Saud Al Faisal 224 88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Saudi Arabia may be attending Tuesday's Annapolis summit, but its determined refusal to countenance even the slightest normalization of relations with Israel and Israelis was all too evident in the driving rain at its embassy here on Monday afternoon.
Several enterprising Israeli journalists managed to make their way into the premises as Arab League foreign ministers and officials were convening for consultations ahead of the summit. Some even got through a security check. Udi Segal of Channel 2 showed his Israeli government press card when asked for accreditation - successfully, at first.
However, the Saudi Embassy staffers ultimately cottoned on to the presence of Israelis on their diplomatic territory, and, somewhat unceremoniously, escorted the journalists off the premises. Israeli camera crews then filmed the Arab leaders driving in from outside the embassy security barrier, in the rain, while other media crews filmed the notables from the covered comfort of the embassy's entrance.
It had already been made plain to this reporter that he would not be admitted to a limited press briefing held at the embassy by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal just before the Arab League gathering. The best I could do was to ask one of the American reporters who had been invited to put a question on my behalf to Faisal: "What steps are you prepared to take right now toward normalizing ties with Israel?"
His answer, relayed to me, was simple, and later confirmed by the scene in the rain: "None."
Faisal elaborated that the Arab peace plan makes plain that "normalization will come after peace is established." And peace, he went on, entailed full Israeli withdrawal.
The Saudi foreign minister also told the American reporters that the Arab presence at Annapolis was not about producing a concerted front against Iran. "We have to worry about Israel first," he said, and deal first with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That was a separate priority, he said, from the question of "whether Iran is developing weapons of mass destruction or interfering in Iraq."
Earlier Monday, Faisal's declared refusal to shake hands with Israeli leaders was shrugged off by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who said he was not going to try to "impose" a handshake on someone who didn't want to take it up.
"I represent a glorious people with a glorious history and I won't push any of that on someone who doesn't want to shake my hand," said Olmert.
Nonetheless, he added that he was "glad" that Faisal was attending the summit. Until recently, people had been saying it would be "monumental" were the Saudis to come at all, he noted. Now, he said lightly, people were saying it would be disappointing "if they don't kiss you on both cheeks for the cameras, and invite you to a weekend's entertainment in Riyadh."
Olmert said that while he hoped the Arab world would begin the process of normalization with Israel in parallel to peace efforts with the Palestinians, he recognized that the Israeli-Saudi relationship would have to "take its course." When the Saudis were ready, he said, they would move forward.
Faisal reiterated at his briefing and in a Time magazine interview on Monday that he would not shake hands with Olmert, but said he would shake hands with Israel once Israel was truly embarked upon peacemaking.
"This is not theater," he told Time. "We are going [to Annapolis] seriously for peace negotiations. We are not going there just to take pictures of somebody shaking somebody's hand. The hand that has been extended to us has been a fist so far. Once it opens for peace, it will be shaken," he said.
He said the Annapolis effort "is really a turning point. The next conflict will be very dangerous," he said. "One of the elements of optimism is the sense of determination of the United States to see this through."
Asked if he believed a comprehensive peace agreement was achievable by the time President Bush leaves office in January 2009, he said "of course... Every man on the street and every woman on the street, not only the politicians, knows what the settlement will look like in the end. It just needs the action to bring it about...It is a very simple equation. Either Israel wants peace or territory. It can't have both."
The United States on Monday indicated that it was willing to accede to the Saudis' desire not to shake hands or otherwise be seen making overtures to the Israelis.
"That's going to be up to all of the representatives, how they decide to interact. We will of course be respectful of the various relationships, of the various states of relationships among the participants," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "They're going to be focused on the tasks at hand. As the Saudi foreign minister put it, nobody's interested in these uncomfortable situations where there are theatrics for the sake of photographs. We'll of course be respectful and mindful of that as we'll put together the various events."
Other diplomatic sources have said that the Saudis don't want any contact whatsoever with the Israeli delegation at Annapolis, and therefore the respective delegations will even use different doors to enter the meeting room.
Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report.
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