For the first time in half a century, a Saudi ruler wants to dive head first into the murky waters of Middle East peacemaking.
Wednesday, May 1,The New York Times unveiled new moves agreed by US President George W. Bush and Saudi crown prince Abdullah at their meeting in Crawford, Texas on April 25 – in particular, their division of the work of peacemaking: Bush, to restrain Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon; Abdullah, to enlist the help of Arab countries for reining in Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat, bolstering his leadership and making him see the error of his terrorist ways.
Soon after this report was published, the White House denied any such game plan existed.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington and the Gulf can report that the Saudi crown prince began his crucial five-hour meeting with the US president by declaring that dealing with US-Saudi differences over America’s global war on terror and its assault on Baghdad was putting the cart before the horse. He insisted on leaving those issues for later. The key difficulty clouding their relations, he said, was the Arab-Israeli dispute, which was currently spinning out of control. Abdullah wanted that item disposed of before getting down to anything else.
He then announced that the Saudi government had committed itself to a sharp policy turn; for the first time in 50 years, Riyadh was prepared to fully engage in efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Up until now, Riyadh had kept jealously to the sidelines of this prickly issue.
By full engagement, Abdullah explained he meant a personal, political, military and economic role, and he asked for US cooperation.
Intervention had become urgent, said the crown prince, because the chaotic situation in the Palestinian Authority and the surge in terrorism – especially suicide terrorism – had attained a level that imperiled all the Arab regimes. He urged redirecting the diplomatic focus away from a limited Israeli-Palestinian peace accord and over to a broad basis of co-existence between the Arab world and Israel.
But first, the Saudis and the Americans must join hands to push the two adversaries into line. The autocratic crown prince offered to lead the way and, along with likeminded Arab countries like Morocco, deploy civilian or even military “custodians” in Palestinian-controlled areas. They would haul Arafat back from the ways of terrorism and force him to go to work to restore the governmental infrastructure smashed by Israel’s counter-terror offensive in the West Bank.
It would be up to the US president to impose upon Israel a complete military withdrawal from Palestinian areas and a start on dismantling Jewish settlements.
Once these parallel processes were in motion, Saudi Arabia would begin laying the foundations for diplomatic ties and normal relations between the Arab world and Israel. When the tempo steadied, Riyadh would advance to full diplomatic ties with Israel.
This progression was conditional on a full Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 Middle East War borders, which Washington must accomplish – as well as leaning on Israel to make the Jewish state share in a regional solution of the 1948 Palestinian refugee problem.
Abdullah was confident that Saudi Arabia could use its close relations with, and financial sponsorship of, the Palestinian- and Damascus-based leaderships of the radical Palestinian Islamic organizations, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to make those militants accept a temporary truce. He believed the offer of a stake in the reconstructed Palestinian governing system would persuade them to step back from violence.
He vouched personally for Syrian president Bashar Assad joining the process, making it possible for the Saudis and Americans to isolate Hizballah in Lebanon and any dissidents from the Palestinian radical groups.
The de facto Saudi ruler promised the joint Saudi-US effort to stamp out the Palestinian-Israel confrontation would stabilize the entire region. For instance, King Adbullah’s throne in Amman would be relieved of the domestic threat of Palestinian unrest and the external peril of Iraqi invasion.
He then questioned the need for America’s planned offensive against Iraq. Instead of fighting Saddam, he suggested extending the combined action by Riyadh and Washington in the Palestinian arena to cutting the cord of influence leading from the warmongers in Baghdad and Tehran to the Palestinians and Damascus. Diplomatically ostracized and eliminated from Middle East peacemaking, the pair would find it hard to continue stirring up trouble.
In fact, Abdullah offered himself as a mediator between Washington and Baghdad. To avert a US military strike against Iraq, the Saudi ruler declared himself willing to travel to Baghdad for a bid to persuade Saddam Hussein to accept US terms and agree to UN arms inspectors going back to monitor his weapons facilities.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, Bush was not bowled over by Abdullah’s dissertation. He knew about the Saudi leader’s aspiration for an active role in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, because it was taken up during vice president Dick Cheney’s visit to Riyadh in early March and again, later that month, when secretary of state Colin Powell saw Abdullah in Morocco.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources reveal that US and Saudi teams sat down to preliminary details on Abdullah’s initiative in secret meetings during April, in Houston, Texas. They worked on the groundwork for US-Saudi cooperation on the general lines of the Saudi ruler’s blueprint, but were held up on other key issues. For instance, the Saudis declined to cooperate with the Americans in uncovering and fighting radical Muslim elements and al-Qaeda groups in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the Gulf, Iran, Syria and Lebanon. The only area in which the teams made progress was the Israeli-Palestinian issue. They therefore placed it at the top of the Bush-Abdullah Crawford agenda.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, Washington kept Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon clued in on the US-Saudi exchanges through the New York businessman Aryeh Genger, who is Sharon’s friend and informal go-between.
The Saudis in turn briefed the Palestinian leadership via Mohammed Rashid, Arafat’s financial adviser and confidant.
Genger and Rashid both traveled to Houston a number of times for updates from American and Saudi negotiating teams. They also met face to face.
These behind-the-scenes contacts tie in with an unexpected staff change in the Israeli prime minister’s Jerusalem office, one that signaled Sharon’s willingness to give the US-Saudi track a chance. Uri Shani, director general of the prime minister’s office, suddenly stepped aside, to be quickly replaced with a long-time Sharon associate, the high-profile Tel Aviv lawyer, Dov Weissglass.
The unusual appointment raised much speculation as to why a 56-year old attorney at the peak of his career would accept a position traditionally manned by a bureaucrat or political aide. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources reveal that Weissglass was chosen for his little-known business and legal ties with the Palestinian financier and close personal friendship with him.
At about the same time, Rashid, who usually stays away from the limelight, emerged as the leader of the team negotiating Arafat’s release from his Ramallah compound after five months of being pinned down there by Israeli tanks.
Towards the end of Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield in seven Palestinian cities, therefore, both Sharon and Arafat separately signaled their willingness to giving the Saudi initiative a try. The Israeli leader named Weissglass as his representative, while the Palestinian leader put Rashid forward as his.
As to president Bush’s response to Abdullah’s proposals in Crawford, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington describe it as couched in extremely cautious terms.
He agreed to go along with the first Saudi steps and see where they led. If Abdullah’s plan worked for the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the United States might explore the possibilities of extending US-Saudi cooperation to other issues, including Iraq. In the meantime, Bush was non-committal, leaving the impression he was still weighing various timelines for the US offensive against Baghdad.
An even bigger hurdle in the way of a cordial entente between Washington and Riyadh is Saudi resistance to the US war on terror.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources say Abdullah argued forcefully that this campaign was bound on sectarian grounds to backfire. Because it was directed against Sunni Muslims, the counter-terror war would strengthen the Shiite elements of the Muslim world and the Middle East and work to the advantage of the ayatollahs of Tehran. The crown prince went on to labor the Saudi core position that the religious, educational and monetary supporters of Islamic radical groups must be left unharmed by the campaign against terror. Bush remained unconvinced and the issue was not resolved.
Another obstacle to their understanding was Yasser Arafat. The US president was extremely skeptical of Abdullah’s ability to pull the Palestinian leader away from the path of terror towards constructive activity on behalf of his people. But as a gesture of goodwill to the Saudi prince, he agreed to give Arafat one more chance, though warning that the Palestinian leader would take advantage of US and Saudi funds earmarked for reconstruction and use them to finance the resurrection of his machine of terror.