Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah is reported as saying that he would propose that all Arab states "normalize relations with Israel" at the upcoming Arab Summit. This "great concession" would be granted if Israel would agree to withdraw to the borders that existed before the June 1967 war and declare a Palestinian State. Though not mentioned, it is clearly understood that this would also include a Palestinian right to return and the dismantling of all Israeli settlements within those borders.
This unofficial remark touched off a whirlwind of reaction that looks almost staged.
Chairman Yasser Arafat immediately issued a response through the Palestinian news agency Wafa, "Important positions presented by Abdullah represent a clear support and push for the peace efforts" toward creation of a Palestinian state in the territories, while giving "security for the state of Israel."
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called the Saudi proposal "the most significant development since Madrid," a reference to the 1991 peace conference that started negotiations between Israel and several of its neighbors.
Palestinian leaders have previously said they would welcome "peaceful coexistence" with Israel if Israel withdraws from the disputed territories and accepts the principle of a "right of return" for Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Israel has steadfastly rejected the latter idea because it would be only a matter of time before the millions of returning Palestinians would overwhelm its five million Jews demographically (not to mention militarily).
Predictably, most of the world's news organizations have leaped on this unofficial statement as well. Some are treating it as if it were an official offer already agreed to by all the Arab States. Some European leaders are hailing this as the breakthrough needed for a lasting peace in the Middle East.
This whole idea totally sets aside the foundational reasons for why Israel entered the Oslo/Madrid Agreement with the Palestinian Authority. The agreement expressly required the Palestinians to renounce the use of violence in order to achieve their goals through peaceful negotiations. It was understood that in the negotiations, both sides would have to give up some of the things they fervently wanted.
It was in that spirit that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians a state in all of Gaza and the vast majority of the West Bank, including some critical areas of East Jerusalem. He even included a limited right of return to immediate family relatives.
This was as much as any Israeli leader could offer and deliver without being run out of office by infuriated citizens. This offer was rejected out of hand with no negotiation. Shortly afterward, the terror campaign was planned and initiated.
Although it sounds like peace, it is part of the overall Arab war strategy. The Saudi position begins at a point already beyond what Israel is willing to concede: a total withdrawal to pre-1967 lines, including the surrender of half of Jerusalem. In addition, there is a casual mention of linking the whole deal to an eventual general "right of return."
To the Arab world, the right of return doesn't mean a right to return to the new state of Palestine, but to their homes and lands in the existing state of Israel. Given that the number of refugees and their descendants could number as many as 6 million, Israel as a Jewish state would cease to exist at the very next election. The elimination of a Jewish state in the Middle East would become a fait accompli through a ballot, rather than a bullet. To the rest of the world, this would be a satisfactory outcome – unless, of course, you are an Israeli Jew.
There are still enough Israelis alive to remember the wars of 1948-49, 1956 and 1967. At that time, the Muslims had control of the very areas they are seeking to get returned. If those areas were not enough to satisfy them then, why should Israel believe they will be enough now? Many Israelis have come to realize that to the Muslims, the issue has never been about the size of Israel, but rather the existence of Israel.
Israel is a nation whose ingrained longing for peace is so fervent that its standard greeting for arrival and departure is "shalom," which means "peace." Israelis exhort one another to "pray for the peace of Jerusalem." But, understandably, Israel is unlikely to agree to the price of "shalom" if that price includes its ultimate annihilation.
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