Saudis in Quiet Talks To Revive Arab Peace Bid

Riyadh’s Envoy Lobbies U.S. Jews As Israeli Leaders Warm to Effort

By Marc Perelman

Published September 29, 2006, issue of September 29, 2006.
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Reports of an unprecedented meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and a top Saudi Arabian official earlier this month, coupled with Riyadh’s outreach efforts to American Jewish leaders, have rekindled talks of a serious international diplomatic push to revive the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The Saudi push comes as European countries pressure the Bush administration to be more flexible in accepting a Palestinian unity government that could then serve as a dialogue partner with Israel (see story on Page 4).

Olmert and the Saudi state-owned news agency were denying the reported meeting this week. But several Israeli politicians confirmed to reporters that a high-level meeting did take place, with some mainstream leaders praising it as a possible breakthrough. Far-right officials, however, blasted it as desperate move by an unpopular government smarting from the recent Lebanon war and chaos in Gaza.

Meanwhile, in New York the Saudis were lobbying the American Jewish community. The longtime Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal-al Saud, held a September 22 meeting with five prominent Jewish communal leaders, during which he stressed the need to jumpstart the Israeli-Palestinian process by reviving the so-called Saudi Initiative of 2002. The initiative offered Arab normalization with Israel in exchange for a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 armistice line. The offer, which was endorsed by the Arab League, was rejected by then-Prime minister Ariel Sharon, mainly because of objections to the vague language about the right of return of Palestinian refugees and the return to the 1967 line

“It was a very worthwhile meeting; we were encouraged by the tone and what we heard on the Palestinian issue and on Iran,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. Harris was one of the five Jewish participants in the one-hour meeting with prince Faisal and the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki. The other participants were Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League; Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress; real estate mogul and publisher Mortimer Zuckerman, and Robert Lifton, a former president of AJCongress and a founder of the Israel Policy Forum, who was involved in the 2002 Saudi plan.

Harris stressed the importance of Saudi officials apparently reaching out to Israel and the American Jewish community at the same time. “The fact that you have those reports of parallel efforts with the Israelis is especially encouraging,” Harris said, “because in the past, the Saudis had come to us without going to the Israelis.”

When contacted by the Forward, the Jewish participants in the meeting with Prince Faisal hailed the positive atmosphere of the encounter. But none of the organizations released statements, or made any other overt effort to publicize the meetings as they often do following high-level powwows with leaders of foreign countries.

Officials at several Jewish organizations said that no statements were issued because the meeting was not unusual and nothing substantive had come out of it. Still, they described a significant shift in Saudi attitudes.

“We see a flurry of activity by Saudi and Arab leaders to move the peace process forward,” Rosen said. “They believe it is time for a new approach, and they believe the American Jewish lobby can influence policy.”

The day before his meeting with Jewish officials, Faisal said that Arab countries had reached a “very significant” consensus after the recent war in Lebanon on the need for a new start in the Middle East peace process. He urged Palestinian leaders to settle on a united stance toward Israel and to clarify whether they accept the Arab League peace initiative, which offers Israel full normalization of relations with the Arab world in return for a withdrawal to the June 1967 line and a just and agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem on the basis of U.N. Resolution 194.

Olmert, whose unilateral withdrawal plan from the West Bank is on hold because of the Lebanese crisis and the growing chaos in Gaza, appears eager to resume more traditional diplomatic efforts. In addition to any efforts to reach out to the Saudis, he recently proposed a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, met Abbas in New York last week and said in her United Nations General Assembly address that the only way to solve the conflict was at the “bilateral negotiating table.”

In an interview with Yediot Aharonot in which he denied meeting with the Saudi king, Olmert said he was “impressed by the various steps and statements linked to Saudi Arabia, both those made in public and otherwise, and also by the wisdom and sense of responsibility of King Abdullah.”

Foxman said he brought the issue of Yediot with him to the meeting with Faisal and asked the Saudi foreign minister about it. “He said the meeting with the king was not true,” Foxman said. Foxman added that he would not be surprised if such high-level encounters were taking place and that in any case, the Saudis would not acknowledge them if they were.

Foxman said that he also asked the Saudi foreign minister if the king could publicly return Olmert’s praise. According to Foxman, Faisal agreed to mention the idea to Abdullah, although Harris of the AJCommittee added that the Saudi foreign minister stressed the need to plunge into the heart of the matter instead of focusing on what he described as superficial symbolic gestures.

Jewish communal officials have been meeting regularly with Saudi officials. Both Foxman and Harris met separately with Faisal and Turki in 2005 on the sidelines of the General Assembly, and Harris, Rosen and Foxman all have traveled to the kingdom in recent years. But while this year’s get-together did not lead to any significant breakthrough, the atmospherics were better than usual.

“Last year, it was a very tough and rigid meeting, where they blamed Israel for the stalemate and American Jews for not doing as much as they could to promote peace,” Foxman said. “Last week, the mood was friendlier; they stressed that both Israel and Arab states were in the same harm’s way.”

Last summer, shortly after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid that triggered the conflict, Saudi Arabia condemned the Lebanese Shi’ite militia’s “reckless adventurism.” Soon after, Foxman met with the Saudi ambassador in Washington to express his gratitude.

Jewish participants in last week’s meeting said that the Saudis, who subsequently had blasted Israel for causing mass civilian casualties, repeated their negative view of Hezbollah’s actions.

In addition to common concerns over Hezbollah and Iran, the discussion focused on the Saudi initiative. Foxman said that the Saudis see it as the most generous Arab peace offer but the Jewish side had suggested that rather than simply putting forth the plan as such, the kingdom enter a dialogue about it with Israel.

Harris added that Faisal had discussed the two “deal breakers” — refugees and borders — of the proposal. Faisal argued that several compromise solutions to the refugee solution had been floated in recent years and that they could serve as a basis for compromise. On the issue of the borders, Harris said that the Saudi minister acknowledged the difficulties.

“He showed us he was keenly aware about those two contentious issues,” Harris said, adding that the prince had not offered any concrete way to overcome them.

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