26, included an endorsement of the Arab peace plan − that section was omitted from his speech. Instead he simply endorsed Palestinian statehood without stating whether his vision would accommodate Israel or not.
And yet, if there is a pinprick of light in the dark tunnel in which Israeli-Arab relations now find themselves, it is perhaps Abdullah’s bold initiative in 2002 − for audacious, even its greatest detractors must allow it to have been. The fact that it is still referred to, by friend and foe alike, proves that it is not yet totally dead in the water.
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line magazine, 17 December 2012: