The Saudi initiative

For all three world religions emanating from the Middle East, waiting and anticipation are shared common themes. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s recent proposal that the Arab world offer full diplomatic recognition for Israel in exchange for that nation’s withdrawal from the occupied territories should signal to all involved that their faith in the eventual success of the peace process is not misplaced.

The proposal is already haunted by the goblins of Middle East realpolitik, and only a fortuitous conversation with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman kept the Saudi crown prince from dispatching his ideas directly to the graveyard of frustrated dreams in which so many agreements, resolves and ambitions lie. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has slammed the new plan as a mere restatement of agreed-upon principles. Other commentators have suggested Saudi Arabia is trying to improve relations with the United States after a number of Saudis were implicated in the Sept. 11 attacks. Even Arab leaders who have rallied behind the spirit of the proposal have said it fails to address such issues as Jerusalem’s future, the fate of refugees and the possibility of a Palestinian state.

Secretary of State Colin Powell initially reduced the proposal to a passing mention in a list of “minor developments” in the region. Although the government’s foreign relations PR firm, the State Department, quickly persuaded the secretary to upgrade Abdullah’s plan to “important step” status, Powell’s first reaction probably captures what the entire Arab world’s response would have been, were the region less desperate for any ray of light.

But while one proposal – whose full details will not be announced until the end of the month – will certainly not bring about the lasting peace the last half-century of talks and promises have not produced, at least two effects of Crown Prince Abdullah’s plan cannot be easily dismissed.

First, the Saudi leader’s proposal lays diplomatic relations with Israel on the table for debate. The significance of this is that one of the central Arab powers appears to be suggesting peace is not enough, that Arab states must plan for a future in which Israel is a permanent fixture in the region, whether its neighbors like it or not.

Second, the plan’s source carries a weight all its own. The typically secretive Saudi government has placed itself, at least until the conclusion of the Arab summit at the end of March, on the front lines of the diplomatic firefight that characterizes international relations whenever questions of Israel and the Palestinians are on the agenda. This extra push toward a realistic and lasting peace in the region is a welcome development and, the world should hope, portends a future of continued Saudi leadership on this issue.