28 March 2007

28 March 2007 – Hope rests on Saudi summit

I feel suddenly hopeful about the prospects for peace. I was encouraged by the remarks of Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas upon arriving in Riyadh yesterday for the Arab summit. Abbas told reporters that the Saudi peace plan would offer Israel the chance to “live in a sea of peace that begins in Nouakchott and ends in Indonesia.” These are, for Abbas, unusually bold words.

Could this be true? The conditions very well could be ripe for peace. All sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict are exhausted. The Israelis are enduring a rare moment of humility after the failures of what is now being called the “Second Lebanon War.” And the Arab world is beginning to wake up to the Iranian nuclear threat. Perhaps Sunni leaders have decided they have bigger problems than Israel to deal with.

The U.S. may be helping to engineer greater Saudi leadership in the region. When the Bush administration told Israel not to negotiate with Syria, I thought it was perhaps being short-sighted and intransigent. Perhaps, instead, the Americans wanted to give space to the Saudi initiative to blossom, and to discourage a separate Syrian peace in favor of a more comprehensive deal and a united front against Iran.

If the Arab summit does pay off, all of these debates we have about Carter and apartheid and Soros and the rest of it will seem rather petty. And suddenly, all the contacts that have been going on between Israel, Jews and the liberal Arab states will jump into the foreground. Remember Shimon Peres’s visit to Qatar? Or Olmert’s Saudi talks? Were you at the Yossi Beilin debate in Doha this week?

I recently saw a press release from the American Jewish Committee, America’s real “Jewish lobby.” And what was this group doing? Not strengthening their iron grip on U.S. foreign policy, as the Walt-Mearsheimer crowd might think, but touring Arab countries. Clearly, some people are thinking ahead to the future beyond the conflict and laying the foundations for the future. We might soon start to notice.

Will there be Nobel peace prizes? Probably, for Abdullah and Bandar; perhaps, for Olmert and Abbas; and maybe even for Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who came up with the idea of the Saudi plan and broke the story when they decided to adopt it as their own. I’ve always found Friedman’s style a little hokey, but at least he thinks creatively about solutions. He sets an example for other journalists.

On the other hand, the summit could end in failure, in two ways. One, more likely, is that the Palestinians or other Arab states will insist on the “right of return” for refugees, or some other hard-line position. Another, less likely but possible, is that the Arab states will rally around the idea that Israel is an apartheid state and that the only solution is the one-state solution. Either result would prolong the conflict.

Somehow, I think this time around might be different after all. There is too much riding on this. The Bush administration wants a foreign policy victory—and I want to see them get it, partly to spite all of the reflexive Bush-haters out there. Arab unity would also help stabilize the situation in Iraq and would weaken Iran’s position. We’ll know the result of the summit by Thursday. I’m praying for peace.

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