The fountain of words arching over a single sentence from Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz – suggesting that all Arab countries would institute normal relations with Israel in return for total withdrawal from lands occupied in the 1967 Middle East war – has generated more splash than real movement.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources predict that when the dust has settled, the only tangible outcome may turn out be the first face-to-face meeting between Saudi and Israeli security chiefs, the head of Saudi General Intelligence, Prince Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, and Mossad director, Ephraim Halevy.
In this regard, perhaps, US CIA Director George Tenet and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns arrived in the desert kingdom without warning Thursday night, February 28.
Other signs of motion in the works are more low-key and diffuse – but they all lead back to Riyadh.
Several sets of leaks surfaced this week in Saudi and Gulf media. One hinted that the Saudi government had asked the Bush administration to renege on its consent to grant a link from US spy satellites to Israel’s Arrow missile defense system. Another suggested that Washington would profit by mending its tattered relations with Riyadh, thereby helping the Saudis to stand up to mounting pressure from “Arab and Gulf circles” to upgrade their military and economic relations with Tehran.
Other leaks hinted that the former was a proviso for the latter.
An inference was also thrown out that, in return for US acquiescence to their requests, the Saudis would consider extending a helping hand to Washington’s efforts to promote a Palestinian-Israeli accommodation.
Most DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources in the Gulf and Jerusalem do not read too much in these nods and winks – particularly in the light of Saudi UN Ambassador, Fawsi Shobokshi’s harsh diatribe against Israel at the UN Security Council Middle East debate, a cold shower reminiscent of the early years of Israel’s non-acceptance by the Arab world.
However, some of DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources find more substance in the de facto Saudi ruler’s words than is immediately apparent.
The man behind them, crown prince Abdullah, is evidently seeking a more active role than his forerunners in Middle East peacemaking. All previous Saudi rulers have spurned direct contacts between their own and Israeli official representatives. However, since Abdullah took over the reins of government in 1996, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources note members of his close circle have occasionally initiated non-political encounters with Israelis. In this context, a discreet meeting of intelligence officials at some level would not be too much of a leap into the unknown for Riyadh.
For the moment, players on both sides of the Israeli-Arab divide are clocking up verbal miles -except for Syria, although it has hinted at acceptance of Abdullah’s purported plan. Syrian president Bashar Assad is a special case; he has the power to determine if the Arab League summit scheduled for March 28 in Beirut actually takes place. Because of his links to the Lebanese Hizballah and, through the Lebanese-Iranian terrorist Imad Mugniyeh, to the al Qaeda and Taliban escapees wandering around the Middle East, he is the only one in a position to guarantee the safety of the summit’s participants. This guarantee Syria intends parlaying for all it is worth – in political or financial coin.
Many of the words spilling out since Abdullah’s utterance have come from Israelis.
Leading doves, especially foreign minister Shimon Peres, were quick with praise, harnessing it to the same purpose as the one intended by Abdullah’s political adviser, Adel Jubair – as a lever to influence Israeli opinion, soured by the Palestinian Intifada into disillusion with peace prospects.
Jubair, who served for many years in the Saudi embassy in Washington, counted on Israeli opinion forcing a reaction from Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.
Sharon, anxious to avoid being labeled a peace rejectionist, did in fact declare himself willing to meet secretly or publicly with any official Saudi representative, in order to learn more about Abdullah’s proposal, to which Washington seemed to be warming.
Having made the correct response, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s political sources in Jerusalem report that Sharon told his intimates privately he would respond affirmatively to any serious peace gesture from the Saudi ruler, in the same manner as Menahem Begin, who reacted to Anwar Sadat’s overture in 1977, by sending Moshe Dayan for a secret exploratory meeting with Sadat’s senior political adviser, Hassan Tuhami in Morocco.
For Sharon, the acid test of Saudi bona fides and good will would be Riyadh’s willingness to recognize Israel as a Jewish state in the Middle East. This gesture of acceptance by the key Arab-Muslim power in the region would pave the way for negotiations on the “painful concessions” he promised in return for a genuine comprehensive peace.
In Saudi Arabia and in the West, Abdullah is regarded as a conservative with close ties to Muslim religious leaders. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s experts say that this reputation lends the crown prince plenty of room for maneuver with religious figures and enough credit to forge a relatively open policy.
In the six years since Abdullah has sat on the throne in lieu of his ailing half-brother, King Fahd, some of the most vocal religious radicals, who flourished in the kingdom from end of the Gulf War, have muted their aggressive public activities to demonstrate faith in Abdullah’s leadership. But he has not overcome their resistance to even the most minimal reforms, such as permission for women to drive cars. What he has been able to achieve is the issue of identity cards to women, over angry protests from religious figures, and a substantial cutback in the notorious “religious police”, as well as trimming the annual stipends awarded every Saudi royal prince.
In foreign policy, Abdullah aspires to depart from the diplomatic line taken by Fahd. He opts for self-reliance and closer regional ties rather than dependence on the kingdom’s traditional oil-for-security relations with Washington. Out to restore Saudi Arabia to its rightful place in the Moslem world, the crown prince believes Middle East peacemaking must be pursued – even it entails Saudi contacts with Israel.