Sharon’s greatest victory — or biggest miss?

The Saudi peace initiative of February 2002, subsequently approved by the Arab League summit in Beirut, has been the boldest effort to resolve the Arab-Israel dispute during the current round of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. And like all other attempts to stop the bloodshed and revive the peace process, the Saudi initiative burst onto the diplomatic scene with high hopes, only to fade away quickly, without leaving a real mark on the belligerents.

When Crown Prince Abdullah laid out his ideas to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, he stripped the Arab-Israel conflict to its bare bones of land and peace. Israel was asked to leave the territories it captured in 1967 and accept a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem, in return for full normalization with the Arab world and security guarantees. The Palestinian refugee problem was not mentioned, and Abdullah indicated openness to minor land swaps, including Israeli control over the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Above all, the plan was wrapped up in the added values of oil money and Islamic legitimacy that only the Saudi ruler could supply.

Israel could have seized the opportunity to grab the Saudi initiative as the fruit of victory over the Palestinian intifada. After all, the crown prince had offered the Jewish state a better deal than ever before, and it was earned only through Israel’s stubborn stand in the face of Palestinian terrorism. Nevertheless, this was clearly not the view of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He reacted to the Saudi initiative with customary caution and suspicion; instead of rejecting it outright, Sharon bought time by "asking for clarifications," while waiting for the political hype to dissolve. Only then did he dare to speak his mind about Abdullah’s plan. In its formal reservations to the 2003 roadmap, Israel demanded to delete any reference to the Saudi initiative as a basis for future settlement.

What was Sharon afraid of? Obviously he categorically opposed the idea of full withdrawal to the 1967 lines, viewing them as dangerous to Israel’s very existence, and would never discuss the division of Jerusalem. Tactically, too, Sharon feared a trap, aimed at isolating Israel as a rejectionist state.

The Israeli leader, however, is not the only one to blame for the Saudi initiative’s failure. It was marred from the beginning with bad timing and less-than-honest intentions. Had it been put on the table two years earlier, at the height of Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s dealings with Yasser Arafat and the late Syrian President Hafez Assad, it could have given a much-needed boost to those fruitless peacemaking efforts. But back then the Saudis kept a distance.

When they finally intervened, they had other issues in mind. The kingdom’s image in the United States was irreparably damaged by the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, as most of the perpetrators were Saudi nationals. Moreover, Abdullah tried in vain to persuade President George W. Bush to deal with Sharon before attacking Saddam Hussein, hinting that if Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians could be curtailed, the Arab world would be better disposed to accept an American campaign to oust the Iraqi regime.

In early March 2002 Sharon dispatched Ephraim Halevy, head of the Mossad, to meet a senior Arab foreign minister (apparently Oman’s Yusuf bin Alawy, Halevy’s old acquaintance) and obtain more information about the plan. In Halevy’s presence, his host called the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al Faisal. Halevy reported back that the Saudis were worried more about domestic instability and economic troubles than over their bad publicity in America. Sharon, apparently smelling weakness on the other side, stopped further contacts with the Saudis.

Then, at the end of March, the crown prince addressed the Arab League summit in Beirut. Alas, en route to Beirut the plan underwent a substantial change, with the addition of two references to the refugee issue. One mentioned United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, which the Palestinians depict as mandating the "right of return;" the other recognized the objection of the "host countries" (mostly Lebanon) to the refugees’ permanent settlement on their soil. These amendments strengthened Israeli fears that the whole thing was a dangerous scheme to undermine Israeli security.

Even worse for the initiative’s prospects, public attention was already turning elsewhere. The main issue at Beirut was whether Israel would allow Arafat to attend (it did not). Twenty-four hours afterwards, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at the Park Hotel in Netanya, in the deadliest terror attack of the conflict. The bombing prompted Israel to launch its reoccupation offensive in the West Bank.

In the coming weeks, Israeli and Saudi leaders competed in making pilgrimages to America, aiming to win over President Bush to their respective sides. For Abdullah, however, it turned out to be a fruitless last-ditch effort. The president decided to go after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein first, and leave the Israeli-Palestinian problem for "the day after" the Iraq war. His June 24, 2002 speech made clear that Sharon had won an exemption from negotiations with Arafat, and all but succeeded in putting the Saudi initiative to rest (beyond the lip service it received in the roadmap preamble).