Bush’s Silence on Saudi Antisemitism

By Gordon Goldstein

Published July 23, 2004, issue of July 23, 2004.
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The Bush administration’s current policy toward Saudi Arabia is both unprincipled and cowardly.

Speaking at the recent NATO summit in Istanbul, President Bush reiterated one of the central themes of his foreign policy agenda: the dual imperative of promoting democratic reform in the Middle East and ending Western support for regional dictators. Bush should be commended for the principle he espouses, which is long overdue.

Unfortunately, the president’s position is undermined by Washington’s own policy toward Saudi Arabia, where the United States continues to coddle a repressive — and pervasively antisemitic — regime.

If Bush truly wants to advance his important new initiative, he should begin by clearly repudiating the hateful statements recently made by the Saudi government, purportedly a close American ally.

Venomous Saudi statements have followed an escalating number of terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia during the last year, most recently claiming the lives of 22 foreigners during a rampage at a housing complex in Khobar. Tensions in the country have grown so intense that some experts now depict the situation there as verging on civil war.

Most observers acknowledge that Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, himself a Saudi, are the culprits behind the terrorist strikes. Key figures in the Saudi leadership, however, have remarkably tried to blame the attacks on unidentified Jewish forces. Following last month’s terrorist attack in Yanbu, Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto Saudi ruler, told local television that “Zionism is behind terrorist actions in the kingdom.… This has been established, I am not saying by 100%, but by 95%.”

A few days later, his comments were echoed by the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, who claimed: “Extremist Zionist elements are… disseminating lies and incitement against the Saudi government.… The terror operations taking place today serve the interests of the extremist Zionist elements.” Two weeks ago, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to Britain, remarked: “Specifically since September 11, the kingdom has been a center for concentrated merciless attacks by the Zionists.”

The latest assertion of a Jewish terrorist conspiracy is an elaboration on allegations made as early as December 2002 by Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef, the second most powerful official in the kingdom, a likely successor to Abdullah and the kingdom’s chief anti-terrorism official. He has claimed that Zionists played a major role in the September 11 terrorist attacks. More recently, Nayef claimed that “Al Qaeda is backed by Israel and Zionism.”

In the past, antisemitic statements were dismissed as empty rhetoric from extremist elements of the Saudi regime. But as Saudi officials in Washington and London reaffirm the alleged Al Qaeda-Zionist connection, these latest comments increasingly appear to be in line with official Saudi policy.

As outrageous as the Saudi accusations are, the response by the Bush administration has been pusillanimous: It has done absolutely nothing. In fact, at a joint press conference at the Saudi embassy in Washington on June 2, senior administration officials remained silent as a Saudi spokesman reiterated his government’s slanderous claims about a Jewish terrorism conspiracy. Rather than denounce the Saudi allegations, the administration official stood by mutely and then said only that “whoever is responsible for the terrorist attacks we want to go after seriously.”

The administration’s silence amounts to tacit acceptance of state-sponsored Saudi antisemitism. The danger is that the flaccid acquiescence to Saudi hate speech doesn’t just affect Jews; it also undermines the broader American war on terrorism. As a recent Council on Foreign Relations report concludes: “[Such] statements compromise the moral clarity of Saudi actions and the overall effort to change the mindset that foments extremism.”

If the administration is serious about reshaping the Middle East and winning the war on terrorism, it cannot continue to stand by meekly while its allies spin outlandish conspiracy theories. The president must make clear that he will no longer tolerate the export of virulent antisemitism, which fuels extremism that endangers us all.

If the United States does not act to stanch the flow of such state-sponsored hatred, new generations of young Arab men will grow up despising America, Israel and Jews — rather than the real terrorists who threaten global security. Standing up to the Saudis will require leadership, and the courage of American conviction. So far, unfortunately, the administration has displayed neither.

Gordon Goldstein, a managing director at the strategic consulting firm Clark & Weinstock, is a member of the Foreign Policy Leadership Council, a group dedicated to a new American foreign policy.

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