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(photo credit: AP)
His Royal Highness Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, the king of Saudi Arabia, works hard to get good press. He throws swell up-market galas, puts on grand interfaith conferences and finances numerous think tanks and lobbying firms. He also hands out fancy gold medals on thick gold chains - of which Barak Hussein Obama was a recent enchanted recipient.
Every once in a distant while, the savvy Saudi king also pulls the best trick in the book. He lets loose a feeble - but tantalizing - hint about the remote possibility of a theoretical chance that he might, someday, under exceptional circumstances and only if he unconditionally gets his way, begrudgingly accede to some faint warming of ties with Israel.
It's a soft lob, a pain-free ploy, Saudi sophistry at its best. Yet the ruse works wonders. Speak very vaguely and indirectly about peace with Israel, and presto! You're in Washington's good books. You're now a peace process "leader" with a diplomatic "initiative" in your name. No concrete follow-up required. No need to put your money where your mouth is.
Not that the king doesn't know how to act decisively, or spread around a few American dollars, when he needs and wants to.
The Saudis hauled in truckloads of cash to buy the recent elections in Lebanon to ensure a Sunni (i.e., non-Hizbullah) victory. They've bankrolled Lashkar e-Taiba (of Mumbai infamy), Hamas and other radical Islamic movements worldwide when it suited them, while brutally crushing other groups, like al-Qaida, when these became a threat to them.
They've openly embraced, then bluntly cold-shouldered, different Palestinian and American leaders, as per their changing interests. Riyadh also funds madrassas and mosques the world over to aggressively promote its purist Wahhabi brand of Islam.
THUS, SAUDI KINGS and princes know how to make things happen, when they want to.
So, if King Abdullah, really wanted to lead the Arab world toward peace with Israel, he could find a way or two to express his "moderation" more clearly and make things happen.
But the sanctimonious Saudis always seem to hew to the PR minimum. When they had a 9/11 image problem (15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, remember?), then-Crown Prince Abdullah nattered to The New York Times about "full normalization" with Israel in exchange for "full withdrawal" from the territories. It sounded pretty good. In a flash, Abdullah transformed the discourse from Saudi involvement in terrorism to Saudi peacemaking.
However, as Prof. Joshua Teitelbaum of the Dayan Center has pointed out, by the time the Abdullah trial balloon reached the Arab summit in Beirut in March 2002, the initiative had been modified and its terms hardened. It watered down "full normalization," rewarded Syria with a presence on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and enshrined a Palestinian "right of return" to Israel.
Since then, the sangfroid Saudis haven't been willing to bat an eyelash at Israel. But the dodge worked so well that today the Obama administration is touting the Saudi "led" Arab peace initiative as a cornerstone of its regional peace diplomacy.
The only problem is that the supercilious Saudi king doesn't really want to lead. He can't even bring himself to give President Obama some rope with which to entice, or hang, Israel. According to news reports, Washington can't seem to squeeze any commitments about normalization from the Saudis, even if Israel freezes all settlement activity and paints the Jerusalem Old City walls in the Saudi national colors.
NOW, NOBODY was expecting the supreme Saudi king to come to Jerusalem, God forbid, Anwar Sadat style. Nor could we reasonably expect Abdullah to offer cash for resettling Palestinian refugees outside of Israel. Nor will he likely curtail the vicious anti-Israel propaganda pumped out daily to the Arab world by his Middle East Broadcasting channel (MBC) or through films like the malevolent Saudi-produced Olive Dream. Naw, that would be asking too much.
But Abdullah might have, and still could - if peace truly was his goal - authorize a meeting of Israeli and Saudi academics on desertification and desalinization or other nonpolitical environmental matters. He could quietly allow the opening of a low-level Saudi commercial interest section in a Tel Aviv-based foreign embassy, as some of the other Gulf states have already done. He could send us a Rosh Hashana card.
Heck, Israel would settle for something simple, like approval for El Al to fly over Saudi airspace en route to New Delhi and Beijing. We would even be willing to refrain from serving kosher food, flushing toilets and playing "Hava Nagila" on the speaker system as our Zionist planes traverse the sacrosanct Saudi heavens.
But no. King Abdullah can't countenance such muffled gestures toward Israel. Not even for his friend Obama.
Now here's a thought: Perhaps Obama isn't pressing the Saudis and other Arabs hard enough about normalizing ties with Israel? Perhaps Abdullah has the impression that Obama is going to "deliver" Israel to the Arabs, and wrest from Binyamin Netanyahu a settlement freeze, then withdrawals and then a handover of Jerusalem? Where oh where could Abdullah have possibly gotten that impression?
The writer is director of public affairs at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.