WASHINGTON — In a bid to open a channel to the Arabs, Israel's premier is embracing a long dormant Saudi peace proposal that would divide Jerusalem and could flood the Jewish state with Palestinian Arab refugees with family claims to land evacuated in the 1948 war that created the state.
Speaking in Tel Aviv yesterday, Prime Minister Olmert said Israel was prepared to make "sweeping, painful, and tough concessions" in order to forge open contacts with Arab states that offered in 2002 to acknowledge Israel's right to exist in exchange for its full retreat from the territories it won in the 1967 war.
"The Saudi initiative is interesting and has many sections that I would be willing to accept — though, predictably, not all of them — and it could certainly be a convenient basis for continued dialogue between us and Arab moderates," he said.
Mr. Olmert's embrace of the Saudi initiative, a proposal Saudi Arabia's then crown prince initially shared with a New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, comes just days before the Israeli premier meets with his Palestinian Arab counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, and Secretary of State Rice. A day after their meeting Sunday, Ms. Rice will fly to Aswan, Egypt, for a summit with her Egyptian, Jordanian, Saudi, and United Arab Emirates counterparts to discuss, one State Department official said, "strategies for marketing the Arab peace offer."
The Saudi plan, which was endorsed by the Arab League in 2002, is expected to be a central point of discussion at an Arab League summit in Riyadh at the end of the month. Israeli diplomats are now discreetly discussing with their Arab counterparts how to raise what they consider to be red lines for the proposal. "The main message is that the language on the right of return needs to change," one Israeli diplomat familiar with the secret talks said. "We are also asking for them to develop some confidence-building mechanisms and to tone down the language on the 1967 borders."
While that appears to be the view of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, other players within the government have been critical of Mr. Olmert's seeming embrace of the Saudi initiative. In an interview yesterday with the Arutz Sheva news service, a leading Likud member of the Knesset, Yuval Steinitz, attacked the prime minister. "When you mention the other side's plan and add ‘all is open for negotiation,' it means that you are not going to stand firm on defensible borders in the Golan Heights or in Judea and Samaria," he said.
A former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations under Prime Minister Netanyahu, Dore Gold, said: "Those who believe that redividing Jerusalem by advancing the Saudi plan will lower the flames of radical Islamic rage have absolutely no idea of what they are dealing with. Any proposal to give the Hamas government the hope of taking over Jerusalem will shoot up jihadism in the region by giving new hope to Al Qaeda affiliates that Jerusalem is within their grasp."
Other observers here, however, are optimistic about the Saudi initiative. "I think the secretary of state has recognized that no one has an incentive to do negotiations without saying where you are going," a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, Judith Kipper, said. "She is trying to nudge some of the key Arab states to be closer to Israel, to make Israel understand that they need to make concessions. They did not market the 2002 Saudi proposal, and that was a major proposal. It is a major, major breakthrough in this conflict. This time they will."
A State Department official said one of the goals of Ms. Rice's summit with the Arab foreign ministers on Monday will be to discuss the kinds of steps they can take to persuade Israel to start new negotiations. For example, the official said, moderate Arab leaders can begin to "tamp down the rhetoric about Israel. For decades they have demonized Israel, it's going to take a long time."
Working alongside the diplomatic efforts, Rep. Frank Wolf, a Republican of Virginia who has been a strong supporter of Israel, unveiled a new initiative yesterday with President Clinton's coordinator for the Oslo process, Dennis Ross, and a former Ohio Democratic congressman, Tony Hall, to build an interfaith dialogue in Israel and the Palestinian Arab territories among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. "We are trying to engage the religious leaders of the region to prepare the soil for peace, to prepare the environment for whatever the Bush administration does in the next year," Mr. Wolf said.
Mr. Wolf was the author of the original amendment that created the Iraq Study Group, whose subsequent report was embraced largely by Democrats as a mandate to end the Iraq war and begin diplomacy with Iran and Syria. Yesterday, Mr. Wolf said his new initiative would not produce a report or policy recommendations. "This is about getting people together. Someone has to go out there and meet with these people. Assistant secretaries are not going to do it," he said.