A Path to Middle East Peace
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- President-elect Barack Obama is about to inherit not just a nation entrenched in two wars but a world of instability and an entire Middle East that is sick with discord. While disputes in this region may seem eternal, there are reasons to be optimistic. If Obama joins with forces for peace and stability and acts boldly, his presidency could have a marked impact on world affairs.
The best medicine yet formulated for the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is the Arab peace initiative of 2002. One must consider the prospect of "peace" in context.
In May, Israel celebrated the 60th anniversary of its creation. For Palestinians and their Arab and Muslim brethren, Israel's founding is "al-Naqba," or "the Catastrophe." It is the day the dream of an independent, Arab-Palestinian state was shattered; a day when the idea of a world built on equality, freedom and self-determination died.
There is universal agreement that the Palestinian people are under occupation and have been deprived of their land. It is beyond debate that their rights -- which derive from divinely inspired texts, international law and the basic principles of justice and equity -- have been ignored, as have all attempts to seek redress.
The Oslo Accords of 1993, the first direct agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis, marked a turning point. There was a true spirit of cooperation, expressed through the mutual desire of Israelis and Palestinians to live together in peace. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 tragically ended this hopeful development.
By 1998, it was evident that the peace envisioned in Oslo would not materialize. Each side holds its own view on the reasons for failure. But looking at the discussions in detail -- especially after Rabin's assassination -- it appears that the Israelis used Oslo as a cover through which they could appropriate more Palestinian lands, especially around Jerusalem. Israeli negotiators stubbornly fought over secondary issues while refusing to negotiate final-status issues, which would have been the keys to lasting and secure peace. Since the failure of Oslo, the waves of violence and counter-violence have been almost as predictable as the tides.
The Arab world has presented two clear proposals, the Fahd peace plan of 1981 and the 2002 Arab peace initiative. Both were endorsed by all Arab nations. The Arab world is willing to pay a high price for peace, not only recognizing Israel as a legitimate state but also normalizing relations and putting a permanent end to the state of hostilities that has existed since 1948.
In return, we ask Israel to pursue the just course laid out in various international resolutions and laws: to withdraw completely from the lands occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem, returning to the lines of June 4, 1967; to accept a just solution to the refugee problem according to U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194; and to recognize the independent state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital.
If peace is truly the goal, Israel must cease all provocative actions, such as continuing the building of settlements on Palestinian lands, which is a clear violation of international law. If it does not, the world will conclude, as has former president Jimmy Carter, that Israel is interested only in increasing its power and its bargaining position.
Shimon Peres has offered to discuss the Arab peace initiative anytime, anywhere, and we welcome this response. At this point, the Saudi government is constrained from direct talks with Israel. Egypt and Jordan have been commissioned to meet with Israel on behalf of the Arab world. Once agreements between Palestine, Lebanon and Syria are reached with Israel, Saudi Arabia will join fully in ending hostilities and establishing diplomatic and normal relations with Israel.
Peace will require worldwide efforts. The United States, the European Union, the Russian Federation and the United Nations must embrace the Arab initiatives and pressure Israel to do the same. As Barack Obama takes office, he should not miss this critical opportunity to steer the region toward peace. Obama ought to pursue a comprehensive policy that deals with all the hot spots in the Middle East. He should:
· Call for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from Shebaa Farms in Lebanon. This would remove the issue of "national liberation" from the arsenal of Hezbollah's propaganda and mitigate Syrian and Iranian interference in Lebanon.
· Work with the U.N. Security Council for a resolution guaranteeing Iraq's territorial integrity. This would dampen Iraqi politicians' ambitions for dismembering Iraq and force them to negotiate for national reconciliation, putting their interests as Iraqis before their interests as Arabs, Kurds, Shiites or Sunnis. It would also stop any ambitions -- economic or territorial -- that Iraq's neighbors may be considering.
· Encourage Israeli-Syrian negotiations for peace. This would engage Syria and diminish Iranian obstructionism. It would also force Palestinian groups based in Syria to follow the Syrian example.
· Declare America's intention to work for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, with a security umbrella and other incentives for countries that sign up and a sanctions regime for those that don't. This would remove the issue of double standards that the Iranian government uses to raise support among its people for its nuclear policy. It would also resolve the security concerns with which Israel's leaders justify their possession of nuclear weapons.
Stabilizing the Middle East will require patience, determination, tough diplomacy and empathy. The effort, however, will be well worth the result. As the late Indian diplomat Vijaya Lakshmi Nehru Pandit said: "The more we sweat in peace, the less we bleed in war."
The writer is chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies in Riyadh. He was director of Saudi intelligence from 1977 to 2001 and Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States from 2005 to 2007.