Thomas L. Friedman
The New York Times (Opinion)
September 7, 2010 - 12:00am

It’s been a week and the newly minted Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have not broken down yet! Surely that is a good sign. It is a measure of how low expectations are for these talks that they have to be celebrated by the week. Now that they have begun, though, both sides will try to avoid being the one that scuttles them — and not only to avoid the wrath of the United States. It is because one senses that after all these years of stop-and-start peace talks — where someone declares “this is the year of decision, and if these talks fail the peace process is dead and buried” — this time it might actually be true. If these talks fail, with 300,000 Israeli settlers already living in the West Bank, and with Hamas becoming ensconced with its own government in Gaza, talk of a “two-state solution” will enter the realm of fantasy.

But while the talks are alive, they lack any sense of drama or excitement or larger possibilities. That is partly because the awful violence that followed the breakdown of the Oslo peace process rung virtually all the romance out of this relationship. And it is partly because both Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, know that to make peace today with each other will require a small civil war within each of their communities.

Even if the two sides swap land and 80 percent of the Israeli settlers in the West Bank get to stay put, 60,000 will have to be removed. Many will leave peacefully — if Mr. Netanyahu strikes the land-for-security deal he wants — but thousands will not. They will have to be forcibly removed from Biblical sites by the Israeli Army, and the process will not be pretty. Even if President Abbas gets 100 percent of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, or its equivalent, Hamas will denounce any peace deal that is more than a temporary cease-fire with the Jewish state. And, with Iran’s help, Hamas will employ whatever violence it can to overturn any deal. It will not be pretty.

That is why the sense of dread and the sense of opportunity are intertwined in an emotional standoff right now between the negotiators. What these talks could really use is an emotional lift, one that would remind Israelis in particular that peace not only has huge security risks but also huge benefits — that at the end of this road lies something more than a civil war among the Jews. I know one way to do that.

Some eight years ago, in February 2002, I interviewed then-Crown Prince-now-King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at his horse farm outside Riyadh. I shared with him a column I had written — suggesting that the Arab League put forth a peace plan offering Israel full peace for full withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza and Arab East Jerusalem for a Palestinian state — when he feigned surprise and said: “Have you broken into my desk?” The Saudi leader said he was preparing the exact same plan and offered it up — “full withdrawal from all the occupied territories, in accord with U.N. resolutions, including in Jerusalem, for full normalization of relations.” He added: “I wanted to find a way to make clear to the Israeli people that the Arabs don’t reject or despise them.”

It was an important, visionary move by Abdullah, and his plan was quickly adopted by the Arab League, with some amendments. It has been floating out there in the ether of diplomatic possibilities ever since. But all that it has been doing is floating. It is time to bring it out of the air. King Abdullah should invite Mr. Netanyahu to Riyadh and present it to him personally.

Abdullah need not go to Jerusalem, as Anwar Sadat did, or recognize Israel. He can, though, still have a huge impact on the process by simply handing his plan to the leader for whose country it was intended. I can’t think of anything that would get these peace talks off to a better start. It feels to me as though Netanyahu is taking this moment seriously, but he is still very wary. By handing him the Abdullah plan, the Saudi monarch would unleash a huge peace debate in Israel. It would make it more difficult for Netanyahu to continue settlement building — and spur an Israeli public that is also still wary to urge Netanyahu to take risks for peace and support him for doing so. Netanyahu is the only Israeli leader today who can deliver a deal.

The Saudis can’t just keep faxing their peace initiative to Israelis. That has no emotional punch. It actually says to Israelis: if the Saudis are afraid to hand us their plan, why should we believe they’ll have the courage to implement it if we do everything they suggest? Israelis are isolated. Seeing their prime minister received by the most important Muslim leader in the world in Riyadh would have a real impact.

Both Israelis and Palestinians are going to have to do something really hard to produce a two-state solution. Saudi officials have developed a reputation in Washington for being experts at advising everyone else about the hard things they must do, while being reluctant to step out themselves. This is their moment — to do something hard and to do something important.



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