King Abdullah Saudi 88.
(photo credit: )
Did he or didn't he? The possibility that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met recently with a Saudi official, as was reported earlier this week, is tantalizing despite the official denials from both sides. There is, after all, much that Israel and Saudi Arabia could and should discuss.
The main motivation cited for the alleged meeting was to review concerns over Iran, whose push for nuclear weapons poses a significant threat to both countries. As much as Teheran's radical Shi'ite regime hates "the Zionist entity," it also competes with the Sunni kingdom for hegemony in the Persian Gulf. An increasingly belligerent Iran, with growing military capabilities, is a menace to both Jerusalem and Riyadh.
Encouraging signs that the Saudis are willing to speak out about a Muslim country threatening regional stability, irrespective of Israel's position in the conflict, deserve recognition.
Indeed, even as Olmert denied having met with the Saudi king, he rightly praised his government's criticism of Hizbullah, the Shi'ite militia that receives weapons and spiritual guidance from Iran, for provoking this summer's bloody war. As two countries with some influence in the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia could work together diplomatically to encourage US leadership regarding Iran.
But if Saudi Arabia really wants the US to succeed in preventing Teheran from going nuclear, it has to break its pattern of mainly making anti-Israel demands of the West and instead do what it can to help. For years, the Arab world, with the Saudis at the forefront, has been demanding that Washington press Jerusalem to take "risks for peace." Now Riyadh needs to take some risks of its own.
As it is, there are plenty of Israelis who would happily engage with Saudis on a personal level, if only they weren't refused entry to Arabia because of their nationality. In fact all Jews, no matter which land they call home, are forbidden from stepping foot in "The Land of the Two Mosques."
Saudi Arabia also continues to maintain its ban on all commerce with Israel, despite its international obligations to the contrary. And, it is home to some of the most poisonous anti-Semitic material in the world. The royal family could change all that if it wished.
Regarding the peace process with the Palestinians, too, there is much the Saudis could do with little strain to help move things along. Right away, they could call openly for Hamas to accept the three conditions of the Quartet - renunciation of terrorism, recognition of Israel and acceptance of the agreements signed by Israel and the PLO. (Of course, that would involve recognizing Israel themselves...) In a larger and even more meaningful gesture, Saudi Arabia could leap ahead of King Abdullah's 2002 "peace plan" and openly reject the "right of return," calling instead for the settlement of Palestinian refugees in a future Palestinian state.
Israel has traversed a great distance for peace - from the Madrid talks to the Oslo Accords, the withdrawal from Lebanon, the offer of Palestinian statehood at Camp David, and the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. We have been "rewarded" for these efforts first with Yasser Arafat's suicide-bombing war, then with the election of Hamas and Kassam rocket attacks, and finally with the recent war in Lebanon started by Hizbullah.
Israel is out of "risks" to take, particularly when the result has been the encouragement and growth of precisely those forces dedicated to Israel's destruction, not to mention the loss of thousands of Israeli and Palestinian lives.
If only it wishes to, Saudi Arabia can claim the mantle of leadership in the Middle East with a series of bold but simple steps that strengthen the coalition of nations confronting Iran and genuinely advance peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Now that would be something worth talking about.