Analysis: The Saudi fig leaf

How could Olmert have been able to "treat seriously" an initiative already rejected by his predecessor?

King Abdullah Saudi 88 (photo credit: )
King Abdullah Saudi 88
(photo credit: )
Much has changed in the five years since the Saudi initiative first emerged, but two principles have remained sacrosanct. The Palestinians, backed by the Arab leaders, have adamantly refused to back down from the demand for the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees. All Israeli governments continue to oppose any concession on the issue, reflecting the consensus that allowing the refugees back would amount to suicide of the Jewish state. So how was Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suddenly saying to the cabinet that he was ready to "treat seriously" the taboo initiative, already rejected out of hand by his predecessor and patron, Ariel Sharon? And how was such a statement greeted with barely a peep from the other ministers, or even from the opposition? Olmert's announcement was preceded by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's interview with an Arab newspaper, in which she said parts of the Saudi initiative were acceptable, but not the "right of return." But can Israel pick and choose? Even if we accept that with some creative wordplay the sides can solve the refugee problem, there still is a minefield of other problems: settlements, Jerusalem, demilitarization, water rights, release of terrorists and recognition of Israel, to name a few. Neither the Olmert administration nor Mahmoud Abbas's shaky Palestinian Authority have the necessary public backing to sign, let alone implement, an agreement on any of these issues. So why is everyone wasting the Saudis' time? Nobody really believes - including the Saudis - that there is a chance of reaching a comprehensive peace treaty on the basis of the initiative any time soon. And still, over the last few months there have been a number of high-level meetings between Israeli politicians and senior members of the Saudi royal family. Olmert reportedly met with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, secretary-general of the Saudi national security council. These meetings were happening months before Olmert and Livni exhumed the Saudi initiative. Despite there being no official relations between the two countries, and despite the Saudi record of financing Palestinian terrorism and religious incitement against Israel, they now have little choice but to cooperate - at least behind the scenes. The success of Hamas in the last PA elections, the ascendancy of Hizbullah in Lebanon, the ongoing chaos in Iraq and the Iranian nuclear program have the Saudis hanging on for dear life. In addition, the Bush administration is proving more hesitant than in the past to bail the House of Saud out of all of its security problems. More than any other country in the region, the Saudis desperately need stability to ensure their oil fortunes and, by extension, the survival of their despotism. Out of sheer necessity, they have realized that Israel is a crucial partner in their campaign for maintaining the status quo, since Israel can do a lot to ruin their cherished stability. Establishing diplomatic relations with Israel would bring the kingdom down in a storm of rioting. But the dealings surrounding the initiative can provide a pretext for meeting. The Saudis are, of course, only looking out for the Palestinians' interests. So what's in it for Israel? Mainly appearances, but right now that's about all the government can hope for. The appearance of an ongoing diplomatic process gives the public a feeling that something's happening and makes it easier for Labor to remain in the coalition. Next time the EU envoys ask for more concessions to the Hamas-dominated PA, the government can point to the Saudi initiative and promise progress. It's just like Sunday's meeting between Olmert and Abbas - neither side has any real hope for a breakthrough, but it's important to keep up appearances. And most importantly, the Americans are all for it. The establishment of a coalition of "moderate states," recently replaced by the formulation "responsible states," has long been the dearest wish of the US State Department. The Saudi initiative will never hatch a realistic peace plan. But if talking about it is going to make US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice happy when she comes for another one of her "maintenance trips," the Israelis and Saudis will play along.