The failure of Arab countries to support the Palestinian struggle for statehood by declaring their readiness to establish normal relations with Israel -- if a peace agreement were reached -- has long been a troubling feature of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
That is why the statement by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah reported by Thomas Friedman on Sunday in The New York Times is of such great importance. The crown prince confirmed that his country is, indeed, prepared to normalize relations with Israel if it were to sign a peace accord with the Palestinians. The crown prince's statement will be greeted with skepticism in some quarters, where it will be seen as an effort to burnish Saudi Arabia's image in the United States. But no one who has heard him express his pain over the humiliation and suffering of the Palestinians can doubt the genuineness of his feelings on this subject -- something one would be hard-pressed to say about other Arab leaders.
In a conversation with Crown Prince Abdullah two years ago, I asked him how Arab countries can demand that Israel assume the risk of yielding the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians when the Arab nations are unprepared to take the lesser risk of recognizing Israel. He replied that if Israel were to conclude a peace treaty with the Palestinians that is seen as just, Saudi Arabia would have no problem establishing normal ties with Israel. He also warned that if a political settlement is not reached, the conflict may assume dangerous religious dimensions. If that were to happen, he said, the conflict would become irresolvable, with catastrophic consequences for the stability of the entire region.
Remarkably, this latest development seems to have been greeted with a yawn by the Israeli government. And while Washington has welcomed the crown prince's initiative, it has yet to indicate how, or even whether, it will affect the Bush administration's current policy of giving free rein to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel in his dealings with the Palestinians, short of assassinating Yasir Arafat.
Perhaps there are two reasons for this lack of response. First, Crown Prince Abdullah's announcement was made to an American journalist, not to the Arab world. Second, his conditions for normalization with Israel seemed to require a complete return to Israel's pre-1967 borders and an agreement that all of East Jerusalem would serve as the capital of the new Palestinian state, conditions that leave little room for compromise.
But the day after the appearance of Mr. Friedman's report, the Saudi government itself released the same information, which was then carried broadly by the Saudi and Arab media. And on Tuesday, Saudi officials told me that normalization of relations with Israel does not preclude Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall in the Old City and over Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. They also indicated that Saudi Arabia would not object to the transfer of small areas of the West Bank to Israel in return for qualitatively and quantitatively comparable territory to be transferred by Israel to the Palestinians, provided such an exchange is the result of a freely negotiated compromise.
With these qualifications, Crown Prince Abdullah's statement represents a dramatic change in Saudi Arabia's position toward Israel and offers a new basis for renewed diplomatic activity.
Normalizing relations with Israel's Arab neighbors has always been seen by Israeli governments on both the left and the right as crucial to Israel's overall security. One would therefore have expected the Israeli government to use this long hoped-for development to renew a diplomatic dialogue with the Palestinians.
But Mr. Sharon and his government have given no indication that they have any such intention. If this lack of interest is confirmed in the coming days, it will prove what should have been evident all along -- that the Sharon government seeks pretexts to avoid a political process, not ways to renew it. The targeted assassinations and reprisals, including the destruction of Palestinian homes in refugee camps, during the three-week period in which Yasir Arafat succeeded in lowering the violence dramatically, seemed clearly intended to provoke retaliations from Hamas and Islamic Jihad in order to avoid being cornered into political negotiations. Mr. Sharon's refusal to take any notice of the new Saudi position should finally bring home to President Bush and his advisers that Mr. Sharon's insistence that there be no negotiations until all Palestinian violence ceases can only be an excuse to hold onto the West Bank and Gaza.
In response to the Saudi initiative, Washington should tell Mr. Arafat that if he acts to reduce violence as he did in late December, the United States will oppose Israeli provocations, call for a halt to further settlement activity and press for a return to final-status negotiations without the unattainable conditions imposed by Mr. Sharon.
Such a stance by Washington, against the background of new prospects for normal relations between Israel and most of the Arab world now opened up by Crown Prince Abdullah, would either move Mr. Sharon and his government to change their current policy or reinvigorate political demand in Israel for a government that is prepared to return to serious peace negotiations.
Henry Siegman is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.