In mid-February, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah floated the idea that Arab states offer Israel full normalization of relations in return for an Israeli withdrawal from all territory occupied in the 1967 war.
Although Abdullah's land-for-peace formula is not new, the Saudi approach's novelty is in the fact that, rather than reiterating Arab grievances, it focuses up-front on the prize that awaits Israel if it trades land for peace. The Saudi peace plan is also significant because of its source: the de facto ruler of one of the wealthiest and most influential Arab states.
Although not a blueprint for Middle East peace, the Saudi plan provides a sound conceptual framework and, more importantly, promises a comprehensive and final settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Saudi plan gained momentum rapidly as a result of the combination of escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians and the lack of any other viable diplomatic initiative.
The prospects for real progress based on the Abdullah plan depend on whether it can achieve unified backing from the other Arab states. If the Saudi prince is confident of its warm acceptance, he will table the plan at the upcoming Arab League summit in Beirut. The biggest question mark in this regard is Syria. Of the Arab "frontline" states, Egypt and Jordan have already made their peace with Israel, and the Palestinian Authority has announced its support for the plan. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad expressed support for the proposal with some reservations, saying there must be a full Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
What Will Determine Syria is Stance
Syria's attitude toward the Abdullah plan is critical to the plan's future. On the one hand, the young Syrian leader believes that talk of normalization is a premature reward for Israel. Assad has strongly supported the intifada as a means of pressuring the Jewish state, and sees no reason to let up the pressure now. In that regard, Assad may have been concerned that the Saudi plan could become a lifeline for Sharon, now under fire at home for failing to end the uprising, ensure security for Israel or bring peace.
Moreover, Prince Abdullah's plan in its current form makes no mention of the Palestinian refugees, an issue of critical political and demographic importance to both Syria and Lebanon. In a visit to Lebanon over the first weekend of March, Assad issued a joint statement with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud declaring that "there could be no compromise" on the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The Abdullah plan will have to grapple with this difficult issue to be viable; yet an inadequate Saudi response to the refugee issue will likely torpedo any chances for unified Arab support for the plan at the Beirut summit.
On the other hand, Assad's real concern with any peace initiative is to protect Syria's own interests, especially on the Golan Heights. Bashar's father, the late Hafez al-- Assad, supported the land-for-peace equation of the Madrid peace process, and later (at the Shepherdstown talks) accepted the principle of normalizing relations with Israel as part of an overall settlement of the SyrianIsraeli dispute. …