- The Washington Times - Monday, March 18, 2002

When Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah last month proposed that the Arab League offer Israel full normalization of relations and recognition of the Jewish state, he offered what could have been a landmark initiative for his country and the Arab world. What Israel would have to give up all lands it has occupied since the 1967 war was not a new demand, nor a realistic one. But the crown prince offered the deal as a starting point to negotiations. Now, even that possibility began to be eroded before Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat or Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were able to come to the negotiating table.
In a two-day meeting of the foreign ministers of the Arab League in Cairo on March 9-10, Syria pressed Saudi Arabia to backtrack on normalization and add to the list of requirements Israel would have to meet in exchange for that nebulous award. The Bush administration should discourage Saudi Arabia and Egypt from undercutting the peace process before it has had a chance to begin. Vice President Dick Cheney and America's Middle East envoy, Anthony Zinni, have had their work cut out for them during their visit over the last week.
To nurture the peace process, the Bush administration will have to encourage Saudi Arabia, backed by Egypt, to step forward as a leader without waiting for other Arab countries to sign on to every jot and tittle of the proposal. To wait for consensus among members of the Arab League means the death of the process before it ever starts, and invites final-status issues, such as the "right of return" of Palestinians to Israel and East Jerusalem, becoming the capital of a Palestinian state, to become requirements for peace before the peace negotiations are even launched. But the Arab League will not reach a consensus at or before its summit in Beirut on March 27, and is unlikely to do so at any time in the near future. The league's incessant infighting has been a hindrance to peace for both Israelis and the Palestinians.
Yet, if Saudi Arabia is to map out the proposals alone, it will need reassurances that the United States will remain involved in the peace process in a time of increasing violence. With the death toll reaching over 1,500 in the last 18 months of violence, and with nearly 250 of those deaths occurring since the Israeli incursions into Palestinian areas launched at the end of last month, some Arab countries are afraid to give away too much to Israel at this time.
Israel is also looking for assurances from the United States. It has watched its long-time ally court the Arab world for the American war on terrorism. It has heard President Bush call for a Palestinian state. It has been reprimanded last week, and countless times before, for attacks into Palestinian territories that Mr. Sharon saw as necessary for the defense of Israeli security and the prevention of further terrorism against his own people. The message the United States should be carrying is that it has not forgotten Israel, and is not willing to compromise Israel's security for its own war on terrorism. It should encourage Saudi Arabia to be a leader for peace, and not to let the Arab League convince it that a mock peace deal is better than none at all.

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