Now, with the changing of the guard in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the upcoming elections in Israel, it is advisable to check whether something can be done with the move which was never started. For 13 years, politicians have been making great efforts to avoid the Arab peace initiative with the excuse that "we were never consulted about it."
Here's a surprise: Upon the passing of the initiative's advocate, two Israeli presidents, Reuven Rivlin and his predecessor Shimon Peres, saw it fit to praise Saudi King Abdullah. Rivlin described "an example of grounded, considered and responsible leadership" in our region, while Peres stressed that "we lost a wise and experienced leader" and mentioned the "loss for peace" in the same breath.
In February 2002, American columnist Thomas Friedman received the royal treatment when he was invited to dine with Abdullah, the crown prince and de facto king, in Riyadh. The conversation, Friedman wrote, reached the topic of the chances of peace in the Middle East. Friedman suggested putting Israel to the test.
It's as if you have gone through my drawers, Abdullah surprised him. I have formulated a revolutionary peace plan which I will present at the Arab League summit in Lebanon.
Friedman listened to the details and got all excited. The next day he negotiated with the crown prince's bureau for approval to reveal what he had heard off the record, and dropped a bomb: Saudi Arabia is leading a move unlike no other, based on a binding equation – Israel will commit to a withdrawal, and 57 Arab and Muslim states will promise peace and full normalization.
Israeli officials read it and panicked. Peace moves which come from the Arab side, like in the cases of Egypt, Jordan and the Oslo Agreements, are perceived as an evil scheme here.
A month later, when the Arab world's leaders convened, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon scheduled a response interview on the Al-Jazeera channel. The crew settled in his office, and the advisors updated Sharon on what had happened before and behind the scenes in Beirut: The plan was published, the rulers voted unanimously, but the Saudi foreign ministers added troubling details: It's a package which Israel has no right to appeal. Either they accept it, or we put the plan back in the drawers.
The meaning: A right of return for refugees (without noting whether they would only return to the territories or also to Israel), a divided Jerusalem and a full withdrawal from the West Bank, Golan Heights and controversial areas in Lebanon.
Sharon fumed and cancelled the interview. The Saudi initiative, which was reaffirmed in the Arab summit in Riyadh in 2007, was kicked aside. It was hard to get a response – yes or no – from Israeli politicians to a move which could get Israel out of the neighborhood and regional isolation, open markets and bring foreign investors and tourists in return for removing settlements.
The Geneva Initiative organization formulated "amendments" and "improvements" with the Palestinians, dozens of retired generals signed petitions in support of the move – and Jerusalem kept quiet.
On the other side, Jordan and Egypt tried to convince the decision makers and public opinion in Israel that "there is a basis for discussion." The Israeli Peace Initiative movement was established in 2011 to push the Saudi move. This is not how you make peace, they were rebuked.
With complete honesty, how many people here have even bothered to read the full version (it's not a long text and there is an abstract) of the Saudi peace initiative? It's important to stress that the amended text explicitly states that every move will be carried out "as agreed upon by the parties."
To this very day, we have not put them to the test. The decision makers are still running away. Only few have thought about the potential.
The Saudi king is dead, but his initiative still lives. Whoever knows what is happening behind the scenes knows that the partner is waiting for a phone call.