Can The Saudis Broker A Lasting Peace In The Middle East?
“We will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem,” presidential candidate Donald Trump promised at the AIPAC conference in March, 2016, and he was rewarded with standing ovation. After being elected president, though, he became ambivalent and evasive about the policy change. During his recent visit to Israel, where he could have announced the move in his grandiose way, instead he was mute.
Soon, however, President Trump will be forced to show where he really stands on this sensitive issue, because on June 1 he must decide whether or not he signs a waver overriding a 1995 law ordering the moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem.
Speaking at a recent event in the Capitol marking the 50th anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Arizona) predicted that “when it comes time to sign the waiver…the President can’t find his pen.”
But Trump — like all presidents before him — will sign the waver, tweeting an excuse to explain why this was necessary.
Why must Trump retract his campaign promise? The obvious reason is that King Abdullah of Jordan, on his visit to Washington in late January, warned him that such a move will surely spark an eruption of violence; Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas issued similar warnings. Also, Trump wouldn’t want to pull the rug from under the feet of Jason Greenblatt, his own special envoy, who is now working to prepare for a breakthrough in the stalled peace process.
If Trump needed any further explanation why moving the embassy now was a bad idea, his short trip to Riyadh hammered home the message. His host King Salman, who is titled “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” (in Mecca and Medina) doesn’t want a third mosque, in Jerusalem, to overshadow his Sunni predominance in the Muslim world, which is challenged by Shiite Iran.
Since when does Saudi Arabia have veto power over Israel and Palestine? Since February 14, 1945, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt met in the Suez Canal with the founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud, aboard the USS Quincy, following the Yalta Summit.
Marine Colonel William Eddy, who served as interpreter, later revealed in his book, “FDR Meets Ibn Saud,” that it was love at first sight, so much so that out of courtesy for the King’s Wahhabi principles, the President, a chain smoker, refrained from lighting up during his meeting with the King.
Differences arose, however, when President Roosevelt, obviously feeling remorse over not doing enough to save the Jews of Europe, conveyed to Ibn Saud the yearning of the Jews who had survived the Holocaust to return to their ancient homeland. Ibn Saud’s reply was prompt and laconic: “Give them and their descendants the choicest lands and homes of the Germans who had oppressed them.” When FDR replied that this wasn’t so simple, Ibn Saud taught him the basic Bedouin rule: Why wage a war if you can’t do with the vanquished whatever you want?
Upon returning home, FDR told Congress, according to The New York Times, that “I learned more [about Palestine and the Near East] by talking with Ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in an exchange of two or three dozen letters.”
Then, on April 5, 1945, just a week before he died, FDR sent Ibn Saud a letter: “Your Majesty will recall that on previous occasions I communicated to you the attitude of the American Government toward Palestine and made clear our desire that no decision be taken with respect to the basic situation in that country without full consultation with both Arabs and Jews. Your Majesty will also doubtless recall that during our recent conversation I assured you that I would take no action…which might prove hostile to the Arab people.”
That, in a nutshell, is the whole Torah of the American policy in the Middle East: Special relations with the Jews, consultations with all sides regarding Palestine, and not harming the interests of the Arabs. FDR saw the light at his meeting with the Saudi ruler, which, by the way, occurred even before Saudi Arabia started to pump its huge oil reserves and use them as political weapon (Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a former President of Exxon Mobil, knows more about it than anyone else). And this special relationship trickles from FDR and Ibn Saud all the way down to Trump and King Salman, who, by the way, is one of the 68 children Ibn Saud has fathered (or more, but who’s counting).
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an avid reader of history, surely understands the delicate balance of power in the region. Working together with Trump to bolster the Sunni alliance against Iran, he therefore had to swallow the 110-billion-dollars Saudi arms deal, allowing the emergence of an unprecedented, advanced military power on Israel’s southern border.
Remember the fierce fight over the sale of five AWACS aircraft to the Saudis in the 1980s? A commentator in Arutz Sheva (the settlers’ channel), wrote last March that “there were two Reagans. One offered lofty rhetoric of the unbreakable friendship between Israel and the United States…But then there was the Reagan who…caused the United States to sell highly sophisticated AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia in the face of bitter Israeli and Congressional opposition.”
That commentator, David Friedman, just stood on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport and, as Ambassador to Israel, greeted his President who had just signed an arms deal that dwarfed the AWACS sale in comparison. And next to him stood the smiling Benjamin Netanyahu, who had hushed the reservations of the Israeli military.
In 2002, the Saudis initiated a comprehensive peace plan, which was later adopted by the Arab League. Recently, they signaled in many ways their intention to normalize relations with Israel once the conflict with the Palestinians is resolved. What a far cry from Ibn Saud’s suggestion to FDR that Jews had no place in Palestine.
For the last 15 years, Israel has ignored this initiative, partly because it contains elements like the right of return of Palestinian refugees, which is unacceptable. However, if Netanyahu, for once, ignores his right-wing nay-sayers and uses the Saudi initiative to resume talks with the Palestinians, then it will be a win-win situation, the perfect setting for the ultimate deal-maker, Donald Trump.
Col. Uri Dromi, IAF (Ret.), was the spokesman of the Rabin and Peres governments, 1992-96. He currently serves as director general of the Jerusalem Press Club.