Preventive Diplomacy: Saudi Style


The so-called ‘Abdullah Initiative’ was an unanticipated and revitalizing change in attitude toward the Israel-Palestinian conflict by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Equally encouraging was its approval by the Arab League at its conference held soon after the Saudi foreign minister made the announcement last March. The terms proposed are as follows – that an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders along with the creation of a Palestinian state will be accompanied by the normalisation of relations between Arab League states and the state of Israel. Other contentious issues, notably the right of return of displaced Palestinians and their descendants, are proposed to be dealt with after the creation of the Palestinian state and in the context of that state’s existence.
The failed post-Oslo peace process and the collapse of the Camp David talks in June 2000 have shown that all the US-sponsored initiatives, are of themselves, incomplete without the input of Israel’s neighbours and sometime enemies. Indeed, the normalisation of Arab-Israeli relations would have a far greater effect on quelling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than any US-brokered initiative. The Bush administration proposal outlined in the President’s speech last Monday may include the creation of a Palestinian state, but it makes no reference to the Saudi proposals and little to the concerns and possible input of other Arab states, save for knuckle-rapping due to sponsorship of Palestinian terrorism. There is a sharp contrast between the one-sided American proposals, which amount to US interference in the affairs of a nascent sovereign state, and the more even-handed Saudi initiative. The latter would, at a stroke, eliminate much of the physical and ideological sources of the conflict. Regional normalisation and the creation of the Palestinian state are needed to de-legitimise the militancy on both sides. Recognition of Israel by Arab states would dampen, albeit not remove, the siege mentality in Israeli politics and culture. On the other side, it would de-legitimise (and perhaps stunt the financing of) Hamas and Islamic Jihad, especially with a Palestinian state in existence as part of the deal.
The only surprise is, that if the Abdullah initiative, if implemented, could solve so much and is so apparently straightforward, then why was is not proposed sooner? More to the point, why has it emerged when it did? The answer lies in Washington’s plans for Saudi Arabia’s eastern neighbour, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
The Abdullah initiative is a clear signal to the USA that any action against Iraq is impossible given the state of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Any solution proposed by the US on the current conflict needs to be a holistic effort bringing in the Arab states. Any new peace process/settlement stands a far greater chance of success if these regional inter-state aspects are made integral. Diplomatic recognition of Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders would be more than a good start – it would bind almost all of the causes of conflict, direct and distant, into one interdependent whole. Sure, there will always be elements in all Arab societies implacably opposed to the existence of Israel, recognition or not. There will be hardliners and zealots in the Israeli right, secular and religious, that will oppose any territorial loss. There will be others who see a sinister Arab plot to lull Israel into a false sense of amity with their erstwhile enemies, who merely seek to detach the USA from the region and leave Israel vulnerable. What the Abdullah Initiative seeks to do is to ensure that any settlement will need Arab involvement, especially if that settlement is a prelude to action against Iraq.
The hawkishness displayed in the Bush administration’s desire to attack Iraq as soon as possible put the Saudi administration in a quandary. No friend of Saddam, they nonetheless do not want to see American military action in the region right now. The same is true for other Arab allies of the US, such as Egypt and Jordan. However, the impending action against Iraq has more profound implications for the Saudi Kingdom.
US unilateralism has become so much a buzzword of late that it almost has become a cliché. It is used so often by leftist and developing world commentators and states that its undoubted truth becomes blurred, and dismissed as hackneyed whinging. In seeking to attack Iraq solely on its own terms, the USA demonstrated unilateralism at its most arrogant and politically-inept. From the perspective of the Saudi’s, the Abdullah Initiative has reminded the US that it is impossible for them to countenance an attack on Iraq while Israeli tanks dominate the cities of the west Bank and Gaza. Any US attack on Iraq would have to be launched from Saudi territory. The American military presence in Saudi Arabia is seen as sacrilege by many Muslims, and is seen as a poisoned chalice by an unpopular, corrupt dynasty. What’s more, with a population boom and declining oil revenue, the guiding rationale of the Saudi state’s social contract is under threat. This amounts to a trade-off between repressive rule, absence of civil society along with latent corruption and inequality in return for guaranteed state jobs, health care and prosperity, all of which is being destabilised by the travails of the global oil market. This means that issues such as the presence of US troops in the Kingdom, the oil-for-security alliance between the USA and Saudi Arabia, the appeal of Islamist and anti-American causes elsewhere Are all more likely to find appeal in an increasingly disenchanted populace. The Al-Saud dynasty is under duress domestically, and while no house of cards, can do without appearing any more of an American lap-dog than they are already. This means delaying an attack on Iraq, at least until the diplomatic climate improves, and tying themselves and other Arab states into any Israeli-Palestinian solution. The Abdullah Initiative, might not make any impact on whatever solution is proposed. However, it has served its immediate purpose, which has been to delay any US-led attack on Iraq, which would be disastrous domestically for the rulers of Saudi Arabia. Whether the Bush proposals lead to a relaxation in the suicide bombings and Israeli reprisals remains to be seen. It is doubtful if such a partial initiative, demanding that the Palestinians get rid of Yassir Arafat, something long desired by Ariel Sharon, will have the effect desired. It is equally-unlikely that it will create the conditions either regionally or in Saudi Arabia, for sufficient consensus to launch any attack on Iraq.

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