Saudi Arabia wavers on Obama's plan
By Helena Cobban
WASHINGTON - Pro-Israeli lobbyists here 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 US 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
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 dominated the
eight years of former US 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
Israel's implantation of additional settlers into the West Bank continued under
former US 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 military occupying land that is 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 US, 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 towards
peace between Israelis and Palestinians", noted Chas W Freeman, a distinguished
former US 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 that, "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 edgeways and asked some reasonable questions about
Washington's policy, Ross was unable to answer and appeared "a little
Ross was the man who throughout Bill 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
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
towards 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
Analysts noted that that initiative from Bahrain was most likely encouraged by
the Saudi government - or at least, was cleared with Riyadh.
George Mitchell, the US envoy for Middle East peace, was in Cairo on July 27.
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.
"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
Three days later, Kuwait's ruler, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, met with
Obama at 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
The biggest problem there has been the stark conflict between the US-based
Fatah party, which administers Palestinian institutions in some portions of the
Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Islamist Hamas party, which governs in
In February 2007, King Abdullah brokered a brief reconciliation between Fatah
and Hamas. But the George W Bush administration in Washington conspired with
some Fatah strongmen to break the terms of that Saudi-brokered deal, which then
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
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.
Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at