by Smadar Perry
The Saudi peace initiative first saw light some 13 years ago, and apparently there are still many key figures in the Arab world who would like to see it revived.
“Now that Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu has formed his new government, I call on him to say yes to the Saudi peace initiative. It’s alive and well and didn’t disappear with the regime change in Saudi Arabia,” says Dr. Anwar Eshki, the director of the Jeddah-based Middle East Institute for Strategic Studies.
“King Salman and his senior advisers support it. It’s time for Israel to accept it too. There is no alternative peace plan.”
A former military general who has also filled various key roles in the Riyadh administration in the past, Eshki, 72, is believed to have very close ties with the Saudi royal family; and he had no qualms about giving an interview to an Israeli newspaper, noting: “The issue is an important one, and we need to convey the message to Netanyahu, the cabinet ministers and the Israeli public that there is a peace plan awaiting their approval.”
Eshki gave an exclusive interview to Ynet’s sister publication, Yedioth Ahronoth, in Qatar, where he was attending the Doha Forum’s economic conference over the weekend.
“If Israel accepts the peace plan and makes a commitment to implement it, 22 Arab states and another 20 Muslim counties will commit to normalizing relations with you,” Eshki says. “You need to internalize the fact that we want coexistence between the Arab states and Israel.”
And Eshki also had a message for the skeptics who lack faith in his vision: “Saudi Arabia always fulfills the commitments it takes on,” he says. “And you will see, when the time comes for normalization, we and another 22 Arab states will establish diplomatic relations with Israel, including commercial cooperation and cultural ties.”
According to the Saudi initiative, the brainchild in 2002 of then-crown prince Abdullah, the Israeli-Arab conflict will come to an end in return for an Israeli undertaking to withdraw to the pre-Six-Day War 1967 borders.
Despite being adopted unanimously at the Arab League Summit in Beirut in 2002, the plan, now known as the Arab Peace Initiative, has yet to elicit an official Israeli response. The reason: It includes the division of Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees, both of which spark opposition among government officials in Jerusalem.
But now, with a new government in Israel and the crowning of King Salman in January, there are those who believe that it’s time to revive the initiative.
“People say that Netanyahu has put together a government of extremists,” Eshki says. “That doesn’t bother me. On the contrary, perhaps it’s best for achieving peace – because if Netanyahu and his ministers accept the plan, there’ll be no one to stand in their way.”
If Netanyahu does decide to adopt the initiative, Eshki adds, he must do so officially – in an address at the UN or in Jerusalem, for example.
Eshki is well aware of the Israeli reservations. “The peace plan provides for the evacuation of the settlements and their resettling by Palestinians; but there could be land exchanges, in keeping with security requirements and mutual understandings,” he says. “And the Palestinians who choose not to return will get financial compensation.”
Eshki believes that if Israel were to give a thumbs-up to the initiative in principle, talks over “the problematic issues” would then go ahead under the patronage of Saudi Arabia, the US, Egypt and Jordan.
“The sides, including Israel, will determine where the negotiations will be conducted,” he says, adding that the initiative constitutes the “most suitable” political solution because it is based on UN resolutions.