Despite Obama's appeal, Saudis unlikely to push Mideast talks

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 23, 2009 

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — President Barack Obama's strategy for rejuvenating Arab-Israeli peace talks is running into resistance from Saudi Arabia, which has rebuffed the American leader's appeals for the influential Middle East ally to play a more active role in his plans.

Saudi officials have expressed skepticism about Obama's attempts to secure concessions from the Arab world in exchange for a commitment from Israel to stop building Jewish homes in the Palestinian-dominated West Bank.

To drive that point home, the Saudis have been putting private pressure on their regional allies to make sure that they don't make any dramatic gestures unless Israel takes the first step.

Most recently, when Bahrain made a public overture to Israel, Saudi Arabia gave its blessing but cautioned its neighbor not to go too far, one Saudi official said.

"It is clear that the road leads through Riyadh for the Israelis — and whoever is their backer — if they want the wider Arab and Muslim world to recognize them," said the adviser to the Saudi government, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could offer candid views on the political developments. "We will not move an inch if the Americans don't get the Israelis to stop immediately all settlement construction."

With Israel refusing to make a major gesture, Obama has been unable so far to secure Arab assurances that could jump-start regional peace talks.

"The ambition to bring the Saudis on board has been disappointed," said one Western diplomat based in Riyadh, who asked not to be identified because of the delicate nature of the debate. "I think it would be quite difficult for the Saudis to lead the way the U.S. is hoping, because any warmth towards Israel would be deeply unpopular with its public."

During his hurriedly arranged visit to Saudi Arabia last month, Obama asked King Abdullah to try to broker a new Palestinian unity government, to revamp his 2002 peace initiative and to consider some good-faith gestures to Israel, officials in Riyadh said,

With Saudi Arabia apparently unwilling to take such steps, American officials have been approaching less-influential Arab nations that may be more amenable to Obama's overtures.

Israel and the United States have floated a variety of ideas:

Qatar might reopen the Israeli trade office it shuttered in January to protest Israel's military offensive in Gaza. Tunisia and other countries might allow Israeli planes to use their airspace.

Arab leaders also might grant interviews to Israeli journalists, an Israeli government idea that the crown prince of Bahrain publicly endorsed last week, saying that Arab nations should "tell our story more directly to the Israeli people by getting the message out to their media."

"We must stop the small-minded waiting game in which each side refuses to budge until the other side makes the first move," Shaikh Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa wrote last week in an opinion piece for The Washington Post. "We've got to be bigger than that. All sides need to take simultaneous, good-faith action if peace is to have a chance."

The article was carefully crafted and well coordinated. One Saudi official, who also asked not to be named in order to speak candidly, said that the Bahraini king personally sought approval for the opinion piece from King Abdullah and had been cautioned not to go too far in offering concessions to Israel.

While the idea of an Israeli reporter interviewing an adversarial Arab leader seems like a small step, it was one suggestion that Israeli leaders floated as a possible move to build confidence between the two sides.

On Thursday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu singled out the Bahrain overture as a positive signal.

"I believe that this spirit can help create an atmosphere in which a comprehensive peace is possible," he said at a reception with the Egyptian ambassador to Israel.

Even with the opening, Saudi leaders have made it clear that it's up to Israel to get the ball rolling.

To jump-start Arab-Israeli peace talks, Obama has called for a complete halt to Israeli construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Israel has rebuffed the U.S., however, creating festering divisions between the countries as they try to fashion a compromise.

Saudi Arabia has stood firm in its position that it's already made a grand gesture to Israel with the 2002 peace plan that King Abdullah crafted, which basically offers Israel regional peace in exchange for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

There also is a widespread belief among political insiders in Riyadh that Israel has outmaneuvered its rivals deftly by consistently securing concessions from Arab nations without giving up much in return. That's fueling Saudi resistance to Obama's push for more Arab concessions.

"As much as King Abdullah has created a dynamic for peace, someone on the Israeli side has to create this dynamic, and if they do, you will have a different reality," said a second adviser to Saudi Arabia's royal court, who also requested anonymity to speak more candidly. "We have an offer on the table, and if it is responded to in kind, then we will see a whole new Middle East."

There are signs that Arab countries are willing to revamp the initiative to address concerns about what a deal would look like.

A small group of Arab academics and diplomats has been looking at ways to sweeten the deal for Israel by detailing more clearly what political and economic benefits Israel would get by agreeing to the sweeping proposal.

"The initiative is the top of the pyramid, and what's needed is to build support for the top," said Nawaf Tell, the director of the Center for Strategic Studies, a political research center at the University of Jordan in Amman. "The existing offer can be repackaged for the purpose of basically regaining momentum."

If Arab countries were willing to address concerns from Israeli leaders that the Saudi-led peace plan would require them to give up more land than they're willing to offer and to accept a flood of Palestinian refugees, the repackaged proposal could create a new opening for talks.

Much of the progress, however, Arab leaders say, is predicated on Israel taking the first step.

"If Obama does get a settlement freeze, then we are talking about a complete new ballgame," the first adviser to the Saudi government said.

If Israel were to halt settlement construction, the official said, "then I would imagine something favorable could be done on the Arab peace initiative."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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