Saudi Arabia Stirring

Henry Kissinger famously said that Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic politics. Last Sunday’s cabinet decision to pull back the tanks from Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters, but keep the Palestinian leader quarantined in that West Bank city, was a classic vindication of the former secretary of state’s wit and wisdom.

The decision was dictated by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, against the more generous urgings of his foreign and defense ministers, Labor’s Shimon Peres and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, and even some of his own Likud legislators and the Shin Bet security service. Never mind that it insulted Arafat and played badly abroad. It kept Sharon’s ungainly coalition intact — and put off the moment when far-right ministers like Avigdor Lieberman will defect to Binyamin Netanyahu’s campaign to replace Sharon as party leader and ultimately as prime minister.

The Palestinians were furious. This was not the response they had been led to expect after arresting three of the alleged assassins of the Israeli Tourism Minister, Rechavam Ze’evi, and agreeing to an informal truce during a Jewish and Muslim holiday week. Saeb Erakat, a senior peace negotiator, condemned the cabinet resolution as “despicable and shameless.” It showed, he said, that the Israelis had no political program. “They just want to take the path of escalation and destruction.”

Peres and his Foreign Ministry professionals were left to pick up the pieces. Like half-hearted cheerleaders, they accentuated the positive. Israel, one diplomat said, was signaling Arafat that “there is a reward for good behavior.” The Palestinians had yielded to pressure and arrested the Ze’evi suspects, “a move in the right direction.” So Israel pulled back the tanks.

Sharon’s spokesman, Ra’anan Gissin, put a less sunny spin on it. The arrests, he acknowledged, were a small step in the right direction, but the Palestinians needed to do more. “If Arafat doesn’t want to be humiliated,” he said, “let him act against the terrorists. If he wants to leave Ramallah, he knows what he has to do.”

The dovish half of Sharon’s coalition argues that the partial lifting of the Ramallah siege is not the end of the story. They highlight the key clause in the cabinet resolution which says that Israel’s answer to any request by Arafat to leave Ramallah will be determined by the prime minister and defense minister. The issue will not have to go back to the cabinet. “That leaves a lot of leeway in the hands of Sharon and Ben-Eliezer, who also have to compromise with each other,” a Foreign Ministry official suggested.

On this optimistic scenario, Arafat will get the message, rein in the gunmen and make more arrests. Then Sharon will let him travel more freely. The same diplomat was ready to bet that the government would allow Arafat to go to Beirut for an Arab League summit at the end of March.

There are a lot of “ifs” along the way. A month is an eternity in the Middle East. Arafat is not known for swallowing his pride, nor is Sharon for flexibility. As Yediot Aharonot’s political analyst Shimon Shiffer wrote on Monday: “If it were up to Sharon, Arafat would remain imprisoned in Ramallah forever.”

The doves are pinning their hopes on a gathering diplomatic momentum. The world will not leave the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to spiral into chaos. The Egyptians, who have influence with Arafat and a peace treaty with Israel, are active. So are the Europeans and the Americans.

Most intriguingly, Saudi Arabia is stirring. Crown Prince Abdullah’s initiative under which all the Arab states would recognize Israel and establish normal relations with it, in return for Israeli withdrawal from all the territory occupied in the 1967 war. Abdullah expects an Arab League summit next month to back his peace initiatives, EU foreign policy chief Javer Solan told Reuters on Wednesday. “He expects at the Arab League summit they will be approved,” Solana told Reuters.

The Israeli right remains suspicious. Is Abdullah laying a trap? Does he simply want to show how “intransigent” Israel really is? But even Sharon acknowledges that the initiative cannot be brushed aside. He has asked the Americans to investigate it further, not least because the prince has won the endorsement of Arafat, the Arab League and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. “I think it’s an important step that we have welcomed,” Secretary of State Colin Powell said Monday, adding that he hoped “that in the weeks ahead, it’ll be flushed out in greater detail.”

The Israeli media have given it exuberant, even enthusiastic, coverage. “What looked like a brilliant public relations ploy,” star columnist Nahum Barnea commented in Yediot Aharonot, “has developed, maybe, a life of its own. The optimists among us recall President Sadat’s peace initiative. It also began with a declaration that looked like a public relations ploy.”

The Israeli diplomat offered a more sober assessment: “The Saudis are saying to Arafat, if you don’t get your act together, we may make a deal without you. They are also giving Israel an incentive to be more forthcoming.”

Henry Siegman, an American Middle East analyst who knows the Saudis and the Israelis well, was even more phlegmatic. In an interview with Israel television, he said he did not expect the Sharon government to accept the initiative, but the Saudis were planting a seed for the future. They were telling the Israeli public that the Arab world was not bent on destroying them.

He is probably right, but, as Barnea wrote: “The excitement caused by the Saudi initiative attests to how great the thirst is for a new, redeeming idea that will fill the void that has been created between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”