- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2007

TEL AVIV — Israel is showing unexpected interest in a long-dormant Saudi plan for Arab-Israeli peace, reflecting frustration with the lack of progress on the U.S.-backed road map and the government’s need for a new policy initiative.

After years of rejecting the plan, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet on Sunday that he saw “positive” elements in the proposal, which offers peace and normal relations with Israel’s neighbors in exchange for a return to Israel’s pre-1967 borders.

He emphasized that, with unspecified changes, negotiations could be held on the basis of the plan, which the Arab League first adopted in 2002.

“It’s a shift because Olmert is now saying he’s looking at the plan seriously,” said Meir Javedanfar, the author of a book on Iran’s nuclear program. “With the end of the intifada and the election of Hamas, there are new realities on the ground.”

The proposal, which the Arab League is to revisit when it convenes a summit in Ridyah, Saudi Arabia, later this month, also underlines Saudi Arabia’s growing status as a regional mediator.

In an address this week to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni described a changed region with new alliances.

“Yes, there are threats. We can see the extremists headed by Iran, with its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian Authority,” she said. “But there are also new opportunities. We can see the old divisions of the Middle East being replaced. Israelis, moderate Palestinians, and pragmatic Arab and Muslim leaders are moving into the same camp.”

Hamas’ parliamentary victory, coupled with the Israel-Hezbollah war and Lebanon’s sectarian struggle, have underlined the threats posed by Iran and other Muslim fundamentalists to pro-Western Sunni regimes and the Jewish state.

Embracing the Arab peace plan represents a departure from Israel’s traditional preference for bilateral peace talks, based on a fear that other countries would unite against the Jewish state in any multilateral negotiation.

The road map focuses on confidence-building measures as a prerequisite for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks — fighting militants on the Palestinian side and dismantling unauthorized settlement outposts on the Israeli side — but the process has been mothballed as neither side carried out its commitments.

The Saudi initiative, by contrast, seeks agreement on a set of principles for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace as a starting point for negotiations across the region.

Analysts say it is unlikely that the Israelis and the Palestinians can conclude a peace deal in the near future because of Mr. Olmert’s sagging approval ratings and internal strife among the Palestinians.

But the Saudi initiative could help Mr. Olmert find a new foreign policy initiative. The war with Hezbollah in Lebanon last year destroyed his plan to withdraw unilaterally from the West Bank. With its promise of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, the Saudi initiative also helps Mr. Olmert divert attention from the Lebanon war fallout and corruption scandals.

“It’s about Iran, it’s about regional stability, and for Olmert it’s a change in focus,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University.

“He doesn’t have to deal with the Lebanon war, the commissions, the corruption. But it’s not going to bring peace with the Palestinians, it’s not going to solve the refugee problem.”

Israel’s biggest reservation with the Saudi plan concerns its support for a right for Palestinian refugees to return to homes inside the present-day Jewish state. The plan’s call for a full withdrawal from the West Bank also runs counter to commitments by successive Israeli governments to hold on to blocs of Jewish settlements.

“The U.S. should seize the moment of the upcoming Arab summit that only presents itself once a year, and look for those modifications that could create the base line for genuine Israeli-Palestinian negotiations,” said David Makovsky, a Middle East analyst at the Washington Institute.

“My fear is that if it isn’t done the inertia of the Middle East takes over.”

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