Saudis Leave Rice Stranded

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Mohamed Messara / EPA

Saudi Arabia's princes and officials during the last of the two day Arab summit in Riyadh, Thursday, March 29, 2007.

The Arab League summit that concluded in Riyadh Thursday reaffirmed the body's peace offer to Israel, but it hardly suggested the sort of "bold outreach" to the Jewish State for which U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been lobbying. Indeed, the summit appeared to reveal a yawning gap between the outlooks of the U.S. and its key Arab ally, summit host Saudi Arabia.

Although on her latest Middle East shuttle she managed to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to agree on holding regular meetings, Rice's efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace are looking more like crisis management than visionary deal-making. She had hesitated to spell out exactly what she meant by "bold outreach," but had urged the Arab leaders heading for Riyadh to not merely to endorse a formula for peace — the Arab League's Beirut initiative, first adopted in 2002, calls for full peace and normalization of relations if Israel withdraws from Arab lands occupied in 1967 — but also to provide a mechanism through which Arabs and Israelis could begin discussing the formula. "Regional states," she said, "should participate actively in diplomacy to advance the achievement of peace."

Rice seemed to be expressing the hope that Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, whom she praised as the author of the 2002 Arab initiative, would authorize direct Saudi-Israeli talks. When asked by a reporter whether it was time for the Saudis to meet the Israelis face-to-face, Rice replied, "I would hope that every state will search very deep to see what it can do at this crucial time to finally end this conflict."

Plainly, however, the U.S. and the Saudis are not exactly in lockstep, and the distance between them is widening by the day as American credibility in the Middle East nosedives as a result of the U.S. failure in Iraq. The Saudis believe that Abdullah's 2002 initiative in itself remains a bold and historic outreach to the Israelis, and they remain annoyed that it took the Bush Administration and the Israeli government five years to pay it much notice. They certainly see no reason why they should be expected to make further gestures toward Israel when the Israelis continue to hold back from substantive negotiations with the Palestinians, much less the Arab League. Instead, Riyadh believes that if it wants to revive the peace process, the U.S. needs to do more to pressure Israel into meaningful negotiations and realistic compromises.

"The problem is that the U.S. is like a ship with no anchor," says an Arab diplomat. "If it took a clear position, it could move people around that position. But because it doesn't, it is just getting pulled in many directions."

The Saudi-U.S. differences are highlighted by the summit's endorsement of the Mecca Agreement under which Hamas and President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to establish a national unity government to end Palestinian infighting. In contrast to the continued U.S. insistence that Hamas be boycotted, the Saudis believe that peace negotiations can only succeed if Hamas can be drawn into the process. The Islamist movement is, after all, the democratically elected ruling party in the Palestinian Authority. "The U.S. is a prisoner of contradictions of its own making," the Arab diplomats adds. "They shouted 'democracy, democracy, democracy,' and then ended up with Hamas, who they refuse to deal with because they are terrorists."

Saudi Arabia's increasingly public divergence from U.S. positions is a comparatively new development — until fairly recently, Abdullah appeared willing to support Bush as much as possible. But the message out of the Riyadh summit is that the Saudis, along with the other Arab states, have concluded that Washington's policies are neither wise, effective, or in long-term Arab interests, and they are signaling their intent to take greater control over their own destiny. In his summit speech, Abdullah called the U.S. military involvement in Iraq an "illegitimate foreign occupation," and demanded an end to the "unjust" American-led embargo on the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority. All of this amounted to a sharp debunking of Rice's suggestion that Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies form a new moderate bloc to confront Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizballah. Abdullah called on his fellow leaders to restore their credibility with the Arab public and never "allow banners to be raised in Arab lands other than those of Arabism."

It's tempting to dismiss Abdullah's summit rhetoric as playing to the gallery, but the Washington Post reports that Abdullah has also cancelled his attendance at a White House state dinner planned in his honor next month. It wasn't so long ago that Bush and Abdullah were practically love birds, holding hands as they walked past news cameras during Abdullah's last visit to the U.S. in 2005. For better or worse, they may increasingly be going their separate ways.