I looked at him with amusement.
"Do you know what Israelis see when they read a peace proposal in the newspaper?" I asked.
"They skip the text about peace, recognition and security and seek the one word that counts: 'refugees.' The rest is trivial. If that word is embedded in 'right of return' or 'a just solution' or 'Resolution 194' or some other euphemism for dismantling Israel, the proposal is automatically deemed a nonstarter."
"What did the Saudi proposal say about the refugee problem?" he asked.
"Like you, I don't have the precise language," I said. "But like most Israelis, I distinctly recall the words 'just solution,' which should settle your question right there."
"Interesting," my Arab colleague said. "I have always assumed that if we build trust and solve the land problem, some solution will eventually be found for the refugees' problem."
"Yes, many Israelis made this assumption during the Oslo period," I said. "But no more."
I was reminded of this conversation last week, when I read President Jimmy Carter's book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," and found the following passage on Page 211: "The Delphic wording of this statement [the Saudi proposal] was deliberate, in Arabic as well as in Hebrew and English, but the Arabs defend it by saying it is there to be explored by the Israelis and others and that, in any case, it is a more positive and clear commitment to international law than anything now coming from Israel."
I recalled how the Delphic wording of the Oslo agreement was deliberate, too, and how, in the aftermath of the Oslo breakdown, leaders of the shattered Israeli peace camp confessed in public that they had been fooled and betrayed by their Palestinian comrades. Specifically, sworn promises to prepare the Palestinian public for compromises on the refugee problem were never acted on (Haim Shur, Maariv, June 2001).
This inaction, according to Israeli analysts, was the main reason for the outbreak of the second intifada. Yasser Arafat could simply not face his people with "an end to the conflict" after decades of promising them a return to Haifa and Jaffa.
But more than six years have passed since the breakdown of the Oslo process, and memory is short. People tend to forget that leaving the hard problems to resolve themselves exacts a heavy toll.
Last month saw renewed calls from both Israelis and Palestinians to revitalize the Saudi proposal (e.g., Collett Avital, Jerusalem Post, Jan. 23), and I was a bit concerned that another case of "hard problems later" would be looming in front of our eyes.
I was pleasantly mistaken. Israeli peace activists seem to remember the Oslo lesson vividly and painfully. In his third exchange with Palestinian analyst Salameh Nematt, published simultaneously in Hebrew, Arabic and English, Israeli peace activist Akiva Eldar wrote: "....We, the Israelis, need to be convinced that there is a solution to the refugee problem. Nothing is more likely to deter Israelis than the expression 'right of return.' In their eyes, these words are a synonym for the destruction of the Jewish state.
"Politicians on both sides know that it is inconceivable to strip a sovereign state, such as Israel, from its authority to decide whom to accept as its citizens. New cities have been built on the villages in which the refugees lived. Children and grandchildren of Jewish refugees from Europe were born in houses that remained standing.
"Anyone in his right mind knows that the solution to the Palestinian refugee problem is not to create a Jewish refugee problem. The solution can be found in a peace process that is based on two states and the absorption of most of the Palestinian refugees in their new state."
But suppose the Palestinians do sign a peace agreement with the provision that most refugees will be absorbed into their new state. How does one ensure that after Israel withdraws from most of the territories and makes room for a Palestinian state, Palestinian refugees will not continue to be kept in their wretched camps as a source of anger and uncontrolled militancy against Israel? After all, Israel cannot be asked to make irrevocable concessions in land and security while the Arabs are merely signing reversible promises to settle the refugees.
Here comes my humble suggestion, resting again on Saudi wisdom and good will. Instead of drawing fancy peace proposals, the Saudis, together with other oil-rich countries, should immediately launch a "Palestinian Marshall Plan" to build permanent housing for Palestinian refugees in the West Bank. Israel would monitor the plan and lift the embargo on foreign aid in stages. Each month's allotment would be proportional to the number of housing units completed.
We are constantly being told that the ball of peace lies entirely in Israel's court, because Palestinians have no control over their destiny and Israel's economy is so much stronger. It ain't necessarily so. Here is a peace proposal that depends entirely on Arab good will and peaceful Palestinian intentions. It should start today.
Judea Pearl is a UCLA professor and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation www.danielpearl.org. He is a co-author of "I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl" (Jewish Lights, 2004).