Israeli and Saudi ex-spy chiefs Amos Yadlin (left), Prince Turki al-Faisal (center) dialogue in Brussels, May 26. Moderator David Ignatius at right. / German Marshall Fund-YouTube screen grab
One of the most influential members of the Saudi royal family, former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal, sat down today with former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin for an unprecedented one-on-one public dialogue at a think tank in Belgium. Such direct, public contact between high-ranking Saudis and Israelis is virtually unknown.
It was a mostly amiable, hour-long conversation, marked by more agreement than disagreement as they discussed Iran, Syria, Islamic radicalism and the regional arms race (watch the full video below). On their main topic, Israeli-Arab peace efforts and the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (text), Turki offered what could be the most explicit public Saudi declaration to date of Saudi willingness to make peace and end the conflict, repeatedly insisting the Arab states have “crossed the Rubicon” and “don’t want to fight Israel anymore.”
The closest they came to acrimony was when Yadlin, noting that three-fourths of Israelis had never heard of the 2002 peace plan, asked the prince to come to Jerusalem and address the Knesset. Turki replied that it was the Israeli leadership’s job to “explain to their people what the Arab Peace Initiative is” and urged Israel to agree to enter discussions based on it. So here’s how the Israeli press led its coverage of the event:
“Saudi royal snubs invite to Jerusalem by Israeli ex-intel boss” (Jerusalem Post); “Saudi royal turns down ex-IDF intel chief’s invite to the Knesset” (Times of Israel); “Saudi prince declines invite to Jerusalem by Israeli ex-intel chief” (Haaretz). The Hebrew press had no mention of it.
Turki, the youngest son of the late King Faisal, was Saudi intelligence chief from 1977 to 2001. He later served as Saudi ambassador to London and then Washington. Yadlin, a retired major general, was chief of the IDF intelligence directorate from 2006 to 2010. He previously served as deputy commander of the Israeli air force, commander of the military staff colleges and Israeli military attache in Washington.
Both men currently head their respective countries’ main national security think tanks.
The dialogue was hosted by the Brussels-based German Marshall Fund and moderated by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.
Amos Yadlin-Turki al-Faisal dialogue, Brussels, May 26, Part 1:
Amos Yadlin-Turki al-Faisal dialogue, Brussels, May 26, Part 2:
Here are some excerpts:
With all due respect to the Israeli-Palestinian issue — and we all want to solve this problem — we do see in the Arab world, in the Middle East much bigger problems. And what we see in the Arab world in the past three years has nothing to do with the Palestinian issue. … We must go in a different paradigm. The paradigm of reaching a full comprehensive agreement is very difficult and unachievable as long as the two leaders in both countries cannot lead their people to do the necessary concessions needed. There are three very difficult concessions that each side should do. On the Israeli side, recognition of a two-state solution instead of bigger Israel; based on 1967 borders with swaps; and partition of Jerusalem. These are three very, very tough concessions that go against the history of our people, the beliefs of our people, the political position of the main parties and our historical narrative. The Palestinians have do do three tough concessions: Recognize that this is the end of conflict, and finality of claims; that the Palestinian refugees will return only to the Palestinian state, and they will have some limitations on their sovereignty for security. I don’t see the two leaders doing these concessions. And this is basically the tragedy of the peace process. So we have to look for a Plan B, for a different paradigm which will bring the sides closer, that will make the chances of having another bloodshed lower and will wait maybe for a different time. … We have no problem with the Saudi Peace Initiative. It was a very good initiative. The real problem was that the Saudi Peace Initiative became the Arab League diktat in 2002 in a summit in Beirut. What the Saudis published was modified to be a take-it-or-leave-it kind of offer with parameters that we cannot accept — mostly in the issue of returning the Golan Heights to the Syrians — and you may think how we would have felt today if what’s going on in Syria were in the Golan Heights — and the issue of the refugees. I do encourage the Saudis to go back to their original plan and to make it a basis for negotiation on the principles that I just described.
Let me go back with you to 1981-82, after Camp David had split the Arab world, with Egypt’s Sadat signing a peace agreement with Israel and the rest of the Arab world shunning Sadat. At that time none of the Arab countries including Saudi Arabia would even admit that there is such a thing called the State of Israel… King Fahd at that time, and the Arab League in an Arab summit in Morocco, made an eight-point proposal to the Arab world, beginning with the establishment of a Palestinian state. The last clause was that all states in the area would be recognized and guaranteed their safety and security. It was the first time that that the Arab world accepted Israel. It failed. Saddam in Iraq, Libya … refused to accept it. After the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 — Israel bringing down 19 Syrian aircraft seemed to have convinced at least Assad at that time that something must be done to end the conflict with Israel. So all the Arab states accepted the Fahd initiative. And nothing came from Israel. No response whatsoever. Total disregard. And unfortunately that was replicated in 2002 when King Abdullah made his proposal. … For him to get all the Arab states to agree, as I said, to recognize Israel, to normalize relations with Israel, to end hostilities with Israel, it had to be a proposal that all of them would agree to. And what are the difficulties — if the Israelis were willing to talk to us about them? Three issues: Jerusalem, borders and refugees. The Arab Peace Initiative was very clear on that. There are no shadows or gray areas in that way. The issue of borders — as I said, the Arabs have come to accept land swaps. Jerusalem has to be a capital for two states, Arab Jerusalem and Israeli Jerusalem. And the refugees — what the Arab Peace Initiative says is that a settlement of the refugee problem has to done through negotiations, through agreement. And this is not just based on whimsical demands or diktat, as the general was saying about the Arabs presenting a diktat — no. It was based on the talks that happened if you remember in Taba in early 2001 between Israel & the Palestinians. When the issue of refugees was talked about there was talk of an agreement with a certain number of refugees being accepted to go back to what used to be Palestine and now is Israel and the others would be compensated.
I want to look into the future and not into the history. We do respect very much the King Fahd initiative and King Abdullah’s initiative. The Israeli public is not aware of this initiative because of the timing in which it came on board. It came in the midst of a terror attack, many terror attacks which Arafat launched. And nobody is paying attention when terror is flooding your buses, your shopping malls. And even today I have a fresh poll of the Israeli population: 74% have no idea what is the Arab Peace Initiative. My suggestion is that his highness come to Jerusalem. He will pray in the mosques, and then a very short drive to the Knesset. He will speak to the lsraeli people and if Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu will support the Arab Peace Initiative then 65% of Israelis will go with it.
Would you consider this?
Absolutely not. And the general knows that. I think to be serious you have to negotiate with a good heart and with genuine commitment to achieving peace — not to use emotions as a means of influencing or attempting to divert attention on the important issue. The important issue here that we’re talking about is that the Arabs have put forward what the rest of the world agrees is a viable and very genuine and sincere proposal for a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli dispute. It is for the Israeli leadership to explain to their people what the Arab Peace Initiative is. They’ve read it. They’re better qualified to go to their people and say, Listen, this is a good proposal. Let’s take it up. Since the establishment of Israel in 1947 this is what Israelis have always told the rest of the world: If only the Arabs would agree to sit with us and talk about peace, this is what we want. The Arabs have crossed the rubicon. They don’t want to fight Israel any more. The Arabs are not crazy. Instead of waging war they are waging peace. Emotional issues like me going to Jerusalem and praying before the Israeli leaders go to their people and explain what the Arab Peace Initiative is — that’s putting the chicken before the egg.
President Sadat put the hen before the chicken, which changed totally the mood in Israel… I think it’s an issue of trust, and there is a lot of distrust, and when you see a leader of a very respected kingdom or republic that will come to bring the voice of peace to Israel it could bring the breakthrough that we all hope will happen.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).