A Middle East Speech Adrift from Its Subject

The statement of Middle East policy delivered Monday, July 16, by President George W. Bush, must go down as one of his most incomprehensible ever. He focused on making four strong points, all of which jarred on ears in Riyadh and further exacerbated his growing spat with the Saudi king:

1. He assigned Hamas, which took over the Gaza Strip last month, to the axis of evil alongside Iran and Syria.

2. He presented the Palestinians with an opportunity to build state institutions and a new security force from scratch as a prerequisite for statehood. Bush offered the Palestinians the makings for this project on a silver platter: Britain’s ex-prime minister Tony Blair to oversee the work as the Middle East Quartet’s new special envoy and a generous bankroll.

He also called for a session of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee to meet soon so that the world can back its words with real support for the new Palestinian government. This group chaired by Norway brings together the US, Japan, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.

3. He called on Israel to concentrate on developing Galilee and the Negev, dismantle illegal West Bank outposts and stop expanding settlements.

Implicit in this statement was a commitment to accept the demographic realities which have evolved on the ground over the years, namely the permanent presence of an Israeli West Bank population within defined blocs. In other words, Israel is not required to return to the pre-1967 War lines.

4. While omitting reference to Syria, as though Damascus had no say in the Arab-Israeli equation, he emphasized the key role Egypt and Saudi Arabia must undertake in solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.


The Saudi king won’t stand for boycott of Hamas


This led to his call for “an international meeting this fall of representatives from nations that support a two-state solution, reject violence, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and commit to all previous agreements between the parties. The key participants at this meeting will be the Israelis, the Palestinians and their neighbors in the region. Secretary Rice will chair the meeting.”

The most striking feature connecting all these points, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources, is their total disregard for the Saudi King Abdullah‘s views.

The US president brushed aside as of no consequence Abdullah’s 2002 peace plan, which the 2007 Arab League summit endorsed as the 23-member group’s platform for settling the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

He also kicked aside the Saudi monarch’s strong sympathy for Hamas. Abdullah stands solidly against the diplomatic and economic boycott led by Washington and Europe against the Palestinian Islamist movement – not just because he regards Hamas as Fatah’s legitimate partner in Palestinian government under the Mecca Reconciliation Accords he brokered personally last January; Abdullah has domestic issues to consider as well. The royal house cannot afford to ride roughshod over the Saudi clerical establishment and Muslim Brotherhood and their stalwart support for the Palestinian Hamas.

Bush’s plan for a supervised creation of Western-style Palestinian governing institutions has a Saudi precedent: In the 1950s, the Americans performed a similar service for the desert kingdom when the discovery of oil promised to make Saudi Arabia fabulously rich. Today, Riyadh refuses to hear of any transitional measures being put in place as a corridor to Palestinian independence. On no account will the king tolerate Jewish settlement blocs staying on the West Bank. He is implacable about a complete Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 lines, including Jerusalem.

It is not surprising therefore that the Saudi ruler rejected the invitation for a delegate to attend a Middle East peace conference on the format proposed by Bush and in Israel’s company – even when the US president put in a special call to smooth things over.

Nothing has changed in Riyadh in the four months since the snub administered to Condoleezza Rice from the last Arab League summit.

She was allowed to twiddle her thumbs in Jerusalem hour after hour in the expectation that the Saudi delegation would push through the summit a motion providing the framework for Saudi and Israeli delegates to meet.


More snubs traded between Washington and Riyadh


Instead, King Abdullah demonstratively embraced Syrian president Bashar Assad as an Arab brother, thereby stepping aside from Washington’s anti-Syrian policies and rejecting Bush’s denunciation of Damascus as part of an “evil axis.”

Abdullah further embarrassed the waiting secretary of state by publicly denouncing the American occupation of Iraq as “illegal.” He then turned down a US presidential invitation to a gala banquet in his honor at the White House.

(Read DNW 295 of March 30: The Bush-Rice Middle East Gambit crashes. All of a Sudden, a Saudi Letdown)

That incident occurred in March.

Today, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington and Gulf sources find further evidence of the painful strains in Bush’s relations with Abdullah and their two governments in a Los Angeles Times account Monday, July 15, the day before the president’s speech.

The story appeared under the caption: Saudis’ role in Iraq insurgency outlined.

“Although Bush administration officials frequently lashed out at Syria and Ian, accusing them of helping insurgents and militias here, the largest number of foreign fighters and suicide bombers in Iraq come from a third neighbor, Saudi Arabia, according to a senior US military officer and Iraqi lawmakers.

“About 45% of all foreign militants targeting US troops and Iraqi civilians and security forces are from Saudi Arabia; 15% from Syria and Lebanon; and 10% are from North Africa, according to official US military figures made available to the Times by the senior officer Nearly half of the 135 foreign fighters in US detention facilities in Iraq are Saudis,” he said.

The article features a photo of vice president Dick Cheney taken with King Abdullah during a visit to Riyadh in May, when he urged the king to stop the Saudi suicide bombers.

(A separate item on al Qaeda’s Saudi suicide fighters in Lebanon appears in this issue.)

It is taken for granted at the Saudi court that the unnamed senior US officer would not have given out such information to the LA Times without the go-ahead from Washington. They take the interview as a hostile step against the kingdom by the Bush administration.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf sources predict the next bone of contention between Washington and Riyadh will turn up over the price of oil, more about which in a separate item.

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