Friday, June 8, 2007

Avineri on a Saudi initiative - Middle East Roundtable:
But there is one significant step the Saudis can take. The Palestinian insistence on the right of return of 1948 refugees and their descendants is the one item that is totally unacceptable to all Israelis, left, right and center. The Saudis realized this, and it was left out of their initial draft in 2002, but in Beirut they were unable to prevail against the conventional Arab consensus. Yet Saudi Arabia--if it believes, as I think it does, that the Arab position on this issue is untenable and unrealistic--can initiate a move that can slowly help to shift this position without openly challenging it.

Saudi Arabia should announce that it is setting up a $5 billion Arab Reconstruction Fund to alleviate the suffering of Palestinian refugees, especially in the Gaza Strip. The fund should finance low-cost, affordable housing for refugee families: they will not have to renounce their refugee status or their individual claim to return, but will be able to move away from the misery, bitterness and humiliation of the camps, which have perpetuated and deepened their anger and moved so many of their young people to political extremism and terrorism.

Such a bold move would suggest that the Saudis are ready, to use a crude American phrase, to put their money where their mouth it. To the Palestinians, it would be a real step toward the amelioration of their situation even if negotiations may be stalled or slow. To the Israelis it would signal that Saudi Arabia is keen on moving toward a pragmatic compromise and not just involved in a propaganda game. And to the rest of the world it would suggest that Saudi Arabia, which since 9/11 has been universally considered--even if unjustly--as a hotbed of extremism and religious fanaticism, is now a regional player that can use its enormous influence and wealth for the sake of moderation, accommodation, compromise and coexistence.- Published 17/5/2007 ©

Shlomo Avineri is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a former director-general of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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