Israel: Never Mind the Palestinians,Talk to the Saudis
Next month, President Obama will be making his first trip to Israel since becoming president -- a trip that "is almost certain to raise expectations for the type of peace initiative that eluded Obama and his foreign policy team during his first four years in office."
...And are guaranteed to elude him this time as well, for the simple reason that the two sides have mutually exclusive goals. Israel's goal is peace; the Palestinians' goal is to destroy Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has publicly declared, numerous times, his willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians anytime, anywhere, without preconditions and has even appointed moderate reach-out-to-the-Palestinians-pro-peace-process advocate Tzipi Livni to lead those negotiations. The Palestinians, on the other hand, will meet only with preconditions, including a moratorium on building new housing in areas where the Oslo Agreement allows the Israelis to build and which everyone, including the Palestinians, understand would remain part of Israel in any setting of borders.
More important, Israel will only accept a 23rd Mideast Arab state that (a) is demilitarized and (b) recognizes Israel as a Jewish state. And any agreement must be a final, comprehensive agreement that settles all issues between the two sides and ends the conflict forever. In other words, the Palestinians must abandon, forever, their repeatedly stated goal of destroying Israel.
The odds, today, that the Palestinians will make any agreement that requires them definitively and forever to accept a Jewish state, and to abandon their dream of destroying that state, forever, are precisely zero. So where does that leave the Middle East process? It leaves it where it has always been: irrelevant to the Israel-Palestinian problem, which, absent a complete change in the Palestinian leadership's mindset, can never be solved -- only managed.
On the other hand, a broad, comprehensive Middle East that excludes the Palestinians is eminently achievable, but not if the interested parties continue to waste time and energy pursuing a fruitless "peace process" with the Palestinians. For in fact there is a much better path to a true Middle East peace if the Israelis can set aside the "peace process" with the Palestinians, open their eyes, and see the opportunity standing right in front of them.
It is time for the Israelis to stop talking to the Palestinians and to start talking with the Saudis.
To see why, we need to review a little history and some geography, beginning with Israel's 1948 War of Independence. To the Arab forces arrayed against the fledgling Jewish state, Saudi Arabia is estimated to have contributed, at most, 1,200, and perhaps as few as 800, men. And they were attached to the Egyptian command. Ditto for the '67 and '73 wars, where there, too, the Saudis sent only a token contingent and, in both cases, attached to another country's forces (Syria and Egypt, respectively).
Now examine this map:
As one readily can see, if Saudi Arabia wanted to attack Israel, the distance directly from Saudi Arabia north through Jordan or along the Gulf of Aqaba is just a short hop -- literally a few minutes as the crow -- or jet fighter -- flies. Yet in all the wars between the Jewish state and the Arab states, there has never been a war between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Why not?
Because the Saudis didn't, and don't, want one?
And of course, the distance between Israel and Saudi Arabia is the same for both sides. Yet despite the Saudis' participation, however minimal, in three wars against the Jewish State, Israel has never invaded Saudi Arabia. Why not?
Because Israel doesn't perceive Saudi Arabia as a threat?
This is not to say that Saudi Arabia has never expressed hostility toward Israel. She has. But it's pretty clear to this writer that such expressions are no more than perfunctory "me, too" -- pro forma sops to maintain good relations with her neighbors to whom hatred of Israel trumps all other considerations, including common sense.
The Saudis, on the other hand, have time and again shown themselves to be the consummate diplomats - realistic pragmatists, who exercise nothing but common sense. Some examples:
Example One: In the aftermath of the failed Barak-Arafat negotiations at Camp David, Saudi Prince Bandar Bin Sultan said (emphasis mine):
I still have not recovered ,,, from the magnitude of the missed opportunity that January. ... Sixteen hundred Palestinians dead so far. And seven hundred Israelis dead. In my judgment, not one life of those Israelis and Palestinians dead is justiﬁed.
Bandar also called Arafat's rejection -- Arafat's rejection -- of the Israeli proposal "not just 'a tragedy' but 'a crime.'" What other public official, of any Arab country, so forthrightly blamed Arafat for the collapse of the Camp David talks?
Example Two: In late January of this year, Dr. Amal Al-Hazzani, an assistant professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, wrote an article for the Arab daily Asharq Alawsat. The article, "The Israel We Do Not Know," though not shying away from criticism of Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, also said some positive things about the Jewish state, such as expressing her admiration for Israelis' interest in learning the Arabic language and about Arab culture, while simultaneously lamenting "that its neighboring states are ignorant of the Hebrew language":
Israel enjoys superiority over the Arabs is because it has sought to understand them through their language; it can gauge the thinking of the young and old. Israel is well aware of the Arabs' strengths as well as their weaknesses, and it can understand them simply because it has immersed itself in their culture.
Therefore, it is no wonder that we hear youths in Tel Aviv listening to Umm Kulthum songs, eating hummus and considering the television series 'Rafat El-Haggan' to be a comedy. The Israelis are not only occupying our soil, but they also highly active in our culture, which is the real cause for their power.
As the phrase, "occupying our soil" indicates, Dr. Hazzani's call to her fellow Arabs to study the Hebrew language and Israeli culture is very much couched in the context of "know thine enemy." Nevertheless, her admiration for Israelis' penchant for learning Arabic and Arabian culture is unmistakable, as is her praise of Israeli democracy:
In Israel, politicians are distinguished by their sincerity and devotion to the higher interests of the state, rather than their affiliation to a certain group, and this is something we have yet to see in the Arab Spring.
Example Three: And finally, there is this astonishing article - astonishing because it appeared in the Saudi English-language daily Arab News. In it, columnist Abdulateef Al-Mulhim looks back on decades of wars between the Arab Middle East and Israel and asks:
What was the real cost of these wars to the Arab world and its people[?] And the harder question that no Arab national wants to ask is: What was the real cost for not recognizing Israel in 1948 and why didn't the Arab states spend their assets on education, health care and the infrastructures instead of wars? But, the hardest question that no Arab national wants to hear is whether Israel is the real enemy of the Arab world and the Arab people.
The Arab world wasted hundreds of billions of dollars and lost tens of thousands of innocent lives fighting Israel, which they considered is their sworn enemy, an enemy whose existence they never recognized. The Arab world has many enemies and Israel should have been at the bottom of the list. The real enemies of the Arab world are corruption, lack of good education, lack of good health care, lack of freedom, lack of respect for the human lives and... dictators who... suppress their own people.
It also bears recalling that the Saudis were the initiators and driving force behind the Arab Peace Initiative, in which the Arab League, for the first time, offered full recognition of, and diplomatic relations with, the Jewish state. Unfortunately, the price asked of Israel was, essentially, to meet all of the Palestinians' demands, and so the initiative went nowhere. But it did, and does, demonstrate a desire on the part of the Saudi government to broker a comprehensive Middle East peace.
The articles I quoted also seem to indicate that, amidst the daily barrage of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric emanating from Middle Eastern Arab countries, very much including Saudi Arabia, we are increasingly seeing a willingness, by private citizens at least, to consider a comprehensive Middle East Peace separate and apart from a resolution of the Israel-Palestinian issue. That these private citizens are almost invariably Saudi cannot be a coincidence.
Now if the Saudi government would only follow their private citizens' suit and open up to the Israelis at the national governmental level. If there were a Nobel Prize for worst-kept secret, Israeli-Saudi took their private diplomacy public. If only a way could be found to get a high-level Saudi and Israeli to meet each other in public, to smile in greeting, to shake hands...
The two men in the photo are Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and former Saudi intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal, and they are cordially shaking hands. To be sure, Ayalon had to maneuver al-Faisal into the handshake, but for all of that, neither man seems to have suffered any irreparable physical damage that I can see.
It ain't much, but it's a start, and from little acorns...well, you know the rest. So tell me that a comprehensive Middle East peace preceded by and built on full recognition and diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia would be a very hard pull. But don't tell me it cannot be done.
The road to a comprehensive Middle East peace -- and a resolution of the Israel-Palestinian issue -- does not run through Ramallah or Jerusalem. It leads through Riyadh.