Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - The officials of the Saudi information ministry who waited for us in the royal terminal of the international airport in Riyadh had but one duty: to see to it that we received as quickly and easily as possible our entry visas for the summit of the Arab League, which was due to open in a gala ceremony the next day. We were a group of 10 journalists, representing media outlets all over the world. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had picked us up in his plane in the Middle East, en route to Riyadh, for a journey he labeled “a mission for peace.” It was with this goal that he had chosen the journalists he invited to accompany him: representatives of Arab media as well as this writer, representing an Israeli newspaper. This was Ban’s first trip to the Middle East as U.N. secretary general, and he has promised to devote a considerable portion of his time to advancing peace between Israel and the Arab world.
We made our way downtown from the airport in an elegant limousine. We were three journalists in the rear seat; to my right sat a popular broadcaster from an Arab network, and to my left sat a senior journalist who writes for an Egyptian newspaper chain and who has enormous expertise. Khaled, the man from the information ministry, sat beside the driver, a kaffiyeh on his head and a cell phone in his hand that never stopped ringing. Along the highway were huge signs announcing the opening of the Arab League summit. Saudi Arabia had planned for the event in its own inimitable manner. It opened a high-tech communications center to permit the thousands of journalists covering the event to work in comfort. And although downtown Riyadh has several first-class convention centers, the royal family decided to host the meetings of the Arab League in the king’s own palace — a magnificent structure decorated with crystal chandeliers — where meals are served on plates of solid gold, like the gold of the bathroom fixtures.
For Saudi Arabia, this was a golden opportunity to display the scope of its power — and beyond that, to establish a new reality in the Middle East. From now on, Riyadh intends to lead rather than follow, to act as a mediator, to set the tone.
Saudi Arabia was able to bring about the Mecca agreement, which led to the formation of the Palestinian unity government, something that Egypt had failed to achieve after lengthy efforts. In the hours before the Arab League summit, Saudi King Abdullah hosted a succession of world leaders for lengthy discussions. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir came before him to discuss the atrocities in the Darfur region and how to achieve calm. Lebanese President Emil Lahoud sought to lay out his country’s troubles before the Saudi king. Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, asked the king to involve him in the Saudi peace initiative that had been approved by the Arab League. Assad asked not to be left out; he wants Syrian representatives to be involved in future discussions so that they can talk about the return of the Golan Heights to Syria.
The drive from the airport to the communications center turned out to be a long one, and Khaled, freeing himself from his telephone, turned around to face the rear seat. He was, he told us, quite angry with The New York Times. The reporter on my right asked why. Khaled said the Times had reported that an Israeli journalist wanted to come to Riyadh but could not obtain a visa. The journalist burst out laughing and said that the Israeli had indeed received a visa. Khaled, looking puzzled, asked when she was due to arrive. “She’s already here,” the journalist said. “She’s sitting in your car.” If there hadn’t been an armrest on his seat, Khaled would have fallen out at that moment. He looked stunned. After a long silence, he looked at me and said: “Salaam aleykum, welcome. Don’t worry about anything. You are our guest, and I am personally responsible for your safety.”
The decision of the Saudi royal house to grant me a visa had not been a simple one. At first, the Saudi mission in New York refused to issue me the visa needed by journalists accompanying the U.N. chief. When Ban reached Jerusalem, he telephoned the Saudi foreign minister and told him that if the Saudis were so eager to be peacemakers, they should demonstrate some good will and allow an Israeli journalist to attend their meeting. Ban, a firm believer in freedom of the press and in allowing any journalist to do his job, regardless of origin or citizenship, would not give in. For 15 minutes he debated with the Saudi minister and pressed him to make a brave decision.
The Saudi foreign minister picked up the challenge. The next day, a green light came from Riyadh: I was invited to the kingdom.
The two days of the Arab League summit were mainly a show of force by the Saudis, who intend to take on the role of leading power in the Middle East, a nation that can unite the moderate Arab world in the face of growing Iranian strength — and in the face of the West. The Saudis managed four years ago to win Arab League approval for the Saudi peace initiative, which offers Israel sweeping recognition by the Arab world, including full diplomatic relations with all Arab states, in return for an end to the occupation and a withdrawal to the 1967 borders. The Riyadh summit reauthorized the initiative, which has become Arab League policy. Two days earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had declared that the Saudi initiative is a “very positive contribution.” At a press conference in Jerusalem with the U.N. secretary general, Olmert lavished praise on the Saudi king for his “leadership quality and responsibility.” Ban brought the Saudi king a message from Olmert that Israel would be ready to discuss the Saudi initiative but could not accept the paragraph about the Palestinian right of return.
A dramatic change has occurred in the Arab world’s relationship to Israel over the past 40 years. In 1967, an Arab League summit in Khartoum adopted its famous “three no’s”: No peace, no negotiations, no recognition of Israel. Now the Arab League is extending a hand to Israel. The Saudi king, opening the Riyadh summit, declared that the time had come for the Arab states to stop speaking and start acting. In the coming days, the Saudis are expected to announce plans to convene a meeting in Riyadh of what are now two Middle East Quartets. The better-known Western Quartet comprises the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia. Its new partner will be a quartet of moderate Arab states — Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and the Saudis themselves. The Saudis intend to invite Israeli and Palestinian representatives to this meeting. To prepare the groundwork, the Saudis have proposed establishing joint committees of the two quartets to examine possible points of agreement in the various paragraphs of the Saudi initiative.
Olmert has indicated that he will respond favorably to such an invitation and will be ready to speak with Arab leaders. But, of course, that’s not good enough. Olmert is being told to announce first that he accepts the Saudi peace initiative. Indeed, the secretary general of the Arab League, Amre Moussa, has declared that until Israel announces its intention to accept the initiative, there will be no meetings. But Olmert, who is seen as a weak prime minister and as lacking a firm political base, will have a hard time saying “yes” to the Arab initiative as is — especially now, when the Israeli public is awaiting the findings of the Winograd Commission on the conduct of last summer’s Lebanon war. Those findings are expected to include personal conclusions about Olmert’s fitness to continue serving as prime minister.
The Saudi-Arab League initiative is widely seen as the only operable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At this moment, however, Israel can’t say “yes.” And so, despite the good will on all sides, it’s expected to raise little more than clouds of dust and to be recorded in the annals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as another lost opportunity for peace. That is, unless Olmert manages to survive the Winograd Commission and begins rebuilding the public confidence he’s lost.
Orly Azoulay is the Washington bureau chief of Yediot Aharonot.