Dr. Bahgat is director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies in the Department of Political Science at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
In late 2006, Jordan’s King Abdullah warned against three potential civil wars that are likely to further destabilize and polarize the Middle East. He was referring to the sectarian strife between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, the political unrest in Lebanon caused by disagreement between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government, and the violence between Hamas and Fatah in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The outcomes of these conflicts are highly uncertain, but together they underscore the political and military upheavals that characterize the Middle East.
In these three arenas, Iran has emerged as a relative winner. Iraqi Shiites with close religious and political ties to Tehran are in power, replacing the Sunni domination that had lasted for decades. The outcome of the 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 was inconclusive. Unlike traditional Arab armies, Hezbollah fighters were able to seriously challenge the mighty Israeli Defense Forces. This military performance has enabled the Party of God’s leadership to claim political victory. In the aftermath of the war, Hezbollah’s popularity, and that of Iran (the organization’s main backer), has substantially increased among Arab masses. Finally, Hamas, which, like Iran, does not recognize Israel, controls the Gaza Strip and challenges the diplomatic approach adopted by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and supported by moderate Sunni Arab states, particularly Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Against this background, Saudi leaders have assumed an assertive role. Since late 2006, the Saudi government has emerged as a key player in efforts to end the stalemates in the three arenas. Saudi diplomats have participated in negotiations to bring peace to Iraq and to reach a compromise between the Lebanese rivals. Saudi efforts to end fighting between Palestinian factions and to broker a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement have occupied a central stage in Middle East policy.
The kingdom’s massive oil wealth and its role as the guardian of Islam’s holiest sites and de facto leader of the world’s Sunni community put it in a unique leadership position. Accordingly, the Saudi Peace Initiative (SPI) is increasingly seen as the basis for Arab-Israeli negotiations. The SPI has been unanimously endorsed by Arab states, supported by the United States, and recently reconsidered by Israel. Recognizing Saudi religious and economic leverage, an editorial in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz stated, “Only Saudi Arabia can grant Israel regional recognition and legitimacy, in exchange for its withdrawal from the territories.”1
SAUDI ARABIA AND THE CONFLICT
The Saudis, like the majority of Arabs, resented the creation of a Jewish state at the heart of the Arab world. Unlike other Arab states such as Egypt, Syria and Jordan, Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict was slow; it involved more diplomatic and financial methods than military ones. Despite the kingdom’s animosity toward Israel, Saudi leaders were more concerned about Soviet penetration of the Middle East and its alliance with Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad than with the threat posed by Zionism. For most of the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviet presence was seen as a national-security issue in which the survival of the regime was at stake, while Zionism was viewed as a foreign-policy concern, albeit a significant one. Indeed, during this period, Riyadh was accused of helping Israel indirectly by allying itself with the United States, the major supporter of the Jewish state. The kingdom sent token military units to Jordan in the 1948 war, but they were not involved in hostilities. In the 1956 war, Saudi Arabia lost two small unpopulated islands to Israel. These two islands at the entrance of the Straits of Tiran — Sanafir and Tiran — had been lent to Egypt in the context of the Arab Collective Security Pact.2 Saudi Arabia quietly recovered them following the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979.
The 1967 war was a turning point in Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Arab Israeli conflict. The kingdom has since resumed a leading role in designing Arab strategy toward Israel. Two major developments explain this drastic change. First, as part of the stunning Arab defeat, Israel captured the eastern part of Jerusalem, united the entire city under Israeli sovereignty and pronounced it its eternal capital. Al-Aqsa Mosque was no longer under Muslim/Arab control. The kingdom, the birthplace of Islam, could not afford to be indifferent to this new situation. King Faisal, then in power, had prayed at Al-Aqsa several years earlier and expressed his strong desire to revisit the holy site when Muslim sovereignty was restored.His wish was never fulfilled.
The second important outcome of the 1967 war was the defeat of radical Arab nationalism led by President Gamal Abdi al-Nasser of Egypt. Before the war, the Arab world was sharply divided into two camps: pro-Western conservative regimes and radical socialist-nationalist states. This Arab cold war reached its peak in the proxy war between the Egyptian and Saudi armies in Yemen. Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war ended its involvement in the Yemen conflict. Cairo became more concerned about liberating the territories it lost to Israel than supporting Arab revolutionary movements. Equally important, the disastrous military defeat and the loss of Suez Canal revenues dealt a heavy blow to the Egyptian economy. Egypt became increasingly dependent on foreign aid and labor remittances from Arab oil-producing countries.
The Khartoum Conference, convened in September 1967, was the first Arab summit to be held after the June 1967 war. The meeting demonstrated the growing role of Saudi Arabia in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Two resolutions adopted by the participant heads of states deserve special attention. First, the Arab leaders agreed to unite their political efforts on the international and diplomatic levels to eliminate the effects of the war and to ensure the withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied Arab lands. Second, King Faisal took the initiative to offer substantial financial assistance to the “frontline” states (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians). The king persuaded Kuwait and Libya to join in that effort. The goal was to compensate frontline states for their losses of land and revenue resulting from the war.
These resolutions underscored some of the constants of Saudi Arabia’s stand on the Arab-Israeli conflict. First, the kingdom would not recognize the state of Israel as long as the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem were under Israeli control. Second, despite its strong rejection of any negotiation with Israel, diplomatic and political efforts were not ruled out. Meanwhile, military force was not seen as the exclusive method for liberating the occupied Arab territories.
Third, the Saudi role was mainly, if not exclusively, to provide financial support to the frontline states and the Palestinians. These financial resources have been used to strengthen moderation and pro-Western Arab regimes and to weaken extremist and radical Palestinian groups and Arab states. Fourth, a direct Saudi role in the military confrontation with Israel was not considered. The kingdom has never been a frontline state; it has never had direct military confrontation with Israel.
In the early 1970s, Saudi Arabia increasingly placed its weight behind improving Egyptian and Syrian military capabilities. An Egyptian-Syrian-Saudi triangle was forged through which the three countries consulted periodically on strategic and military issues. The coordination between Saudi financial muscle and Egyptian and Syrian military forces produced one of the most successful military campaigns that the Arabs have ever launched against Israel. In addition, the kingdom led other Arab oil producers in imposing an oil embargo on the United States and other countries for their support to Israel.
SAUDI PEACE INITIATIVES
Frustrated by the fruitless efforts to reach a comprehensive peace, Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat visited Israel in 1977, and two years later Egypt became the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel. This Egyptian move was largely seen in the Arab world as a separate peace and was strongly condemned by almost all Arab states.3 Algeria, Iraq, Libya, Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) led the opposition to Sadat’s policy and called for Egypt’s isolation. Confronted with this sharp polarization of the Arab world and concerned over rising radicalization, Saudi leaders decided to offer their own vision of a comprehensive peace. It was largely seen as an alternative to Sadat’s unilateral approach.
The Fahd Peace Plan: In addition to Riyadh’s own desire to overcome the deep division in the Arab world, several other developments encouraged the Saudis to formulate and pursue their vision of a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. First, Egyptian-Israeli negotiations regarding Palestinian national rights reached a deadlock. Egyptian negotiators could not succeed in getting their Israeli counterparts to agree on any concrete steps to grant the Palestinians what most Arabs saw as legitimate rights. Second, President Carter lost the election to Ronald Reagan. The two American presidents had different styles and interests in negotiating an Arab-Israeli peace agreement. Third, on October 6, 1981, Sadat was assassinated by Muslim fanatics in the midst of a parade celebrating the anniversary of the war with Israel. Sadat was assassinated partly because of the failure of his domestic policy and partly because of the foreign policy strategy he pursued. This violent removal of the architect of the Egyptian peace process raised strong doubts about the validity of the strategy and technique Sadat had chosen to make peace with Israel. It showed that the Arab masses, including the Egyptians, strongly rejected a unilateral approach to the Arab-Israeli peace process. The obvious alternative was a proposal that would outline a framework for a comprehensive peace between all the Arabs and Israel. This was the thrust of the Saudi proposal known as the Fahd Plan.
The Fahd Plan consisted of eight points for a “just peace,” as the Saudis saw it. It called for Israel to withdraw from all Arab territory occupied in the 1967 war and to dismantle settlements. It also demanded the creation of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital and a guarantee of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes or be compensated. The most striking part of the plan was an implicit recognition of Israel: it confirmed that all states in the region have the right to live in peace. This was a fundamental departure from traditional Saudi policy. Equally important, the plan marked Saudi Arabia’s first public attempt to play an active role in resolving the Arab Israeli conflict.
Reaction to the plan varied. The Reagan administration described the proposal as a positive step. Israeli leaders acknowledged that the Saudi readiness to recognize Israel should be viewed as a positive development. Still, Tel Aviv summarily rejected the proposal. The establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, an Israeli withdrawal from all Arab territories occupied in the 1967 war, and the right of return to millions of Palestinian refugees were conditions that Israeli leaders could not swallow.
The Arab response to the Fahd Plan was not monolithic. Naturally, the Egyptians saw the proposal as an alternative to their own course and showed no enthusiasm for it. Given the long history of secret negotiations with the Israelis, a close alliance with the United States, and shared domestic and foreign policy orientations with conservative Arab regimes, King Hussein of Jordan was the strongest supporter of the Saudi initiative. The PLO response was mixed. The Palestinians were reluctant to accept the idea of recognizing and making peace with Israel. The Fahd Plan, however, provided the potential to become a full-fledged Arab peace initiative. The staunchest opposition came from Syria, which officially maintained that a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict under existing conditions of Arab weakness would not lead to peace but simply constitute an Arab surrender.
Given these opposing reactions, the Arabs failed to endorse the Fahd Plan at their summit in Fez, Morocco, in November 1981. Less than a year later (September 1982) at the reconvened Arab summit, the Saudi proposal was accepted as a set of principles that constituted the Arab framework for peace with Israel. Despite this Arab endorsement, the plan went nowhere. Instead of focusing on searching for a peaceful settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the whole region was preoccupied with the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and then the Gulf War (1990-91). Two decades after Crown Prince Fahd introduced his vision for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, his brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, presented a similar plan to pursue the same goal.
The Abdullah Plan: At least two developments in the early years of the new century provided the Saudis with strong incentives to resume an active role in the Arab-Israeli conflict and present another peace proposal. First, violence between the Palestinians and Israelis had substantially escalated following the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa intifada, which began in September 2000 with the visit of Israeli leader Ariel Sharon to a Muslim holy site in Jerusalem. The growing number of victims created a sense of despair on both sides. Second, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States dealt a heavy blow to American-Saudi relations. Osama bin Laden was a Saudi citizen, and 15 of the 19 hijackers held Saudi passports. Thus, the Saudi image was badly tarnished, and many influential members inside and outside the American administration called for a reassessment and reexamination of the close relations between Washington and Riyadh. Feeling the pressure, Saudi leaders thought a conciliatory gesture toward Israel could defuse the tension and improve their country’s image.
Within this context, Crown Prince Abdullah formulated his proposal for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. After a long consultation with Egypt and Jordan, it was decided that Riyadh should take the initiative. In an interview published in The New York Times in February 2002, the crown prince talked about the need for a bold step to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. A few weeks later, the Saudi plan was debated and endorsed by the other Arab leaders in their fourteenth summit, held in Beirut in March 2002. The Abdullah Plan was similar to the Fahd Plan in calling for a complete Israeli withdrawal from Arab territories occupied since the 1967 war, including full withdrawal from the Syrian Golan Heights and the remaining occupied parts of southern Lebanon; the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with Jerusalem as its capital; and confirmation of the Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their land in Israel. In return, the Abdullah Plan went one step further than the Fahd Plan. Instead of a mere recognition of the existence of the Jewish state in the Middle East, the new plan offered Israel full peace, including political, economic and cultural normalization.4
The Abdullah Plan received a mixed response from the concerned parties. The Arab reaction was largely positive. The Palestinians supported the proposal. Qatar, Oman, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia already had had some level of relations with Israel. Egypt and Jordan had a clear interest in the initiative, since it served to validate the agreements they had reached earlier with Israel and for which they had been excoriated by many Arabs. Syria and Iraq did not reject the plan, and Lebanon voiced its demand that the more than 300,000 Palestinians living in refugee camps there should move to Israel once an agreement was signed. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi rejected the plan.
The United States was slow to accept the plan. The Bush administration’s caution appeared to derive in part from its determination not to end up where former president Bill Clinton had, with high hopes for peace turning abruptly into a wave of violence. Moreover, there was a widespread presumption that the administration wanted to keep the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the backburner while it weighed its options for ousting Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. After some hesitation, Washington decided that the Saudi plan had the potential to end the violence and, accordingly, praised Crown Prince Abdullah and urged other leaders to build on his initiative to address the cause of peace in the Middle East.
Finally, the Israelis tried not to be outmaneuvered by the Saudis. Israeli President Moshe Katzav, whose role is largely ceremonial, offered to travel to Riyadh or, alternatively, to receive Crown Prince Abdullah in Jerusalem in order to hear the details of his proposal firsthand. Similarly, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was skeptical about the Saudi proposal. Sharon announced that he was not going to disregard the Saudi plan completely, even though he did not attach a lot of credence to it. Sharon expressed his desire to go to the Arab summit in Beirut to explain the Israeli position. Finally, Israeli officials noted that no formal proposal had been made, complaining that the Saudis had gone to the press instead of contacting Israel directly through established diplomatic channels.
With regard to the substance of the Saudi plan, the Israeli government viewed the Arab call for the return of refugees, the division of Jerusalem, and an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders as a nonstarter. An official statement issued by the Israeli government declared that, “A decision calling for a complete withdrawal to the 1967 lines makes negotiation superfluous. Withdrawal to the 1967 borders is an absolute blow to Israel’s security.”5 Given these fundamental differences between the Israeli and Arab visions for peace, the Abdullah Plan, like the Fahd Plan two decades earlier, was gradually shelved.
RE-EMERGENCE OF THE INITIATIVE
Unlike Egypt, Jordan, Oman and Qatar, Saudi Arabia has been cold toward the Jewish state. Saudi officials have often refused to meet their Israeli counterparts, at least in public. Despite this lack of public and official contact between Riyadh and Tel Aviv, a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Secretary General of the Saudi Arabian National Security Council and former Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was reported by the Israeli media in September 2006. The Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported that the two leaders met in Amman to discuss rising instability in the Middle East.6 Saudi officials denied that such a meeting had taken place, and Israeli officials refused to confirm that it did.
In an Arab summit in Riyadh in late March 2007, Arab leaders unanimously reapproved the Saudi Peace Initiative.7 The EU foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, attending the summit to underscore Brussels’ support to the SPI, called on the Arabs and Israel to deal with the plan as a starting point in negotiations rather than a take-it-or-leave-it proposal.8 In a follow-up meeting in April, Arab foreign ministers set up a working group consisting of ministers from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Syria to present the SPI to other countries and institutions.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials started expressing endorsement of overall Saudi regional policy and of the SPI as a framework for Arab-Israeli negotiations. Prime Minister Olmert said, “I am very impressed with the various acts and statements connected with Saudi Arabia. I am very impressed with King Abdullah’s insight and sense of responsibility.”9 Defense Minister Amir Peretz stated that the SPI must be “used as a basis for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.”10 At the same time, both liberal and conservative Israeli analysts have urged the government to explore the opportunity for a comprehensive peace based on the SPI. An Israeli analyst wrote, “It is the duty of the government of Israel not to reject the hand that is being offered by Saudi Arabia.”11 Another argued that, for the first time in the history of the Middle East, “the possibility for genuine comprehensive peace is much more real than fantasy. The opportunity is placed at our doorstep. If we miss it, we will have no one to blame for the next war than ourselves.”12
The roots of this rare Israeli praise of Saudi policy can be found in the common perception in Riyadh and Tel Aviv of the rising Iranian threat. The hostility between the Islamic Republic and the Jewish state and the rivalry between the former and Saudi Arabia have provided common ground for Israel and the kingdom. As Likud leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggests, “The fear that many Arab regimes felt for Iran created a strategic opportunity for Israel.”13 Since the 1979 revolution, secret cooperation between Tehran and Tel Aviv under the Pahlavi regime has turned into open animosity. The two sides see each other as sworn enemies. On the other hand, Iran’s rising influence in Iraq, Lebanon and with Hamas since the early 2000s has posed both regional and domestic challenges to Saudi Arabia.
Many analysts have extensively examined the threats from Iran’s nuclear ambitions and missile programs. A thorough analysis of the Islamic Republic’s “soft power” is equally important. It is hard to accurately assess the influence Tehran has on the Shiite communities in neighboring Arab states, particularly in the Persian Gulf. In recent years, the Jordanian king warned against the rise of a “Shiite Crescent,” and the Egyptian president questioned the loyalty of the Arab Shiites to their own governments. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia asserted that the attempt to convert Sunnis to Shiism will fail. Since serving as crown prince, Abdullah has taken many initiatives to improve the socioeconomic and political conditions of the Saudi Shiite community. The Shiites have been allowed to build mosques and publicly celebrate religious festivals such as Ashoura.14 The deepening regional sectarian strife is threatening these recent gains and harmony within the kingdom.
Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (HAMAS) was created in late 1987 as an outgrowth of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The organization was strongly supported by Saudi Arabia to counter the nationalist and leftist Palestinian organizations, including the PLO.
According to the U.S. government, Hamas “receives some funding from Iran but primarily relies on donations from Palestinian expatriates and private benefactors in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.”15 Hamas is designated as a terrorist organization by both the United States and the European Union. In 2006, Hamas won the majority in the Palestinian elections and formed the government. In response, both Washington and Brussels suspended most of the direct financial aid they provided to the Palestinian government. Concerned about accusations that it was supporting a terrorist organization, the Saudi government cut off its aid. These financial sanctions have brought Hamas and Iran closer.
Tehran provided badly needed aid to the Palestinians. In December 2006, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya visited Iran and stated that the Islamic Republic “constitutes strategic depth for the Palestinians.”16 Concerned about this connection between Hamas and Iran and the continuing in-fighting between Hamas and Fatah, King Abdullah brought Prime Minister Haniya and President Abbas to a summit in Mecca and brokered a power-sharing pact. The king also promised $1 billion in aid to the Palestinians.17
In July 2006, Hezbollah fighters kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, and in response Israel launched a broad military operation against the Lebanese organization. The fighting lasted for 34 days and brought the entire region to the brink of war. Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab states found themselves in a difficult position, torn between supporting fellow Arabs and trying to prevent further escalation of the crisis. Against this background, the Saudi government issued a statement shortly after the war started blaming Hezbollah for attacking Israel. It said, “Some elements and groups have got loose and slipped into taking decisions on their own that Israel has exploited to wage a ferocious war against Lebanon and to imprison the entire Palestinian people.”18 The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, warned, “These acts will pull the whole region back to years ago, and we cannot simply accept them.”19 This rare criticism of fellow Arabs fighting Israel reflected the mounting Saudi concern over the growing influence of Iran and the Shiites in the region. The Israeli prime minister praised the Saudi stand on the war as “showing responsibility and judgment.”20 The high civilian death toll, widespread destruction in Lebanon and strong popular support for Hezbollah prompted a change in the Saudi stand from harshly criticizing the Party of God to condemning Israel.
Saudi Arabia pledged $1.5 billion to support Lebanon’s economy and fund rebuilding efforts.21 The third and probably the most serious regional challenge Saudi Arabia faces is the rising sectarian strife in Iraq. As much as the Saudis disagreed with Saddam Hussein, they opposed using American military power to remove him. In February 2003, a month before the U.S. led invasion of Iraq, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal warned President Bush that he would be “solving one problem and creating five more” if he removed Saddam Hussein by force.22
Following the invasion and the establishment of a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, Saudi leaders have expressed deep concern about the fate of the Iraqi Sunnis. This is a fundamental difference between Washington and Riyadh. The Bush administration has been asking pro-Western Sunni governments in the region to step up their own engagement in Iraq by giving greater support to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and by pressing Iraq’s Sunni leaders to end support for the insurgency. Under heavy American lobbying, Saudi Arabia agreed to forgive 80 percent of the more than $15 billion that Iraq owes the kingdom.23 On the other hand, most of these pro-Western Sunni governments, particularly Saudi Arabia, believe the right approach for containing the sectarian strife is to empower the Iraqi Sunnis. Furthermore, the Saudi leadership concluded that al-Maliki is “too tied to Iran and pro-Iranian Shiite parties to bring about real reconciliation with Iraq’s Sunnis.”24
Based on this perception, prominent Islamic clerics from Saudi Arabia have repeatedly called on Sunni Muslims around the Middle East to support their brethren in Iraq against Shiites and praised the insurgency.25 The Iraq Study Group confirmed this link between Saudi private money and the insurgents: “Funding for the Sunni insurgency comes from private individuals in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.”26 In addition to private funding, Saudi leaders have warned the Bush administration of a massive Saudi backing of the Iraqi Sunnis in case of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
According to a former adviser to the Saudi government, “If the United States withdraws from Iraq, one of the first consequences will be massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis.”27 To sum up, Saudi leaders are deeply worried about the fundamental changes in the Middle East strategic landscape. The rise of Hamas and Hezbollah and the sectarian strife in Iraq have empowered Iran and the Shiites all over the Middle East. In order to contain this perceived threat, Saudi Arabia has pursued different options including a combination of economic pressure and dialogue with Iran, in addition to reactivating its plan for a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In light of regional conflict and high oil prices, the Saudi leadership has issued a directive to increase oil production so as to mitigate the effects of major potential supply disruptions from four key exporters: Iran, Venezuela, Nigeria and Iraq. Before the end of 2007, Saudi Arabia is expected to have enough spare capacity to offset all Iranian exports and, by 2009-10, be able to satisfy global demand during a potential disruption from Iran and one of the three other major OPEC exporters (Venezuela, Nigeria or Iraq).28
In parallel with this threat of economic pressure, Saudi Arabia has established a dialogue with top Iranian officials. In March 2007, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Saudi Arabia and held talks with King Abdullah. The goal was to consult on easing tension among Palestinian factions and between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government and to contain the violence in Iraq. The meeting, however, yielded little, if any, substance.29 Meanwhile, senior officials from Saudi Arabia (notably Prince Bandar Bin Sultan) have been involved in diplomatic efforts with their Iranian counterparts (Ali Larijani, the head of Iran’s National Security Council, and Ali Akbar Velayati, former foreign minister and current adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei).
Saudi Arabia presented its proposal for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace in 2002. The current renewed interest in the plan stems from the emergence of a common interest between Israel and the moderate Arab states with regard to Iran’s regional ambitions. Given Saudi public opinion, Saudi leaders, unlike their counterparts in Egypt, Jordan, Oman and Qatar, are not likely to engage in bilateral direct and open talks with the Israelis. Still, taking a leading role in promoting a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace is likely to enhance the kingdom’s standing both in the region and on the international scene. Indeed, the Saudis agreed to participate in an Arab-Israeli peace conference proposed by President Bush, to be held later in 2007.
The SPI is also likely to further isolate Iran, which refuses to recognize Israel. On the other hand, the Israeli government enjoys negligible public support due to its poor handling of the war with Hezbollah in 2006 and a wave of scandals. Engaging in peace negotiations with neighboring Arab states is likely to enhance the Israeli government’s standing domestically and abroad.
The Bush administration has lent strong support to the SPI. The United States has been trying to establish a coalition of moderate states to contain Iran and its allies (Hamas and Hezbollah). In July 2007, the Bush administration proposed huge arms sales to Israel, Egypt, and other moderate Arab states. The goal is to neutralize Tehran’s rising influence. The Iranians’ reactions was to deny that their country poses a threat to its neighbors and to emphasize that Tel Aviv, not Tehran, is the main threat to regional security. Endorsing peace talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors would not only enhance the U.S. image in the Middle East and isolate Iran, but would also reduce criticism of the Bush administration at home. Many opponents of the administration, as well as the Iraq Study Group, have advocated an active American role in addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict. They argue that an Arab-Israeli peace is likely to contribute to stability in Iraq and increase the chances of a speedy American withdrawal.
Despite all these attractions, the SPI is not a panacea. It is important to recognize the limitations of the Saudi plan. It is mainly a declaration of principles rather than a detailed proposal. There are fundamental differences between the parties. For example, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has stated that Israel cannot accept the SPI in its present form because it mentions UN Resolution 194, which is the foundation of Arab claims to the right of refugees from the 1948 war to return to their homes inside Israel.30 In response, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, has said, “We only hear conditions from Israel about everything, but no acceptance. You cannot have negotiations like that. This seems a ludicrous way of doing business.”31 Time will tell if the SPI is window dressing or a real opportunity for a comprehensive peace.
1 Haaretz, “The Peace Process: Only Saudi Arabia Can Do It,” March 12, 2007.
2 Hermann Eilts, "Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Policy," in Diplomacy in the Middle East: The International Relations of Regional and Outside Powers, ed. L. Carl Brown, (I.B. Tauris, 2001), p.229.
3 A handful of Arab states including Oman and Sudan did not condemn Sadat’s policy.
4 The full text of the plan is available in Middle East Policy, Vol.9, No.2 (June 2002) pp. 23-25.
5 Aluf Benn, “Official Government Response: Saudi Plan Endangers Israel’s Security,” Haaretz, March 3, 2002.
6 Claims of this meeting were widely reported in the Israeli media. See Shmuel Rosner and Aluf Benn, “A Time for Peace?” Haaretz, October 6, 2006, and Jerusalem Post, “Editorial: Talking with the Saudis,” September 27, 2006.
7 Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas voted in favor of the initiative, although Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas abstained in the vote.
8 Avi Issacharoff, “Arab States Unanimously Approve Saudi Peace Initiative,” Haaretz, March 28, 2007.
9 Harvey Morris and Roula Khalaf, “Saudis and Israelis Deny Secret Summit Took Place,” Financial Times, September 25, 2006.
10 Akiva Fldar, “Peretz: Saudi Initiative Must Serve As Basis for Talks with Palestinians,” Haaretz, December 10, 2006.
11 Haaretz, “Editorial: A New Chance for Peace,” March 4, 2007.
12 Gershon Baskin, “Accept the Saudi Initiative,” Jerusalem Post, March 6, 2007.
13 Martin Wolf, “Netanyahu Calls for Broadening of Peace Talks,” Financial Times, May 24, 2007.
14 Ashoura is when Imam Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson, was killed. It is one of the most important events in Shiite Islam.
15 U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Terrorism 2005 (Government Printing Office) 2006, p.196.
16 Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, “Israel Worried by Closer Hamas-Iran Ties,” Haaretz, December 15, 2006.
17 Helene Cooper, “After the Mecca Accord, Clouded Horizons,” The New York Times, February 21, 2007.
18 Reuters, “Saudi Arabia Blames Hezbollah for Israel Offensive on Lebanon,” July 17, 2006.
19 Hassan M. Fattah, “Militia Rebuked by Some Arab Countries,” The New York Times, July 17, 2006.
20 Greg Myre, “Israeli Premier and Saudi Said to Hold Secret Meeting,” The New York Times, September 26, 2006.
21 Faiza Saleh Ambah, “Many Arabs Applaud Hezbollah,” The Washington Post, July 30, 2006.
22 Nawaf Obaid, “Stepping Into Iraq,” The Washington Post, November 29, 2006.
23 Steven Mufson and Robin Wright, “In a Major Step, Saudi Arabia Agrees to Write Off 80 Percent of Iraqi Debt,” The Washington Post, April 18, 2007.
24 Robin Wright, “Cheney to Try to Ease Saudi Concerns,” The Washington Post, May 11, 2007.
25 Associated Press, “Clerics Urge Muslims to Back Iraq Sunnis,” December 12, 2006.
26 James A. Baker, III and Lee H. Hamilton, The Iraq Study Group Report, (Vintage Books), 2006, p.29.
27 Nawaf Obaid, “Stepping Into Iraq,” The Washington Post, November 29, 2006.
28 Nawaf Obaid, “Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Energy Initiative: Safeguarding Against Supply Disruptions,” available on line at <http://www.csis.org> accessed November 9, 2006.
29 Hassan M. Fattah, “Saudi-Iran Meeting Yields Little Substance,” The New York Times, March 5, 2007.
30 Gershon Baskin, “Accept the Saudi Initiative,” Jerusalem Post, March 6, 2007.
31 BBC, “Saudis Spurn Israel Peace Stance,” available at <http://news.bbc.co.uk> accessed March 13, 2007.