Mideast scholar weighs Saudi normalization plan

When it comes to the headline-grabbing Saudi peace proposal, Joshua Teitelbaum's reaction resembles the punch line of the popular ad campaign of the 1980s: Where's the beef?

That's not to say the Bay Area-born Middle East expert isn't willing to give peace a chance — even a vague offer, that, in Teitelbaum's words, needs a "lot more meat on its bones."

In an offer last month, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah "proposed normalization with Israel at the end of the process of withdrawal. The normalization component is something that's very interesting and new," according to Teitelbaum, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University who has lived in Israel since 1981.

"If he does present this plan at the Arab summit in Beirut at the end of March and actually says the word ['normalization'] in Arabic, this is quite a significant statement from the leader of Saudi Arabia."

Normalization "means normal relations, tourism, economic relations, diplomatic relations — an Israeli flag flying in Riyadh with a Jewish star on it. You can't even display a cross in Riyadh," continued Teitelbaum, the son of H. David Teitelbaum, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California and rabbi emeritus at Redwood City's Conservative Congregation Beth Jacob.

"I would hope [Abdullah] does make such a proposal. Saudi Arabia is not only a major Arab country, it's also a major Islamic country with the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. For them to talk about normalization with the Jewish state is significant."

The proposal calls for Israel to withdraw from the territories to 1967 boundaries, while obeying all U.N. resolutions in exchange for formal recognition from the Arab nations. It was initially floated to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman last month during a dinner with Abdullah — "a very unusual way to introduce a peace proposal," cracked Teitelbaum.

While the proposal is still no more than a file on the prince's desk, talk has spread quickly across the volatile, peace-starved region.

Teitelbaum, however, is not the only Mideast observer to point out how neatly the peace plan has pushed the Saudi origin of 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers or 100 of the 158 Guantanamo Bay detainees from the front page.

"Up until two weeks ago, the press was leaning very heavily on the Saudis. But if you look at the New York Times editorial [on Feb. 27], it says the Saudi initiative is interesting. Let's go with it. This has already been a success from the Saudi perspective," said Teitelbaum, who delivered a Feb. 28 lecture at the S.F-based Jewish Community Federation's offices.

"This shifts focus away from American queries about what's going on in Saudi Arabia, why so many students are becoming terrorists. It shifts to the Palestinian issue."

So is it a publicity stunt or a groundbreaking plan? Teitelbaum isn't sure what the Saudis think of their own offer, and, therefore, what Israel should make of it.

The Saudi notion of a "full withdrawal" from the territories does not exactly mesh with U.N Resolution 242, which both the United States and Israel agree leaves room for pockets of annexed land along the 1967 border areas to remain in Israel.

Another concern is the Arab interpretations of some of the resolutions could lead to the opening of another can of worms — the Palestinian refugees' "right of return."

"If Saudi Arabia puts this on the table and enters into negotiations with Israel, then this is very significant and could move things along," he said. "On the other hand, the Palestinians may not be happy with that and Israel sees this as something to negotiate, not take it or leave it. If Abdullah sees this as take it or leave it, then it's a non-starter. If he starts negotiations, we've got something to talk about."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.