Friday, October 06, 2006

Saudis / Syrians / Israel / US

An extract from an interesting piece on the Haaretz website

On Wednesday, the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., Prince Turki Al Faisal, gave a speech at Washington's Center for International and Strategic Studies. The topic was U.S.-Saudi relations but much of the talk was devoted to the Palestinian arena. Bush's activity in the Middle East at present, Faisal said, is a "direct result" of the Saudi effort, which he reconstructed as follows:

Early in May Faisal met with Bush and told him that only a solution of the Palestinian problem would lead to solution to the other problems in the Middle East. Three weeks later the regular "strategic talks" between the United States and Saudi Arabia were conducted, and again the message was: Take care of the Palestinian problem. Bush, said the ambassador, instructed Rice to try to make progress in this arena, but then the Israeli soldiers were abducted and war broke out. In July, during another visit by the Saudi foreign minister, he again raised the issue. And in August Prince Bandar bin Sultan came to Washington to do some more pushing.

Bandar is also mentioned frequently in Woodward's book. He was the ambassador to Washington for 22 years before stepping down a year ago and returning to Saudi Arabia. Bandar's father, Prince Sultan, one of the seven older brothers in the royal family, was named crown prince after the death of King Fahd. Bandar was appointed head of the National Security Council, and in his new role he continues to act as his country's leading diplomat. In the summer of 2001, says Woodward, Bandar brought a blunt message to Bush, the sharpest ever delivered by him to an American president. The crown prince, Bandar told the astonished president, is planning to cut off all ties with you. We will not consider any U.S. interests and will act as we see fit.

Why? Because of then prime minister Ariel Sharon and his war against the Palestinians. It is clear to us, the Saudi ambassador told the president, that the U.S. has made a "strategic decision" that means "adopting Sharon's policy." Bush protested. That's not true, he said to the ambassador. Two days later, Bush sent the crown prince a two-page letter in which he declared, for the first time, his support for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Riyadh. diplomacy

Bandar has for years been active in Arab-Israeli peace efforts, the height of which was his attempt six years ago to convince PA Chairman Yasser Arafat to accept the proposals of Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton for a final status agreement. First he was dispatched by Clinton as a covert emissary to Syrian President Hafez Assad, in a last-ditch effort to revive the Syrian negotiations channel. In a rare interview to The New Yorker in 2003, Bandar spoke about the heartbreak he suffered as a result of the collapse of the peace process toward the end of Clinton's tenure.

Saudi Arabia, the guardian of the Islamic holy sites, is meticulous about maintaining a frosty attitude toward Israel in public and has never agreed to meetings between foreign ministers and senior diplomats. The unofficial liaison between Riyadh and Jerusalem was Prince Bandar, from his luxurious suburban Washington home in McLean, Virginia. Bandar's Israeli contact is Mossad head Meir Dagan, who discreetly reported on their meetings to Sharon. The connection was maintained when Bandar returned to Saudi Arabia, and according to Israeli sources became closer during the war in Lebanon.

Last month Dagan arranged a meeting between Bandar and Dagan's new boss, in Jordan. Few real details were leaked in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper story two weeks ago that broke the story. The article emphasized the common Iranian threat shared by Israel and Saudi Arabia. Olmert, who was left without a political agenda when the convergence program was shelved, has a clear interest in creating such an impression. He has publicly praised the Saudis for not supporting Hezbollah during the war.

One can guess that the Saudis pressured Olmert to revive the peace process with the Palestinians, and this was their goal. It is hard to find a statement by Bandar or any other Saudi leader that does not mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the heart of the region's problems. King Abdullah always mentions that he is personally affected by pictures of dead Palestinian children. His four-year-old initiative for an overall Israeli-Arab agreement stemmed from his desire to clear this minefield.

The Saudis are realistic: Bandar blamed Arafat, who rejected Clinton's proposals, for the tragedy that led to the intifada and thousands of unnecessary casualties on both sides. In one of the conversations between Bandar and Bush described in Woodward's book the prince tells the president that Arafat is a "liar." He's a "schmuck" - that was the word he used - but a schmuck we have to work with.

Damascus. Disregard

In the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem they are treating the peace proposals of Syrian President Bashar Assad like the buzzing of an annoying bee. Requests for a response are answered with a shrug of the shoulders: There's that nudnik Syrian again. This week Assad said an agreement could be reached in six months if the talks are resumed "from the place where they were halted." Israeli officials say Assad is looking to avoid fallout from the imminent report of the inquiry into the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri, which is expected to come down hard on the Syrians.

It could be that Assad is laughing at everyone and only looking for excuses to shrug off U.S. pressure; that he is actually a creep who supports terror, is arming Hezbollah and delaying the deal for the release of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Nevertheless, on the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War today, October 6, it is hard to avoid the historical analogy to 1973. At the time the Egyptians proposed an agreement, with U.S. mediation, Prime Minister Golda Meir said "no" and the rest is history. At the time Moshe Dayan said it was better to have Sharm al-Sheikh without peace than the opposite, just as Olmert is saying today that the Golan Heights is an inseparable part of Israel and "as long as I'm prime minister, I'm convinced that the Golan will remain in our hands."

In 1973 Israel ignored President Anwar Sadat's war threats, on the grounds that the Egyptians were weak and would not dare to attack. In 2006 Israel is treating Assad's threats of "resistance" in a similar spirit. On one hand they are being taken seriously. Military Intelligence warned of the change in Syria's attitude as a result of the war in Lebanon, which denied Assad the use of Hezbollah as a platform against Israel and pushed him into talking about opening a front on the Golan. On the other hand, Syria is being treated dismissively, just as Egypt was before the 1973 War.

Certain senior Israel Defense Forces officers want a conflict with Syria in which that country will feel the power of the Israel Air Force. "There are lots of military targets there," they saying. "It's not Lebanon, where the enemy hides behind the civilians." Nor is there a pro-American government in Damascus that has to be "strengthened," as in Beirut and in Ramallah, and it will be possible to destroy infrastructure, which the U.S. prevented the IDF from doing in Gaza and Lebanon. In any case, some Pentagon officials also believe that an armed conflict with Syria is the only way to either get Assad to fly right or to bring him down. It is difficult not to hear in these words echoes of Israel's "We'll break their bones" immediately prior to the 1973 War.

The recent war in Lebanon demonstrated that Damascus is much more sophisticated than it was considered to be in Jerusalem, and that Hezbollah was the arm of Assad as well as being an extension of Iran. We can assume that the Syrians did not neglect preparations for war in the Golan Heights while Israelis made fun of "the rusty tanks and planes" of their poor and disintegrating army.

The logical conclusion is not that we should panic and flee the Golan tomorrow. Israel has legitimate demands of the Syrians: normalization, security arrangements, expulsion of the terror organizations. The question is whether it would not be better to behave with diplomatic sophistication, to quietly examine the possibilities for negotiations and not to taunt Assad in vain.

It's true that this will neither strengthen Olmert's public image nor win Israel points with the U.S. administration. Washington has a long account with Assad, partly due to his unwillingness to cooperate with preventing terror in Iraq, partly due to the U.S. fear that talks with Syria will be interpreted as an invitation for it to interfere in Lebanon again.

The Israeli interest may not coincide exactly with the U.S. interest when it comes to Syria. In that case, the Americans are invited to declare publicly that they are opposed to negotiations and they should bear at least some of the blame for the dead end. We must remember this: Golda's tremendous popularity and her good relations with President Richard Nixon did not save Israel from the catastrophe of 1973. U.S. aid would arrive, as it did then, but only after the war begins.

No comments: