BEIRUT: Arab states are tussling over a verbal nuance ahead of an Arab summit in Beirut this month that could lay out terms for peace with Israel based on a Saudi plan.

The distinction between “full peace” and “full normalization” might seem arcane, but it is loaded with meaning in the linguistic minefield of Middle Eastern diplomacy.

It might also make the difference between a diplomatic dead-end and a glimmer of hope that peacemaking can get back on track after nearly 18 months of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.

A drafting committee made up of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and the Palestinians is working on a precise version of a peace offer floated by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah in an interview with the New York Times last month.

He declared that peace required “full (Israeli) withdrawal from all occupied territories, in accord with UN resolutions, including Jerusalem, for full normalization of relations”.

Syria, whose assent to any peace deal is essential because Israel still occupies the Golan Heights captured in the 1967 Middle East War, has problems with the word normalization and would like to see it replaced with “full peace”.

Syria’s ambassador to the United States Rostom al-Zoubi said recently that Israel must agree to full withdrawal to its 1967 borders before Damascus negotiates the terms of peace.

While saying his government agreed with the Saudi position, his formulation suggested that Syria has not changed its traditional view on the sequencing of negotiations with Israel.

“If Israel is ready to withdraw from the Golan Heights to the June 4th line, 1967, we are ready to negotiate the other requirements of peace, which include normalization of relations, water issues and equal security arrangements. This comes later,” he said.

Syria insists that Arabs must not let themselves be pushed into making normal ties with the Jewish state a priority.

NO PREMATURE GENEROSITY: Diplomats say Damascus is cool about normalisation because it fears that Israel will demand commercial and diplomatic ties before relinquishing occupied Arab land — and perhaps because it sees the open borders implied by normalisation as a potential threat to its closed political and economic system.

“Syria has asked to return to the formula of full withdrawal in exchange for full peace...mainly because ‘peace’ is more comprehensive than ‘normalization’,” Imad Shueibi, a professor of socio-politics at Damascus University, said.

Inspired by the hard-nosed bargaining techniques of the late President Hafez al-Assad, the Syrians argue that by offering Israel normalization for withdrawal the Arabs would be rewarding their enemy before it delivers its side of the deal.

The withdrawal-for-peace formula implies a more balanced commitment from the two sides, Shueibi said.

Diplomats say Saudi Arabia has proposed compromise wording that offers full, comprehensive ties for full withdrawal.

That might satisfy Syria, according to official sources in Damascus. But Egypt objects, saying only the carrot of normal relations, fulfilling the Jewish state’s yearning for acceptance in the region, can grab the interest of the Israeli people.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal sought to bridge the gap last week by talking of “full peace” with Israel. But analysts said “full peace” was ambiguous enough to cover the possibility of minimal relations, or even cold peace — a far cry from the active ties implied by normalization.

To dispel confusion, Prince Abdullah repeated his offer in an interview with ABC television last week. “What I said was normal relations, just as we have with other countries.”

He said his initiative includes such thorny issues as the status of Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, but added that it was up to Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate the details of a final settlement.

Prince Abdullah said most Arab states, including Syria, backed the initiative he plans to put to the March 27-28 summit.

SYRIAN BALANCING ACT: Diplomats say Syria is keen to show flexibility. Still on a US list of states sponsoring terrorism, it has no wish to join Iraq, Iran and North Korea in Washington’s “axis of evil”.

“The Syrians want to try to be part of an Arab consensus and take part in an initiative that will be viewed positively by the United States,” a Damascus-based Western diplomat said.

“The peace process is Syria’s safety valve, but at the same time they do not want to undercut the (Palestinian) Intifada against Israel which they also see as their pressure tool to get back the Golan Heights,” the diplomat said.—Reuters

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