Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Arab Peace Initiative

Image: “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference regarding the agreement with Turkey. Photo: Amos Ben Gershom, GPO.”

Whatever incitement the Palestinian Authority may be guilty of, it pales into insignificance when compared to the incitement that is Israel’s half-century long occupation.

On May 31, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earned plaudits from the international community and angered his ultra-right-wing government when he announced that he sees the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 as a basis for renewed peace talks with the Palestinians. On June 11, at a closed meeting with his fellow ministers, he reassured them that “Israel will never accept the Arab Peace Initiative as a basis for negotiations. [Arab countries] must grasp that they need to revise the Arab League proposal according to the changes that Israel demands.”

These contretemps are a perfect example of the manipulations and deceit that have characterized Netanyahu’s “peace diplomacy” during his four terms as prime minister of Israel. He empowered religious nationalists and xenophobic right wingers, and supported their enlargement of settlements throughout the West Bank, both openly and clandestinely, even as he retained the support of the U.S. Congress and a hidebound American Jewish establishment by claiming that his commitment to a two-state solution has been frustrated by Palestinian and Arab rejectionism.

So what exactly are the changes in the Arab Peace Initiative that Netanyahu now demands? He would like the world to believe that the initiative requires a complete Israeli withdrawal of its occupation from East Jerusalem and the entire West Bank and the removal of all of its settlements east of the pre-1967 Armistice Line. Netanyahu has long maintained that this demand contradicts President George W. Bush’s undertaking to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (April 14, 2004) that the U.S. would support Israel’s retention of certain settlement blocs beyond the 1967 line.

In fact, there is not a scintilla of truth to any of these claims. I know, because I was personally involved over a period of several years in discussions with the author of what became the Arab Peace Initiative, Crown Prince (and later King) Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and with the Department of State.

During the discussions that began in Riyadh at least two years before he went public with his initiative in 2002 in a conversation with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, Crown Prince Abdullah told me and a delegation of the U.S./Middle East Project that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a political dispute. As such, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries are prepared to recognize and to establish normal diplomatic ties with Israel once it reaches a two-state peace accord with the Palestinians. However, if the conflict remained unresolved it would degenerate into a religious dispute that would permanently defy resolution.

I told him that if he were to say this publicly, it could dramatically alter the course of the Israel-Palestine conflict. He said he was not yet ready to do so, but would not object to my reporting what he said. I declined, saying that if it did not come from him directly, it would lose its impact.

On February 17, 2002, Thomas Friedman reported the Crown Prince’s initiative, declaring the readiness of Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel upon Israel’s conclusion of a peace agreement with the Palestinians that establishes a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 border with its capital in East Jerusalem. However, missing from Friedman’s report was the following. In my discussions with the Crown Prince, he agreed that the Saudi initiative would allow equal territorial swaps on both sides of the 1967 line to enable Israel to incorporate several settlement blocs. It also allowed Israel’s annexation of Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and sovereignty over the Western Wall.

I called the Saudi authorities, who informed me that Crown Prince Abdullah authorized me to make that clarification and that he would confirm it.

Four days later (February 21), the New York Times published my Op-Ed containing this clarification. The New York Times noted that “American and Saudi officials said that Mr. Siegman’s account accurately reflected the Crown Prince's views.” In its own editorial, the Times wrote that “the Crown Prince’s thinking as set forth ... in an interview with our colleague Thomas Friedman and amplified in an Op-Ed article today by Henry Siegman, a veteran Mideast analyst, deserves serious consideration by Israel, the Palestinians and the United States.” The editorial noted that none of the discussions about an Israeli-Palestinian accord “are more serious in their implications than the suggestion by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia that his country is finally ready to lead the Arab world to normal relations with Israel in the event of a fairly negotiated peace agreement with the Palestinians.”