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Commentary

Land for Peace Is a Losing Trade

February 27, 2002|FRANK J. GAFFNEY JR.

In the past week, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, has received kudos in Washington, Arab capitals and diplomatic circles around the world for what is characterized as a "new peace initiative" to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unfortunately, this characterization is so wildly inaccurate as to appear a deliberate fraud.

The so-called Abdullah plan--Arabs would normalize relations with Israel in exchange for the Jewish state surrendering the territory seized after 1967's Six-Day War--is not "new" in any meaningful sense.

The idea of Israel giving up the land it conquered in the course of successive wars waged against it in exchange for a genuine peace with the Arabs has been around at least since the last of those wars ended in 1973. Various U.N. resolutions, numerous shuttle diplomacy missions and the Oslo process have all been predicated on the land-for-peace proposition. Time after time, Israel has agreed to territorial concessions. The resulting dismal experience with each of these ventures has, however, made most Israelis reluctant to buy into such a shopworn idea yet again.

Even if the Abdullah plan were a genuinely new concept, it would not be conducive to a lasting peace. Over the past 30 years, Israeli governments of the right and left have recognized that areas of the West Bank have been essential to persuading the Arabs that the "war option" is foreclosed. Should strategic Israeli positions on the high ground above the Jordan Valley, many of which are secured by settlements and military outposts, be surrendered, the Arabs' calculus surely would change.

And despite the interest expressed by President Bush this week, the Abdullah plan cannot accurately be called an "initiative" either. The Saudi king-in-waiting apparently has not decided to formally introduce his plan at an upcoming Arab League summit. There also have been differing reports of the plan's particulars.

The real impetus behind the Abdullah plan seems to be a cynical bid to divert increasingly critical American attention from the Saudi kingdom's double game. The Saudis have been portrayed as one of the United States' most reliable allies in the region. At the same time, the royal family has patronized Wahhabism, the virulently radical strain of Islam that has brought the world Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist cells, most of the Sept. 11 hijackers and a worldwide network of madrasas, or religious schools, busily indoctrinating young Muslims to hate and attack Western infidels. It also has become clear that Saudi Arabia is perfectly willing from time to time to increase oil prices at the expense of world economies and to impose restrictions on U.S. use of Saudi bases.

In the months since Sept. 11, a growing chorus on Capitol Hill, in the press and even in some quarters of the Bush administration, has shown that American patience with the Saudis is wearing thin. One suspects that Abdullah saw the need for a "charm offensive" in the form of a new peace initiative for the Middle East.

To be sure, Israel has no good options at the moment. The same applies to the U.S., as one of Israel's few friends and its principal ally. Among the worst of the available options, though, would be for either Israel or the U.S. to embrace a warmed-over--and thoroughly discredited--effort to strip the Jewish state of land it requires for its own defense.

There can be no guarantees that despotically governed Arab states--especially Saudi Arabia--would live up to their part of the bargain any more than they have in the past. Even if today's rulers promise to do so, their successors cannot be relied upon to follow suit.

There is much that Saudi Arabia can and should do, from opening up its bases to a needed U.S.-led effort to end Saddam Hussein's misrule, to shutting down its madrasas, to providing humanitarian relief and job opportunities to Palestinians whom their Arab brothers see fit to keep rotting in refugee centers.

As far as the Abdullah plan goes, though, the American and Israeli response should be the same: "Thanks, but no, thanks."

*

Frank J. Gaffney Jr., who held senior positions in the Reagan Defense Department, is president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington.

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