Saudis are not the solution, experts say

Circumventing the Palestinians by talking first to Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab countries would not work, academics have told The Jerusalem Post. "It's not feasible," said Dan Schueftan, who is the deputy director of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa. He added that he didn't think Saudi Arabia was capable of negotiating such a deal. Housing and Construction Minister Meir Sheetrit said last week that he believed that in light of the divisions with the Palestinian Authority and the absence of a clear leader, Israel should talk first with Saudi Arabia and other moderate countries on a permanent status agreement. He said that the Saudi proposal of 2002, which offered Israel full normalized relations with the Arab world in exchange for its withdrawal to the 1967 border, offered a good basis for such talks, even if he himself did not agree with all aspects of that proposal. If a deal could be reached, Sheetrit said, the Palestinians would come on board as well. But Schueftan said that it was questionable whether Saudi Arabian leaders would risk public sentiment against Israel within their own country and the larger Arab world in order to negotiate a deal that would be acceptable to the Israelis, said Schueftan. Saudi leaders fear losing public legitimacy more than they fear Iran, said Schueftan. Therefore, even though solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would help them in their fight against Islamic extremism and Iran, they were unlikely to take the lead in bringing the Israelis and the Palestinians together, he said. More to the point, he added, when the Arab League adopted the Saudi proposal in 2002, it included a call for the right of return of Palestinians to Israel. That's a move that undermines the existence of the state of Israel and in effect cancels out the significance of offering normalized relations with Israel, Schueftan said. "It immediately transformed it from an idea that could be negotiated to a non-starter," said Schueftan. Cameron Brown of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya said he too believed that the Saudis were unlikely leaders in peace talks. "The Saudis are not the kind of guys to lead, they are conservative by nature and slow to move. They only take sure steps. They do not want to be the guys out in front," said Brown, who is the deputy director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at the IDC. "It's understandable that Sheetrit was looking for an alternative negotiating partner such as Saudi Arabia," Brown said. Israelis "cannot stand the idea of having to wait for the Palestinians to get their act together," he said. "That is what motivated unilateralism," Brown added. From the Israeli perspective this was a good time to negotiate a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians, because Israeli politics has never been less hindered by ideology since the 1970s, Brown said. Both the Left and the Right have realized that their past ideas were flawed, Brown said. The Left has come to understand that they do not have a partner and the Right has come to see that time is not on their side, he said. Given a readiness within Israel to move forward it sounds good to go and talk with the Saudis, said Brown. In practice, however, there is a limit to what such talks could yield. "If, under the best circumstances, one assumes that Saudi Arabia was willing to take a leadership role and that a solution was found to almost all the issues that divide Israel and the Palestinians, there is still one significant problem that would elude both the Saudis and the Israelis: the Palestinian refugees. "If a solution is not found to that problem there can be no deal and the only people who can negotiate that point are the Palestinians themselves," said Brown. "Everything else can be solved and is solvable," he said. But without the Palestinians the most divisive and significan't issue could not be resolved, Brown said. So, "at the end of the day we are going to, unfortunately, have to wait for the Palestinians to work out their own issues," Brown added.