Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Abdullah’s statement, seen by the outside world as a significant Saudi political initiative, has created a great deal of noise in the Middle East and among concerned states. As such, many have viewed it as a genuine political initiative, while others see it only as a maneuver.
But in order to gain proper understanding of the initiative, it has to be put in context. The Saudis have maintained a high profile concerning the Middle East conflict ever since the start of this uprising, but even more so after the events of September 11. In particular, Prince Abdullah presented a rousing speech to the first Arab summit conference after the start of Palestinian- Israeli confrontations, a speech that strongly advocated Arab support for the Palestinians, at the same time promoting a peaceful solution.
Another indication of Saudi involvement in the regional dispute has been the several statements and contacts made by Saudi Arabia attempting to strengthen United States government involvement and produce a more balanced American position. Many diplomats believe that the relatively even- handed speech of United States Secretary of State Colin Powell just after September 11 was a result of these Saudi efforts.
The events of September 11 and the war fought in Afghanistan put the Saudi government in a position where it needed to show more vocal support for the Palestinians and defend their cause, in particular the struggle for Jerusalem and its holy sites. The Saudi government’s position backing the US war against Afghanistan and Al Qaeda, including Osama Bin Ladin, the self-proclaimed defender of the Arabian peninsula against American control, exposed the Saudi regime to growing opposition from its own people, who were increasingly sympathetic to both Bin Ladin’s rhetoric and Al Qaeda’s cause. In order for the regime to compensate for its decline in popularity, it tried to raise the banner of vocal support for the Palestinians, which, of course, also boosts its popularity in the rest of the Arab world.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia had gained a bit of leverage over the United States. Because the United States administration was worried about internal political upset in Saudi Arabia, it felt that they had to do something positive to shore up the weakening Saudi government. It is clear that the Saudis wanted for the Americans to be–among other things–less biased and more active in restraining Israeli aggression, including that directed towards Yasser Arafat and his authority.
The Saudi initiative, albeit brief and unelaborated, touched on the most fundamental concerns of both Palestinians and Israelis. It gave Israel all of what it wants, which is peace, security, recognition and integration and it offers the Palestinians an end to the occupation, which is their number one concern. The Palestinians, officially and unofficially, are in support of the ideas.
The result is that the initiative has proven very embarrassing for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who opposes an end to occupation. In fact, he has found no way out of a head-on collision with the initiative as it grows in momentum than to produce an unprecedented escalation, one in which the Israeli army entered certain Palestinian refugee camps sure to cause strong Palestinian reactions. As many as 30 Palestinians were killed in just 24 hours in that incursion. The next 24 hours saw the Palestinian reaction–the killing of 20 Israelis; today’s Palestinian death toll at the hands of the Israeli army is 15 and counting. It seems that Sharon is achieving his tactical objective of shifting the attention completely from the new initiative to the bloodshed he commenced.
The problem with the Saudi initiative, despite its having received the support of nearly the entire Arab world, is the lack of mechanisms for its implementation. So far, during the last 16 months of confrontations, there have been four breakthroughs–the Sharm Al Sheikh agreement for a ceasefire sponsored by former President Bill Clinton, the Mitchell committee report, Tenet plan and now the Saudi initiative. All of these were received warmly, until Israeli diplomacy found a way (usually through violence) for Israel to duck its responsibilities in implementing these plans.
In addition, the lack of will on the part of the international community to interfere and enforce criteria established by international law and relevant United Nations security council resolutions is a major component of Israel’s continuing support. Without those criteria, the conflict falls prey to the imbalance of power. The only outcome one can see from here is that Sharon is proving more and more successful at moving the Israeli-Palestinian relationship towards an existential and intractable fight.
Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.