Saudi plan offers a lifeline

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 13/12/06):

Fearful that the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority could collapse under the weight of its violent contradictions, Israeli leaders are refocusing on the 2002 Saudi peace plan as a way of inducing the Palestinians back into substantive negotiations.

Extremists apart, both sides say they want to talk. Helping create a format in which they can come together is Tony Blair's self-appointed task during his forthcoming Middle East sortie.

Amir Peretz, the defence minister, on Sunday became the latest Israeli politician to advocate reviving the Saudi plan, which envisages a return to the 1967 borders in exchange for a comprehensive settlement between Israel and Arab League countries.

Israel "must deal with the Saudi initiative as a basis for negotiations", Mr Peretz said, adding that the Palestinians should be offered a "real political horizon". According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Ami Ayalon, a former Shin Bet intelligence agency chief, has issued a similar call. And Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, made his own peace pledge during a recent visit to the grave of Israel's founding father, David Ben Gurion, the paper reported.

"The voices emanating from those [Arab] states regarding the need for recognition and normalisation of relations with Israel - including, for example, some parts in the Saudi peace initiative - are positive," Mr Olmert said. "I intend to invest efforts in order to advance the connection with those states and strengthen their support of direct bilateral negotiations between us and the Palestinians."

Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister, who held private talks with Mr Blair in London last month, said there was an urgent need to build a regional "coalition of moderates" - language reminiscent of Mr Blair's Guildhall speech. It was in Israel's interest to have "a responsible, viable Palestinian state that is not a rogue or failed state. With moderate Palestinians we have to advance towards a two-state solution. It's not a zero-sum game ... Stagnation is not in our interest," she said.

"Olmert is definitely trying to find some way forward. He has an agenda that could come together with the Saudi plan," an informed source said. But Israel would want significant changes on issues such as the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

Akiva Eldar of Haaretz said Israel had no choice but to talk. One reason was the parlous state of affairs in the Palestinian territories. "Fatah is in total disarray. Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president] is getting weaker and weaker. The West Bank is going from bad to worse. Many in Israel believe the Palestinian Authority will just collapse," Mr Eldar told an Institute for Public Policy Research seminar.

Other reasons to talk included a need to concentrate on the bigger threat posed by Iran - and the unpopular Mr Olmert's hopes of political survival, Mr Eldar said.

Pitfalls remain too numerous to number, including Gaza faction fighting, stalled prisoner exchanges, and the obstructive Israeli right. But Mr Olmert's aides held secret talks in Ramallah on Sunday with Mr Abbas, the first such meeting there.

Next month Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, will return to the region, presumably to build on Mr Blair's groundwork. Paradoxically Mr Blair's mission has been complicated by the Iraq Study Group's emphasis on Arab-Israeli peace - an emphasis he himself urged. The report was "the worst thing that could have happened to the peace process," Mr Eldar said. "Israelis don't want to be the ones who are sacrificed to help Bush get out of Iraq. Israelis want peace but not as a byproduct of another deal."

Empowering Arab moderates will not be a quick or easy task for a prime minister in a hurry. "Blair isn't coming with a plan in his pocket. He's looking at options," the informed source said. Deftly smoothing the way yesterday, development secretary Hilary Benn announced £76m in additional British aid to Palestinian refugees.

Mr Benn cannot make peace. But he may make foreign secretary one day soon.