- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 19, 2006

Just days after ascending to the throne, Saudi Arabia’s new King Abdullah let it be known he intended to play a major role in finding a negotiated settlement to the longstanding Arab-Israeli dispute. Close advisers to the king said Abdullah believed there could be no stability in the region so long as the Palestinian problem remained unresolved.

A Herculean task by any means, even for a king backed by the world’s largest oil supply and all the money, power and influence petrodollars can buy, still, Abdullah seemed undeterred by the task’s enormity, or its complexity.

King Abdullah may get a golden opportunity to push the stalled peace process forward after the Organization of the Islamic Conference’s meeting in Saudi Arabia March 13-15, which was aimed at encouraging Muslim countries to participate in the group’s economic boycott of Israel. The meeting, which was attended by representatives from most of the organization’s 57 members, will be followed by a ministerial conference in June. That is when Abdullah must act.

In keeping with his wish to see matters move forward in the political arena, the king should consider surprising his June hosts with a bold statement.

After welcoming his guests, the Saudi monarch should propose abolishing the Arab Boycott Bureau in exchange for substantial economic improvement for the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. He then should repeat his Beirut offer.

Such a move will win the king political mileage, particularly as the boycott of Israel has been a white elephant from the start.

“The Arab Boycott Bureau has been an ineffectual economic weapon, it has clearly not damaged the Israeli economy, but it did have political impact,” Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine, told United Press International Thursday. “As Arab leaders consider lifting it, they should ensure that the Palestinian economy draws substantial benefits.

Such a move would have the added benefit of narrowing the economic gap between both communities, making negotiation more feasible.”

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, takes the matter a step further. Mr. Zogby believes past agreements of that kind have failed to produce the desired results. He recalled an earlier attempt of pressure from former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III to stop the boycott for the Madrid Peace talks in 1991. “They [the Palestinians] have been burned a couple of times,” Mr. Zogby told UPI.

Instead, Mr. Zogby recommends putting back on the table the entire Abdullah proposal, the one the Saudi monarch offered the Israelis at the Beirut 2002 Arab Summit, when he was still crown prince. Abdullah’s package deal included full recognition of Israel by all 22-member states of the League of Arab Nations, in return for Israel recognizing the state of Palestine with delineated borders.

Two major sticking points that will arise in any negotiations regarding Palestinians refugees’ plight and their “right of return.” And of course the status of Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state. “Ultimately,” says Mr. Zogby, “It’s up to the Palestinians to determine what they accept. It’s up to whatever the Palestinians agree to.”

Indeed it is, but they need a little help from their friends. Several Muslim and Arab countries continue to believe an economic boycott of Israel is the way to pressure certain countries and ensure they abide by international resolutions.

A number of Arab governments also believe an Arab boycott of Israel should continue until all occupied land is liberated and the Palestinians obtain their legitimate rights, including the right of return and an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital.

That too, is a tall order, and is bound to fail because it asks for too many major concessions to be made too quickly.

Instead, baby steps are needed in the Israeli-Palestinian context; confidence-building baby steps that would allow Palestinians and Israelis to move slowly, but firmly, from one level to the next.

Previous meetings of the Boycott office have focused on how to revive the boycott and increase its effectiveness. But as Mr. Asali and others have repeatedly pointed out, the boycott has been largely ineffective.

In the final analysis, talk is cheap, particularly in the Middle East,where official statements have to be deciphered from a local version of “newspeak” and translated into two distinct dialects: one for domestic consumption and one for foreign use.

If King Abdullah is serious about moving the Middle East process forward, now is the time for action. Put all the talk of the past — domestic and international, newspeak and colloquial — aside and back it up with firm action. That is the only way toward peace. It might just be worth the effort.

By June, Israel will have a new government that might just be ready to move forward.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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