Land for peace redux

April 02, 2007

Adormant land-for-peace initiative making headlines in Jerusalem and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, last week was notable not for its contents. It was notable because it wasn't roundly rejected by Israel, as it had been five years ago when Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah first made the proposal at a meeting of Arab leaders. Key aspects of the initiative clearly conflict with Israel's interests - its survival, many would say. But Abdullah, who is now king, has revived the plan, signaling his willingness to help facilitate a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It provides an opening for renewed talks that Israel shouldn't let pass.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert characterized the peace initiative as a "positive approach" and acknowledged as "significant" comments made at the Arab summit in Riyadh, a gathering of Israel's staunchest enemies. But he was as firm in his opposition to a tenet of the plan: the right of return for Palestinians who were forced from their homes in 1948 at Israel's founding.

The main thrust of the Saudi proposal is full recognition of Israel by the Arab world in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from West Bank lands it occupied after the 1967 war. Israel wants to maintain several large West Bank settlements outside Jerusalem as part of any peace deal. That would seem to make the Saudi proposal a non-starter, but to think of it that way would be to miss the opportunity it presents.

Neither Israelis nor Palestinians are going to get everything they want in a negotiated settlement. The Saudi initiative should serve as an invitation to dialogue and lead to informal talks among a select group that could lay the groundwork for a more in-depth discussion. Some trust and goodwill need to be established after a half-century of wars and hatred.

As well, newly agreed-to talks between Mr. Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas should focus on common ground. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who helped bring about this pairing during her visit to the region last week, appears sincerely committed to trying to revitalize the peace process after years of neglect. As part of that effort, she must press Arab leaders to stop the flow of money to the military wings of Hamas and Hezbollah.

If talks between Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas progress, they may put the needed pressure on Mr. Abbas' ruling partners, Hamas, to recognize Israel and renounce terror. Without that, there will be no reason for Israel to address the substantive issues dividing the two sides and thwarting the establishment of a Palestinian state.

In concluding their summit, Arab leaders issued a warning about "a dangerous and destructive arms race" in the region, a reference to Iran's nuclear ambitions. The Islamic republic's rising power is also a grave concern of Israel. That's a compelling reason for Arabs and Israelis to resolve the Palestinian problem, and a compelling reason for peace.

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