Photo: AP
Saudi King Abdallah (archive)
Photo: AP
The Saudi danger
Israeli reaction to Arab initiative reinforces notion that we accept full withdrawal

Suddenly the Saudi initiative is "interesting." It talks about a return to the 1967 borders, the division of Jerusalem, and the return of Palestinian refugees – namely, everything that has been rejected out of hand for 40 years by all Israeli government and by all Zionist parties, including leftist Meretz.


It requires agreement, before negotiations even start, on principles that are unacceptable to begin with. It contains everything the Free
World, including the European Union, would reject if Israel only asked. But Israel is saying that the initiative is interesting.


And this is not only because Ehud Olmert is facing a cloud of suspicions and dubious affairs, threatened by the Winograd Commission, and warned by the state comptroller. Olmert knows he is not Sharon, that word-games would not stop Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, and that he has been beaten so badly by now that the media would not be coming to his aid.


There is something here that is more genuine than spins and domestic policy. The Saudi initiative addresses the uncontrollable urge to do something on the diplomatic front – no matter what it is.


After it turned out that unilateral withdrawals are a resounding failure, and after we learned that we cannot arrange a withdrawal through an agreement, because Hamas does not want to play Abbas' "pretend game," we were left with a bothersome diplomatic thirst.


What shall we do now, address poverty? Develop tourism? Invest in education? Fight crime? Did we establish a country for that?


Who needs sense?

And there, the Saudis offer salvation: Engage in negotiations with the Palestinians but without the Palestinians. We will talk with Arab states, and they will take care of matters with the Palestinian government.


Yes, this makes no sense, but who needs sense when the peace vision reemerges? Perhaps we shall even fly to Saudi Arabia, meet with Arab leaders in white robes – there will be photographs, airplanes, conventions, and a sense of history in the making.


More excited commentators explained that if Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh attended the Riyadh conference and said that Hamas will not recognize Israel, this means he is in fact recognizing Israel. I swear that I heard that. I am not kidding.


However, Israel's main problem is not the diplomatic momentum messiahs. They are not bound by any kind of logic. Just give them international conferences, negotiations, summit meetings – it does not matter with whom or about what.


Once upon a time they spoke about withdrawal for the sake of peace. Later it turned out they actually want peace for the sake of withdrawal. Later they even gave up on peace, as long as we have a withdrawal. Now they are apparently giving up on both peace and a withdrawal, because the Saudi initiative, which talks about a comprehensive withdrawal and a right of return with no compromise, cannot lead to anything practical.


The most important thing is to have diplomatic momentum. However, they are not the problem, but rather, the sane Right is.


The sane Right firmly objects to the Saudi initiative because of the right of return. When it comes to withdrawing to the 1967 borders and dividing Jerusalem, the Likud says: There is a debate amongst us.


Forget about the debates, the idea of Palestinian refugees returning to the State of Israel is the end of the Jewish State. After all, there is consensus over that. So first let the Arabs renounce this demand, they say, and then we shall discuss the rest. This sounds very responsible and very sane, but it is a trap.


Saudi King Abdullah knows that nothing practical will come out of his initiative at this time. Today, there is no way to bridge the gap between what he can allow himself to get and what Israel can allow itself to give.


Arabs need Likud on their side

The Saudi initiative is not aimed at changing the situation on the ground, but rather, at changing perceptions. When figures such as Netanyahu or Reuven Rivlin say that the Saudi initiative's main problem is the question of the right of return, they also say that a full withdrawal and the division of Jerusalem are not a problem. This is not said explicitly, but it seeps into the consciousness of Israelis and the world.


This is all Abdullah wishes to achieve. This is what Abbas wants to achieve. They do not need Yossi Beilin to work for them; they need the Likud to work for them.


We can understand the desire of right-wing leaders to attract the center of the political spectrum. As long as they can use arguments that enjoy consensus, why go into a controversial area? After all, the Likud needs the centrist votes to regain power. Seemingly, when the time for controversy comes we can argue, but for now there is no need for that.


Yet meanwhile, the realization that there is no longer an argument regarding a withdrawal to the 1967 borders is being reinforced in the world's consciousness. If even the Israeli Right does not reject this idea out of hand and loudly, how can we expect someone in America or Europe to be more Israeli than the Israelis? There are arguments that must not be left for the last moment.


In 1948 there was a moment where our leaders needed to decide whether to declare the state's establishment at a very inconvenient time, or postpone it for a more peaceful junction. Ben-Gurion said at the time that he suddenly understood why in Passover we make sure to remove every crumb of chametz, because the moment where we had to get up and leave Egypt was a moment that we could have easily been tempted to miss out on.


For right-wing leaders, the Saudi initiative is this kind of moment, where postponement means missing out.


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