The past week may have sounded the death knell of the Saudi initiative, at least as far as Israel is concerned.
Faced with the stubborn refusal of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to yield an inch on proposals for token gestures of normalization in exchange for the implementation of the first stage of the road map - and specifically the total freeze of building in the settlements - it is now hard to see how US President Barack Obama will push his stated objective of restarting negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
On September 13, the Saudi ambassador to Washington publicized the king's answer to the bipartisan letter he had received from 225 members of Congress in late July, concerning the Saudi initiative also known as the Arab Peace Plan. The congressmen had asked him "to make a dramatic gesture toward Israel as a confidence-building measure to promote peace."
The letter was intended to show support for Obama, who, according to press reports, had sent a letter to seven Arab states urging them to take small positive measures such as opening Israeli interest offices in their countries or letting Israeli planes transit their airspace.
Another suggestion had been not to refrain publicly from shaking hands with Israeli delegates encountered in some international forum corridors. These measures, he believed, would lead to a more relaxed atmosphere while demonstrating that Arab hostility was not as absolute as Israel believed.
The Saudi answer as made public by the ambassador was unambiguous. The Saudi position was that achieving peace on the basis of confidence-building had been tried and had failed over the past 30 years; the Saudis did not believe it could succeed today.
The ambassador stated that "it is the kingdom's firm view that resolution of this conflict does require outlining the final settlement at the outset, followed by prompt resumption of negotiations on all final-status issues - borders, Jerusalem, water, security and refugees - with a deadline set for their early conclusion."
"It is also absolutely imperative for the United States to play an active and robust role in the negotiations," the ambassador concluded.
This was nevertheless a none-too-subtle slamming of the door in the face of the president.
It did not come as a complete surprise. A number of high-ranking Saudis had expressed themselves in a similar vein. In a recent visit to Washington and following a meeting with the secretary of state, the Saudi minister for foreign affairs stated that "incrementalism and a step-by-step approach" would not lead to peace.
The problem was not what the Arabs would give to Israel, but what Israel was ready to give in return for the Arab initiative, he later stated - adding, in effect, that the Arabs had only normalization to offer Israel as an incentive, and if they gave it away while the territories were still under occupation, they would lose their only leverage.
According to American sources, Obama himself got a dusty answer when, on his first visit to Riyadh a few weeks after he assumed office, he asked the Saudi king for some small normalization steps.
Saudi Arabia was not the only Arab state to say no. A wave of negative reactions and articles against Israel swept the Arab world.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who visited Washington in mid-August, said in a number of interviews that since the Madrid peace conference in 1991, no Arab attempts at dialogue with Israel had encouraged them to normalize ties. Arab states, he added, would only recognize Israel and normalize their relations after a full and comprehensive peace was achieved with the Palestinians.
In Morocco, there were demonstrations against normalization when the content of the Obama letter was made public. In Lebanon, Shi'ite spiritual leader Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah issued a fatwa forbidding normalization with Israel.
On September 6, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said in a joint press conference in Cairo with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal that a discussion on steps toward normalization with Israel were not on the agenda, in view of its intransigence on building in the settlements. He added that no Arab country would dare make a move in that direction for fear of the violent reaction of the Arab world. For his part, Mashaal stated that America was trying to mobilize the Arabs against Iran and deflect their attention from the Palestinian issue.
Arab media followed suit as usual and stoutly defended the position of the leaders while detailing the dangers of normalization with "the Zionist enemy."
Obama made an all-out effort to promote his policy. Beyond talks with Arab leaders, about which we know little, he enlisted the support of congressmen and, of course, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell.
So far, it has been to no avail. The US president has been turned down time and time again by states having close links with the United States on a series of vital issues - countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait.
Qatar hosts the Central Command of the American Army; Bahrain is home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet; American troops pass through Kuwait on their way to and from Iraq. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are staunch allies of America in the strategic fight against Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Egypt is the recipient of massive American aid.
If Obama thought his famed charisma and the kudos he received in the Arab world for his attempts at reconciliation with Islam, as exemplified in his Cairo speech in June, would stand him in good stead with Arab leaders and that they would lead them to unbend a little and help him promote his policy, he must have been sadly disappointed.
The overall response from the Arab world highlighted not only its stubbornness, but also, and more to the point, its visceral hostility toward Israel.
It may have been a mistake to ask Saudi Arabia to make the first step toward normalization with Israel. The Saudi king holds the title of keeper of "the Two Holy Mosques," referring to Mecca and Medina. The stability of his kingdom is founded on an agreement dating to the 18th century with the Wahabi religious establishment, one of the strictest in Islam.
He cannot, therefore, appear to normalize relations with the State of Israel, which Islam abhors. This could destabilize the country - especially today, when the royal family has to deal with terror threats from al-Qaida, which has sworn to topple the monarchy and take over the country.
Incidentally the royal family has to cope with another pressing problem. King Abdullah is 86, and his heir, Prince Sultan, is 83. A younger heir has to be designated soon, and to this effect the king has appointed an "Allegiance Council" to select the right successor.
However, there are many rivalries in the family, and a crisis could threaten the stability not only of the country, but of the whole Middle East.
All told, Saudi Arabia is not likely to make a move toward normalization with Israel. In fact, and in clear violation of what had been promised to the United States, according to a Jerusalem Post report, Saudi Arabia has reinforced its economic boycott of Israel: International and American companies wanting to trade with the kingdom must certify that their products do not include elements made in Israel.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, did respond to Obama's call and, in a startling reversal of his previously stated position, declared that he accepted the two-state solution and was ready to enter negotiations with the Palestinians on that basis.
However, Israel, which had never accepted the Saudi initiative - perceiving it as a diktat with a set of imposed conditions and not a valid basis for negotiations and compromise - saw in the Saudi answer the confirmation of all its fears. Having to agree first to the solution of all burning issues between Israel and the Palestinians is not a viable basis for negotiations, especially since the Saudi initiative asks for a "just" solution to the refugee problem, stressing that they would not be settled in Arab lands - a code word for a Palestinian right of return. Israel is in no position to accept this condition without endangering its very existence.
To sum up, Arab countries are turning a cold shoulder to the Obama initiative, even if isolated reports talk of ongoing discussions. On the other front, Israel, the new American president has failed to read the map correctly. A complete freeze on building in the settlements - including east Jerusalem - with no possibility of providing for natural growth, is just not possible. Such a policy would very likely endanger the stability of the government and of the country.
Obama's insistence on such a freeze played nicely into the hands of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who finds himself unable to act because of the lack of progress on reconciliation talks with Hamas.
Happily sensing a major shift in American policy in the Middle East, he now proclaims he won't resume negotiations with Israel as long as a full building freeze is not implemented.
The United States finds itself in a somewhat bizarre position. Its efforts at courting Damascus have led nowhere; Syrian President Bashar Assad has not deviated from his excellent relations with Iran, his support for extremist organizations, or his meddling in Lebanon and Iraq. Pragmatic Arab countries, America's traditional and strategic allies, are on a collision course with that country, because they won't help advance the peace process. Israel, America's staunchest and most faithful ally, finds itself in a corner because it cannot meet its demands, which in turn leads the PA to camp on its position and make unreasonable demands of its own.
How will it all end? In a rare show of unity, all countries feel wounded by America's unrealistic policy. However, they all depend on America's military, political or economic support. Some form of a compromise will probably be found. It will not be based on the Arab initiative, because Saudi Arabia, which formulated it, has brought about its demise: Now that Riyadh has clarified its position, Israel can never accept it, even if some minor changes are made.
And so, once again, the Middle East is waiting for Obama to spell out what he has in mind. He will do so on Wednesday in front of the UN General Assembly. Although one can hope, it is doubtful he will find a way to satisfy all involved. There are signs, however, that he is beginning to understand the region a little better and is cooling his relations with Syria.
Better later than never.
Zvi Mazel was Israel's ambassador to Egypt.
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