It was only a week ago when a number of "experts" and ambassadors from half a dozen nationalities, dining at the residence of an Arab ambassador in London, arrived at an almost unanimous verdict: The Israel-Palestine conflict was certain to remain frozen for the near future.
The rationale behind the argument was that the Israel-Palestine conflict was part of a broader pattern of "historic tensions" that could not be dissipated on a case-by-case basis. These included the struggle over the future of Iraq, the Islamic republic's hegemonic ambitions, and the prospects of big power rivalry over access to the region's oil and gas resources. In other words, Israel-Palestine was but a small knot of a tangled web.
The main arguments went something like this:
* Israel, still recovering from the shock of last summer's inconclusive foray into Lebanon, is almost on autopilot. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his close associates, notably Shimon Peres, are looking for new personas for themselves.
* The Palestinians are in no better shape.
* The Israel-Palestine issue is also fading from European radars.
* France is already in the throes of an uncertain presidential and parliamentary election that could lead to a change of government at all levels, or, even, produce nasty surprises.
* Britain is also heading for the unknown with Prime Minister Tony Blair scheduled to step aside.
* Things do not look better across the Atlantic.
* Besides the European Union and the US, the so-called "quartet" on the Middle East also included the United Nations and Russia. Well, the UN has been on life-support for at least the past 15 years and would need the attention of its new South Korean Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, for several years before it can regain some credibility. Russia is in no position to take any major diplomatic initiatives either. President Vladimir Putin is in his second and final term, and will certainly be more interested in fiddling with the Russian constitution, to prolong his own tenure, rather than putting his finger in a Middle Eastern hornet's nest.
However, the fact that the Israel-Palestine issue cannot be kept on the backburner for very long was reasserted through a number of events only days after the banquet of pessimists in London.
The first move came when the Saudi Council of Ministers reminded everyone that the peace plan approved at the Arab Summit in Beirut in 2002 was still very much on the agenda. It also called for an international conference to work out the modalities of putting the plan into effect.
Next came the decision by the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the leadership of the Hamas-controlled Cabinet to create a coalition government capable of breaking the logjam in relations with Israel. That was followed by a speech by Olmert that included a set of promises, notably a mass release of Palestinian prisoners and the lifting of the onerous restrictions that have made life difficult for hundreds of thousands of people in the West Bank.
It may be too early to dismiss the conclusions of the banquet of pessimists. However, one thing is certain: We must not allow the Israel-Palestine issue to become the last refuge of the scoundrels once again.
For half a century it has been used and abused by all manner of adventurers as an ideological sauce to make the poisonous fare they served look better if not palatable.
This time around is no exception.
Iran's ultraradical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, facing divisions within the establishment and growing unrest in the country, is trying to give his administration some luster by championing the "one state" formula on Palestine. So far he seems to have pressed Syria into his bandwagon, forcing Damascus to abandon its policy of "peace through negotiations", formulated by the late President Hafez Assad in 1993.
The "one state solution" may appear attractive to those who, for a variety of reasons, dream of seeing Israel vanish from the map of the Middle East. In reality, however, the formula has the immediate effect of rejecting initiatives aimed at helping the Palestinians create a state of their own.
The "one-state formula" takes the issue back to 1947, ignoring the lessons of half a century and the sufferings of three generations of Palestinians and Israelis. It is, at best, an exercise in political vanity, and, at worst, a cynical attempt at turning the Palestinians into sacrificial lambs at the altar of regional power struggles.
It is against that background the latest Saudi initiative for an international conference on the Israel-Palestine merits attention.
At first glance, the idea of holding a conference may look like substituting process for policy. The Saudi proposal, however, comes with clear suggestions about the agenda. A statement issued by the Saudi Council of Ministers last month, calls for the conference to "activate the peace process on the basis of the Arab peace plan and (the relevant) UN resolutions."
Translated into plain language, this means a rejection of the "one-state" formula along with the now defunct "separation" policy that Olmert offered in the last Israeli election.
No one knows at this stage whether a conference would, or even could, be held. More importantly, no one could know whether a conference, if held and successfully conducted, would produce a better result than a similar exercise in Madrid 15 years ago.
Nevertheless, the idea has already had a positive impact on a number of fronts.
It has forced the Israelis to find a substitution for Kadima's "postponed" strategy, by resuming the dialogue with Mahmoud Abbas. A recent demonstration held in Israel indicated growing support for the proposed plan.
First presented by Saudi Arabia's then Crown Prince Abdullah and later approved at the Arab summit in Beirut 2002, the Arab peace plan is aimed at the creation of a Palestinian state, the recognition of Israel by all Arab and Muslim nations, and turning the Middle East into a region of peaceful coexistence.
In other words, it is a strategic vision that goes beyond the immediate Israel-Palestine issue and takes into account the need for a fundamental change of attitudes in the region.
The plan, details of which remain to be worked out, should take into account the lessons of Madrid.
Despite the hopes that it inspired, Madrid failed because it ignored strategic imperatives and focused on tactical maneuvers with the excuse of "confidence building".
We now know that no confidence could be built between adversaries with mutual suspicion written into their political genes. The strategy of confidence first and peace afterward produced the second and third intifadas along with Yasser Arafat's corrupt and inept rule. It also helped turn Hamas into a force it had never dreamed of becoming while also encouraging the most radical elements in Israel.
The would-be conference could be useful only if it starts with the ultimate settlement, i.e. the creation of two states, within agreed and secure borders, recognized by all Arab and Muslim nations and guaranteed by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
The Saudi idea is aimed at closure, a strategic accord that, unlike Madrid, will not leave the knife in the wound while he who holds it smiles at he who is feeling it in his flesh.