- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 19, 2006

If Washington is upset with Russian President Vladimir Putin over an invitation he has extended to Hamas, asking the radical Palestinians to come to Moscow for talks, Israeli officials are livid.

Russia is one of the four co-sponsors of the Middle East Road Map, along with the United States, the United Nations and the European Union. Mr. Putin says Russia is acting in the spirit of the Road Map. Israel says how would Mr. Putin like it if they invited Chechen rebels for talks? Washington and Jerusalem considers Hamas, the winner of recent elections in the Palestinian territories, to be a terrorist organization.

Before the Bush administration will agree to engage Hamas in negotiations, and before Israel will accept Hamas as an interlocutor, Washington and Jerusalem want Hamas to recognize Israel. The problem, or rather one of the problems — there are so many in this turbulent part of the world — is that Hamas’ charter calls for the destruction of Israel.

The dilemma, or rather one of them, as there are so many in this part … oh, you get the drift. The dilemma is how to get around this problem. Stephen P. Cohen, a scholar with the Israel Policy Forum, an independent and non-partisan organization that promotes and advocates active American efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, believes there might be a solution to the conundrum.

The solution involves getting the participation of three more countries during the initial stage — Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt — and at a later stage bringing in Syria and Jordan.

Mr. Cohen believes the answer, or one of them, lies in the proposition put forward by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia during the Beirut Arab summit of 2002, when he was still crown prince.

King Abdullah’s peace proposal comes with a face-saving clause for both sides. The Saudi monarch proposes immediate recognition of Israel by all member countries of the Arab League. That, of course, includes Palestine. In other words, if the Saudi proposal is accepted, it would mean that Hamas would also accept recognition of Israel and its right to exist.

In return for Hamas recognizing Israel, Israel would have to accept —in principle — the right of return of Palestinian refugees. This would give Hamas the credentials vis-a-vis its electorate to negotiate with Israel.

This clause is indeed a very thorny issue. The Jewish state fears the sudden influx of several tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Israel would dilute the Jewish population, giving the Arabs a demographic advantage. Israel is not about to accept that.

Realistically though, “returning” several hundreds of thousands of Arabs into neighborhoods that are heavily populated by Israelis is a) not a good idea, b) setting the ground for future conflict and c) highly unlikely to win the approval of any Israeli government. This is where Saudi Arabia and Qatar get to flex their financial muscle — and Egypt and Syria their political clout.

In order for this plan to work the following needs to happen.

1. Israel needs to accept a token number of returnees.

2. Hamas needs to facilitate the resettlement of some refugees in parts of the West Bank and abandoned Israeli settlements in Gaza.

3. The host countries where the bulk of the refugees currently live need to be given incentives (Saudi and Qatari money) to allow a certain percentage of the refugees to remain in their countries, though no longer as refugees, but to be granted full citizenship.

According to UNWRA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, as of March 31, 2005, the number of Palestinian refugees (not counting the 961,645 in Gaza and 687,542 in the West Bank), breaks down as follows: Lebanon (400,582), Syria (424,650) and Jordan (1,780,701). Of those, however, not all are resident in refugee camps.

In Jordan, for example, of the nearly 1.8 million, only 283,183 live in camps, and in Syria only 112,882 live in camps. Lebanon has the largest refugee population, with 210,952 living in camps.

Under a Saudi-sponsored accord, the host countries would adopt some of those refugees, others would be resettled in Arab countries, or encouraged to emigrate to countries open to immigration.

Still riding the crest of its electoral victory, Hamas can use this honeymoon period to push through agreements with Israel that might otherwise not be received in a very positive light by those who voted them into power. The Palestinian people are looking for change from Hamas. If they act now, they will find it easier to keep their support. Once the honeymoon is over, they are likely to find themselves in the same tough spot that Fatah was in prior to the election.

“The big danger for Hamas from its victory in the election is not attacks from the United States. It is that they lose the backing of the electorate very fast,” said Mr. Cohen.

The wild card in all this is Damascus. For any of this to work, the Syrians must be brought in from the cold. Syria should be included in peace talks so that a final agreement can be achieved over the Golan Heights. Pacifying Syria will serve to distance President Bashar Assad from Tehran. Again, this is where Saudi influence — and Russia’s — comes into play. Saudi sources close to the royal family have stressed the king’s keen interest in finding a solution to the Palestinian issue.

Meanwhile, if Mr. Putin can begin planting seeds of peace in Hamas’ mindset it may not be a bad thing for him to court the Palestinian Islamic Movement.

“Finally,” said Mr. Cohen, “the United States must also make some concessions and come to realize this is not like Iran in 1954, when the Americans come, pull out [Mohammed] Mossadegh and install the shah.”

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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