When Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser swept into Khartoum for an Arab summit less than three months after the Arab debacle in the 1967 Six-Day War, he was greeted like a hero.
Newsweek ran a cover story titled, "Hail to the Conquered!" The summit passed the notorious "three no’s" defining future relations with Israel: No negotiations, no recognition and no peace.
In July the following year, Nasser took a young Yasser Arafat, traveling on an Egyptian passport under the name of Muhsin Amin, with him to Moscow on an arms shopping spree.
In the war against Israel, Nasser told Arafat, "You can be our irresponsible arm."
Nasser’s pan-Arabism meant mobilizing Arab power to defeat Israel — and support for Palestinian terror was part and parcel of the package.
Palestinian terror today may be more intense than it was then, but the political context is totally different. Part of the importance of the recent Saudi Arabian peace initiative is that it re-emphasizes, at a time of crisis, how far the Arab world has moved since Nasser’s day.
For moderate Arab states, Palestinian terror is no longer an "irresponsible arm" of policy but an embarrassment, undermining their relations with the West and encouraging radicals opposed to their regimes.
Whatever the final nuances, the Saudi initiative envisages an Arab world at peace with Israel and conducting normal relations with it — though the definition of normalcy may differ from country to country.
Some Israeli commentators see that as a conceptual breakthrough on a par with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem in November 1977.
Others are more skeptical. They say the Saudis launched their initiative to improve their image with the United States and quiet Muslim radicals, and that it offers no mechanism for ending Israeli-Palestinian violence or renewing Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
Moreover, they point out that the Saudis played a similar gambit with an eight-point peace plan presented at two Arab summits in Fez, Morocco, in the early 1980s. Nothing came of that, the skeptics say, and nothing will come of the current initiative, because when Arab countries finish watering it down for the sake of consensus, there will be nothing left for would-be peacemakers to latch onto.
Until the last minute, Israel and the Palestinian Authority kept sparring over whether Arafat, the Palestinian Authority president, would be allowed to attend the summit, with Israel demanding that Arafat first call for an end to Palestinian violence and take some steps to put his words into effect. That, in turn, led Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to threaten that he also would not attend.
Still, the Arab leaders said they were likely to discuss the Saudi initiative whether or not Arafat is present.
Even if the Saudi initiative is not another Sadat-like breakthrough, it is important, not least because of its timing. It fills a void, presenting an Arab vision of peace when there are no others; it comes in the midst of a vicious cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence and suggests Arab backing to help end it, and, because of the similarities, it seems to imply an Arab readiness to accept the main principles of the American peace plan announced by President Bill Clinton in December 2000. That could be crucial for future peacemaking.
The fact that the initiative has been put forward at this time is a subtle critique of Palestinian violence. It offers the Palestinians a way out of their politically barren standoff with Israel and a way to achieve, through diplomacy, the national goals they have failed to attain by terror.
It also affords the Palestinians a wider context for peacemaking with Israel and suggests that matters of war and peace go beyond Palestinian decision making.
There is, of course, another side to the Saudi coin: The Arabs are laying down conditions for peace and displaying little willingness to negotiate.
If Israel doesn’t accept the conditions, could it be the beginning of a slippery slope to regional war? Some Arab leaders describe the Saudi initiative as Israel’s "last chance." Coming generations, they warn, may be less amenable to the notion of peace with Israel.
They have a point. Younger Arabs across the Middle East are becoming more, not less, militant toward Israel. The hope was that better communications in the global village would spur modernization, commerce and peace.
But 18 months of one-sided intifada pictures broadcast on Al Jazeera, the independent Arab satellite TV station that reaches hundreds of millions of viewers across the Middle East, have fanned widespread street anger against Israel and the United States.
Vice President Dick Cheney was exposed to the anti-Israel and anti-Western sentiment during his March tour of the region, which led the Bush administration to intensify its efforts toward an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire. The administration now sees Israeli-Palestinian quiet as essential for the promotion of American interests in the region, including a possible attack on President Saddam Hussein of Iraq.
That is where the Saudi initiative and American policy might just meet. If the Americans back the Saudi initiative as part of a major international effort to bring about Israeli-Palestinian peace, interesting things could happen.
Israel’s former foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, long has urged a U.S.-led international conference to impose a settlement on the Israelis and Palestinians, using the Clinton proposals as the basis. Should the administration actually try something along those lines, the Saudi initiative could be an important adjunct.
If, as is more likely, the international community does not impose a deal but encourages the parties to move ahead on the basis of the Clinton and Saudi proposals, the United States still would have to play a vital mediating role.
When negotiations bogged down at Camp David in July, Clinton appealed to the Saudis and Egyptians to help the Palestinians make concessions on Jerusalem. They refused. Now they seem willing to do so — even intimating to the United States that they might be willing to back Palestinian flexibility on an Israeli tie to the Temple Mount.
But is the Bush administration ready to make the supreme effort Clinton did? When Nasser took Arafat with him to Moscow, the Soviet Union was still a great power. The Americans could not then have made a Pax Americana even if they wanted to. Now perhaps they can.