JERUSALEM, March 12 (UPI) -- Israel seems to be warming up to a Saudi peace initiative that Arab leaders are due to discuss at their summit meeting in Riyadh at the end of this month.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Sunday opened the Cabinet's weekly session by noting a positive development among moderate Arab states. He did so in front of TV cameras -- crews film the prime minister's opening remarks -- so he clearly wanted to relay the government's message.
"We very much hope that at the meeting of Arab heads of state in Riyadh, the positive elements that have found expression in the Saudi initiative will be reaffirmed and that the chances of negotiations between us and the Palestinians will be strengthened," Olmert declared.
Saudi King Abdullah presented his peace initiative in February 2002, when he was crown prince. Arab leaders then met in Beirut and in March 28 adopted the proposal with a few changes.
The proposal calls for a "full (Israeli) withdrawal from all the territories occupied since 1967," a "just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN Resolution 194," and "establishment of a sovereign independent Palestinian state ... in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Jerusalem as its capital."
In return the Arab countries will, "Consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended, and enter into a peace agreement with Israel (as well as).... Establish normal relations with Israel," the proposal says.
At that time the proposal did not draw much attention in Israel. A devastating suicide bombing attack in Netanya, on Passover eve, killed 29 people and Israel, fed up with a wave of such bombings, reoccupied the West Bank.
When the proposal did come up, Israelis seemed especially concerned with the reference to the refugee's "Right of Return." Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni recently called for deleting that clause. She was reportedly ready to negotiate the extent of Israel's withdrawal but not discuss the refugees' return.
Jordan tried to ease Israel's objections by noting the text talks of an "agreed upon" solution. That means the solution requires Israel's consent, it argued.
At a conference in Tel Aviv, Sunday, Middle East specialists noted Egypt and Jordan made peace with Israel after they moved away from all-Arab considerations to stressing their own, national interests. That turned their dispute with Israel into a territorial one and when the border issue was resolved, they were able to make peace.
Four main issues are at the heart of the dispute with the Palestinians, noted the head of the Dayan Center, Prof. Asher Susser.
The border, settlements, Jerusalem and the part of the refugee issue have all emerged following the 1967 war. However, the Palestinian claim for the "Right of Return" for refugees brings the entire dispute back to 1948, he said. In that year Israel was established.
Israel does not want to let refugees return because they would become a majority and Israel would cease being a Jewish state - or cease to democratic.
Olmert reportedly told a senior European diplomat that Israel would never accept UN Resolution 194 (that talks of the refugees' return) though it would discuss other innovative solutions, Haaretz reported.
Israel has, apparently, been discussing the issues with Saudi Arabia. Both countries are concerned over Iran's rising influence especially Teheran obtains a nuclear bomb. Olmert reportedly met the Saudi national security adviser Prince Bandar bin-Sultan, in Jordan, last September. According to Haaretz, bin-Sultan has had contacts with Israelis since 1990. He has been focusing on checking Iraq's and then Iran's strategic threats and advancing peace between Israel, Syria and the Palestinians.
The newspaper's diplomatic correspondent, Aluf Benn, noted Monday that "the Palestinians' unstable situation makes it difficult for them to contribute ... to a political process or an agreement, and the Saudi involvement is meant to provide them with patronage.
"Only Saudi Arabia can grant Israel regional recognition and legitimacy, in exchange for its withdrawal from the territories," Benn added.
The renewed initiative comes at a time Olmert needs a new agenda. His election-campaign ideas about a further unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians are out of favor since Palestinians contuinue shooting across the border, from Gaza, despite Israel's withdrawal. They have fired 1,400 rockets since the withdrawal, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter noted Monday.
"Olmert desperately needs a political initiative that will provide him with some political oxygen. He knows he won't be able to continue in his post much longer, what with his negligible public support, the criticism over the second Lebanon war, the waves of scandals and the absence of an agenda. The Saudi initiative gives Olmert a chance to recover, if he can manage to demonstrate political progress. He doesn't have a lot to lose," Benn wrote.
Dichter seemed optimistic at Monday's briefing to diplomats and foreign correspondents in Jerusalem.
"The probability for a peace agreement or a peace situation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is much stronger than the probability ...(of) another round of violence," he said.
Dichter who headed the Shabak security service before entring politics, and said he has been talking to Palestinians for more than 30 years, said they know they will not be able to establishing a state of their own unless there is peace with Israel.
Most Palestinians are not as extreme as the Islamic- Hamas that now controls the legislature and runs the government. Many are unhappy with Hamas' links to Iran, he said.
Hamas' leaders, who are in Damascus, are more extreme that the Hamas officials inside the occupied territories since they do not feel the local hardships. "Those who count the lashes are not like those ... suffering it," he said.
"I do believe that (the) 2.8 million (Palestinian) people have some common interests with ... Israelis and the question is how to get back to the situation that we have faced just seven years ago (before the intifrada erupted). If we did it in 1993 (upon signing the Oslo accords) I am sure there is a strong possibility to repeat it," Dichter said.