Saturday, August 1, 2009

Saudis Make Fun of Obama Middle East Policy; Administration, Media, Pretend Not to Notice

By Barry Rubin

Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal is visiting Washington. He praised the Obama administration and then hammered nails into the coffin of its Middle East policy. There was nothing subtle about the Saudi response.

For the first time, a non-radical Arab regime—that is, one nominally allied with the United States—has openly ridiculed the U.S. government’s new policy. Naturally, the prince was full of praise for the Obama administration, in general. In specific, he did the opposite.

Consider this statement by the foreign minister-prince:

"Today, Israel is trying to distract by shifting attention from the core issue -- an end to the occupation that began in 1967 and the establishment of a Palestinian state-- to incidental issues such as academic concerns and civil aviation methods. This is not the way to peace."

But wait a minute! These weren’t Israeli ideas, this was the American plan. So the Saudis point 1 was: Forget about it, Obama.

Point 2 was, of course, the very trap the administration set for itself. The Arabs want Israel to agree to withdraw from the entire West Bank, Golan Heights, and east Jerusalem. Then they want it to accept a Palestinian state. Then they want it to agree to take in millions of Palestinian refugees.

At that point, they’ll talk about what they’ll do in exchange. This is, after all, the Saudi peace plan that everyone tries to make sound more moderate by leaving out all of the details.

Point 3 is that the parties should go to an immediate comprehensive agreement based on those prior Israeli concessions.

This last point has its amusing side. In 2000, Arab states and the Palestinian Authority pushed for a total, comprehensive agreement as fast as possible. So the U.S. president held a meeting in Switzerland with his Syrian counterpart, and a negotiating conference with the Palestinians and Israelis at Camp David. In both cases, the Arab side refused to give any ground whatsoever.

[Oh, and prediction: Even if Israel withdrew from all the West Bank, east Jerusalem, and Golan Heights; agreed to a Palestinian state; and accepted back any Palestinian who wanted to live there, the Saudis still wouldn't permit Israeli airliners to overfly their kingdom and foster academic exchanges.]

The Bush administration, advised by President Bill Clinton who was a victim of that 1990s' peace process, learned something: the Arabs are not so eager to make peace. The Obama administration thought this was just more Bush evil mischief. Now it is starting to learn otherwise.

But what about Saudi help on pressing Iran? Predictable, privately they will demand the United States save them, practically and publicly they will do nothing constructive.

What about Saudi help in stabilizing Iraq? The regime will continue to look the other way as wealthy, well-connected Saudis send money and dispatch Sunni men to fight against the Shia-Kurdish regime there.
All of this was obvious on January 20, 2009. More than six months have been wasted. Claiming to have hit the ground running, the Obama administration hit the ground fumbling.

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