Saudi Middle East peace plan back on agenda

Saudi Middle East peace plan back on agenda
4 min read
19 May, 2015
A Saudi former general says Israeli PM Netanyahu should accept the Saudi peace plan, as the region awaits a landmark deal between Iran and the West.
As the nuclear deal is being drafted, Israel and Saudi Arabia contemplate their responses (Getty)

The Middle East is in flux, if not irreversible chaos.

The state in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya is close to collapse or has collapsed already. The so-called Arab Spring, the wave of genuine revolts, has been radically co-opted by counter-revolutionary forces. The region and its leaders are confronted with a new political constellation; old certainties are fast disappearing and new realities are dawning. 

States in the Middle East have switched sides in conflicts, triggered and ended enmities in an unstable regional power balance throughout history. Even the fiercest of conflicts, the Arab-Israeli conflict, saw some decisive turning points when Egypt signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979.

Today, the possibility of a similarly-decisive turning point is high, especially as Iran is sealing a deal with major powers. The rise of Iran as an interventionist geopolitical actor, especially after the Arab Spring, has aggravated regional powers. 

In that context, Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth said that Saudi Arabia, along with other Arab sides, are seeking to revive a 13 year-old Saudi initiative for peace with Israel.

The peace initiative was first proposed in 2002 at the Arab League summit in Beirut by then-Crown Prince, Saudi King Abdullah, and was re-endorsed at the Riyadh Summit in 2007. 

The initial proposal would see normalisation of ties between Israel and Arab League members in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from all areas it captured in 1967 war, and  a “just solution” to the Palestinian refugee issue that would be “agreed upon” by the parties.

The report in the Israeli newspaper is based on an interview with a former general in the Saudi Army, Anwar Ashki.

Ashki, 72, has assumed various posts in Saudi Arabia and is currently the director of the Strategic Research Centre in Jeddah. He is thought to be close to the ruling family, and did not mind being interviewed by an Israeli outlet because "it is very important to tell Netanyahu and his ministers and the Israeli public that a peace plan only awaits their approval," according to Yedioth Aharanoth.

"You have to realise that we want the Arabs and Israel to coexist," he added. 

Answering sceptics in Israel, Ashki rassured that "Saudi Arabia has always kept its words and this will be translated into the normalisation of ties and establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and 22 Arab countries as well as trade, economic, and cultural cooperation". 

New possibilities

The nuclear deal will provide an economic boost for Iran's hegemony through sanctions relief and a political boost through international legitimacy. Disenchanted Israel and Arab states are proactively attempting to mitigate the consequences of the deal.

The Saudi general's recent comments in the Israeli newspaper hint at the possibilities ahead.

     "You have to realise that we want the Arabs and Israel to coexist"

Saudi General, Anwar Ashki

In the first year of the Arab Spring, a multibillion-dollar German deal for the secret sale of 200 tanks to Saudi Arabia was leaked from the national security council that approved it. The deal was seen as a sign that Israeli attitude towards Riyadh is changing.

According to the New York Times report, Israel didn't complain about the deal, and US government sources say that it was cleared with both the Americans and the Israelis before it went through. This came as Saudi tanks were marching towards Bahrain to quell the uprising in Manama, allegedly supported by Tehran.

In early 2014, the youngest son of the late Saudi King Faisal, Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, publicly praised Israeli Justice Minister at that time, Tzipi Livni in Munich. During a panel discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the Munich Security Conference, the Saudi prince told Livni warmly after her talk that he understood “why you are the negotiator for Israel.”

“I wish you could sit with me on stage and talk about it,” Livni responded. Prince Turki Al Faisal was later seen, in the same forum, talking to former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak.

Four months later, Prince Turki Al Faisal was invited to a public discussion in Brussels by the German Marshall Fund with Amos Yadlin, who headed the Israel Defense Forces’ Military Intelligence Directorate for four years until 2010.

Yadlin was asked about the Saudi peace initative. He said that the real problem was that the Saudi initiative became "the Arab League dictate". The Israeli former chief claimed that Israeli rejection was mainly related to a "take-it-or-leave-it approach, mostly in the issue of returning the [occupied] Golan to Syrian".  

But the Arab proposal, as Yadlin said in Brussels, is part of the past. Now, members of the Arab League and Israel are not only feel threatened by Iran and its proxies, but also, and more directly, by non-state actors, most notoriously IS and al-Qaeda.

The relatively powerful grounds at the time of the initial peace initiative is lost now. Instead, Arab states have little time and tricks up their sleeves.

Therefore, the "take-it-or-leave-it" approach is supposed to be over. The Israeli occupied Golan heights in Syria, first thought to be blocking peace, are now debatable. 

The Arab League in general and the Gulf Cooperation Council in particular is now less inclined to stubbornly defend the occupied land of the Syrian state, while Assad stands at its center.

What the Saudis need now is a word from the Israelis that the peace initiative could work as a blueprint. Then, as Iran drafts the future of the region in a comprehensive nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia could possibly provide another draft to the US and the international community having Israel on board.