Not since Israel's creation in 1948, in my judgment, has there been a greater possibility of achieving peace between Israel, the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors.
Looking back, anyone who expected the Camp David accords to be accepted by all the states in the Midde East was unaware of the sensitivities that were either ignored or purposely shelved for later consideration. Likewise, anyone who now expects the Saudis' eight points to be universally applauded is remiss in not appreciating the real facts of life in the region--both in Israel and among parties less thoughtful than the Saudis.
However, the acceptance by Jordan, the PLO and others of the overall approach embodied in the Saudi eight-point "peace plan" may be a crucial turning point. For the first time, even if indirectly, important Arab parties have turned away from "outlawing" Israel as an illegitimate entity and have looked to negotiations with recognition and "coexistence" as the eventual goal.
Many have forgotten the extreme difference between the speeches Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin made to the Knesset--differences that thoughtful negotiations helped resolve.
I feel somewhat the same about the current situation. The Saudis have taken a significant lead and will be attempting at the Arab summit in Fez later this month to achieve an Arab consensus. The importance of these developments must not be missed.
My visit in August to a number of Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, convinced me that with very few exceptions there was a general feeling at the highest levels that Israel was here to stay, that it had developed into a military superpower, that Jewish nationalism was accepted as fact if not understood, and that the time had finally come to find an answer to the basic problem that stood in the way of a comprehensive peace.
Over and over, the Palestinian issue dominated conversation and viewpoints. The Palestinians have become a special people in the Arab world, in some ways like the Jews were in the West following World War II.
The next most significant conclusion was that the PLO was the only party qualified to speak for the Palestinians. There will be those who will say that such a conclusion is naive or ill-founded. Perhaps so; but it remains a fact that the PLO has sufficient strength in an increasing number of capitals to either accelerate or abort the peace process that was begun four years ago with Sadat's Jerusalem visit.
The PLO members are trying to create, and with some success, an organization that handles many social and economic problems, even as they continue to build a more sophisticated military potential. They are spoken of as "the modern-day Jews of the Arab world."
I found that the Camp David accords were rejected not so much because of unwillingness to contemplate peace with Israel as because they failed to link properly the Egyptian-Israeli treaty with resolution of the Palestinian issue. Many condemn Camp David for this, forgetting that without this beginning there probably would not be today's Saudi initiative. Others feel that Camp David has served its function and should now be supplemented or transcended.
It would be tragic and unthinkable to lose the momentum begun at Camp David. The autonomy discussions should now be accelerated in an attempt to draw Palestinian representation into the negotiations. But if the autonomy talks fail to deal adequately with the Palestinian issue, there is no dishonor in supplementing them with the suggestions of others.
Here the Saudi approach may prove useful. As President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt has suggested, and as the Reagan administration has implied, the Saudi ideas are not incompatible with the peace process. Enlarging participation in the process was, in fact, envisioned at Camp David.
I knew the representatives of Saudi Arabia in the United Nations in the mid-1950s and 1960s. They were in the main mercenaries who were not always native Saudis or polished diplomats. Energy economics and 20 years have transformed the Saudi situation. Yet the ruling family, it appears to me, senses that many more changes need to be made. In my contacts outside the kingdom with representatives of the Saudi monarchy and with Saudi private businessmen, I have not found the alleged arrogance of which some others complain. There actually seems to be a kind of modesty accompanied by serious anxiety about the unknown future. Comparing Saudi Arabia with Iran under the shah is unrealistic. In fact, there is little comparison to Saudi Arabia today or probably in history--the country is sui generis.
I conclude that no genuine peace will be achieved anytime soon without some real measure of Saudi participation. If this conclusion is correct, or even if the conjecture has possibilities, then it should be explored by both the United States and Israel. We need to build on the progress Camp David made possible. We may be mid-stream between the beginning of a limited peace and the achievement of a comprehensive peace.