Saudi Arabia May Not Follow Obama’s Israel Plan

Pro-Israel lobbyists won the support of 77 senators (out of 100) for a letter sent to President Barack Obama that urged him to "press Arab leaders" to consider making dramatic, upfront peace overtures to Israel.

But one key Arab state, Saudi Arabia, has already clearly communicated its refusal to make any such gestures at this time.

On July 31, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told journalists in Washington that "Confidence-building measures will … not bring peace. What is required is a comprehensive approach that defines the final outcome at the outset and launches into negotiations over final-status issues."

Saudi Arabia is one of the most influential players in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. But given its pivotal position in international energy markets – and the fact that it has no need of U.S. financial aid – it is almost immune to American pressure.

In their role as "Guardians" of two of Islam’s three holiest cities – Mecca and Medina – Saudi Arabia’s monarchs have always had a strong concern for the welfare of the Muslim institutions in Islam’s third holy city, Jerusalem – and a desire to see a fair and durable final peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

However, like the vast majority of other Arabs, Saudi Arabia’s rulers are currently very wary of getting drawn into any diplomatic process that aims not at securing the final peace treaties between Israel and its Arab neighbors but rather at further, possibly lengthy, "interim" moves.

From the Arab perspective, that focus on endless "interim" steps was what dominated the eight years of former U.S. president Bill Clinton’s Arab-Israeli diplomacy – and meanwhile, Israel continued to implant scores of thousands of additional settlers into East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank throughout those years.

Israel’s implantation of additional settlers into the West Bank continued under former U.S. president George W. Bush. Now, there are 500,000 settlers in the West Bank – including more than 200,000 in East Jerusalem alone.

Their presence considerably complicates the quest for a fair and sustainable peace. It is also, under international law, quite illegal. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 forbids any government running a military occupation of land not its own from implanting its own civilians into the occupied area.

The Saudis argue that Israel deserves no special "rewards" for stopping its continued perpetration of this illegal act. They say that the U.S., which gives substantial financial and military aid to Israel, should work to ensure that this stoppage occurs forthwith – and that later, in the context of the final peace accord, the vast majority of the illegally implanted settlers should return to Israel along with Israel’s occupation army.

Many Americans "have said if the Arabs do something nice for Israel this will somehow get you something in terms of an Israeli gesture – progress toward peace between Israelis and Palestinians," noted Chas W. Freeman, a distinguished former U.S. diplomat who was ambassador to Saudi Arabia (1989-92) and has a deep knowledge of the kingdom’s affairs.

"In fact absolutely none of the gestures that have been made, including the very important one of the Arab League’s Beirut Declaration of 2002 – the so-called Arab Peace Initiative – has resulted in any positive response from the Israelis. They have been content to pocket whatever has been offered and to do nothing in return."

Freeman observed, "There is no predisposition whatsoever – in fact a lot of predisposition to the contrary – on the Arab side to pay for what Israel, in its own interest, ought to do."

The strength of the Saudis’ opposition to additional interim-focused, confidence-building measures in the Israeli-Arab arena – like the kingdom’s views on several other issues, including Iran – seem not to have been well understood by all members of the Obama administration.

In April, Dennis Ross, an administration official with a shifting and fuzzy – but apparently high-level – portfolio, visited the kingdom and attempted to lecture King Abdullah ibn Abdul-Aziz about the need to confront "the Iranian threat." But New York Times columnist Roger Cohen has written that when Abdullah got a word in edgewise and asked some reasonable questions about Washington’s policy, Ross was unable to answer and appeared "a little flustered."

Ross was the man who throughout Clinton’s presidency had been in charge of all Israeli-Arab peace negotiations, and presumably dealt closely with the Saudis and other Arabs. Observers noted that it therefore seemed strange that he did not know how to deal effectively with the man who, before he became king in 2005, had already been the power behind the Saudi throne for more than a decade.

In early June – the day before the much-publicized address Obama made to the Muslim world from Cairo – Obama made a quick visit to Saudi Arabia and had his first meeting with Abdullah. There are some indications that during that meeting he may have asked Abdullah to undertake some confidence-building steps toward Israel in return for an Israeli halt on settlement-building.

In the Cairo speech, Obama said, "the Arab states must recognize that the Arab Peace Initiative was an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities." He called on the Arab states to act "to help the Palestinian people develop the institutions that will sustain their state, [and] to recognize Israel’s legitimacy."

The clear implication was that he was asking the Arab states to undertake these actions now, or in return for an Israeli settlement-building halt, rather than as an eventual reward after the conclusion of final peace treaties.

On July 22, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia’s tiny neighbor and ally Bahrain published an opinion piece in the Washington Post in which he called on his fellow Arabs to start sending help to Palestinian institutions and to reach out to the Israeli public – though notably not, at this point, to the Israeli government.

Analysts noted that that initiative from Bahrain was most likely encouraged by the Saudi government – or at least, was cleared with Riyadh.

On July 27, Obama’s senior peace envoy George Mitchell was in Cairo. He told reporters that Washington was eager to secure a "comprehensive" peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors He also asked all the countries in the region to set the "context" for starting these negotiations.

"By comprehensive I mean peace between Israel and Palestinians, between Israel and Syria, between Israel and Lebanon, and the full normalization of relations between Israel and the countries of the region," he said.

He said, "We’re not asking anyone to achieve full normalization at this time. We recognize that will come further down the road in this process." But he added that Washington did want to see "meaningful steps by individual countries."

However, the statements the Saudi foreign minister made in late July seemed like a clear indication that Saudi Arabia would not be taking such steps in the near future.

Three days later Kuwait’s ruler, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, met with Obama in the White House. He, like the Saudis, spelled out that normalization with Israel would come about after the conclusion of the final peace, rather than as a lead-up to it.

The Saudis meanwhile seem to have given serious thought to how, exactly, they might help the still-struggling Palestinian institutions in the occupied territories.

The biggest problem there has been the stark conflict between the U.S.- backed Fatah party, which administers Palestinian institutions in some portions of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Islamist Hamas party, which governs in Israeli-besieged Gaza.

Back in February 2007, King Abdullah brokered a brief reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. But the Bush administration in Washington conspired with some Fatah strongmen to break the terms of that Saudi-brokered deal, which then fell apart.

Now, as Fatah winds up its important Sixth General Conference in Bethlehem, King Abdullah has once again issued a clear call for unity among the Palestinians.

As a few thousand pious Muslims now prepare to leave both Gaza and the West Bank to travel to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj pilgrimage, there is some expectation their Saudi hosts may be able to do some good reconciliation work while they are there.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at