Olmert Invite: Serious, Or Calling Saudis’ Bluff?


Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s dramatic invitation Sunday to “all Arab leaders, including the Saudi king” to come to Israel to negotiate an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict followed what some analysts viewed as positive signs coming from last week’s Arab summit. But others dismissed Olmert’s invitation as less than substantive and argued that the Arabs did nothing more than restate an earlier ultimatum to Israel.

“This is good domestic politics, but I don’t think there is much of a chance it will happen,” said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and a leader of the opposition Likud Party, of Olmert’s invitation. He said it was an attempt to steal the Arabs’ thunder after the positive reception they received to their Arab League summit last week in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

At the summit the Arab states reissued a 2002 Saudi plan that essentially calls for Israel to return to its pre-1967 war borders, create a Palestinians state and allow Palestinian refugees the right of return. If that happens, the Arabs will end all hostilities with Israel, according to the plan.

“It doesn’t hurt anybody to make such a statement, but I don’t think the time is right for that,” Shoval said of Olmert’s offer. “In spite of all the applause [the Arabs received] from different circles …. they presented an ultimatum to Israel and didn’t say let’s meet and we’ll put our case on the table and you put yours, too. They said we [Israel] first have to accept the right of Palestinian refugees to go back to Israel, that we must withdraw to the 1967 line — including from [East] Jerusalem — and then we will talk. That’s like saying, first you have to agree to commit suicide, and then we’ll decide if it is by hanging or shooting.”

Olmert’s public invitation to talk with the Arab world and particularly the Saudis is a “move to push the envelope and to go beyond backroom discussions,” according to Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University. “The chances are that despite all this commotion, nothing will change. They always come close to the line to make the change, and then they pull back.”

But David Kimche, a former deputy head of the Mossad (intelligence agency) and now president of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, said he is upbeat about recent developments.

“It looks like something is moving,” he said. “Many people in Israel feel that what happened at Riyadh was of tremendous importance. We have never had the Arab world — all of it, every single member — signing onto a call for peace with Israel. We remember the old cartoon that said no to any negotiation with Israel. Now we have 22 Arab states calling for peace with Israel. That never happened before and it means we have a completely new situation. Many in Israel feel it’s of great importance and should be taken up.”

Asked how the Arab League’s statement differed from the one it issued in 2002, Kimche said he believes the Arabs were now more sincere.

“In 2002 we ignored it,” he added. “This time we should not.”

Eytan Gilboa, a professor of politics at Bar-Ilan University and an expert on U.S. policy in the Middle East, said the movement in the Arab world was prompted by concern about the threat from Iran.

“The Saudis now perceive Iran to be more of a threat than Israel,” he said. ”They are saying, ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ Their idea is to create this new kind of alliance in the Middle East to confront Iran everywhere. And wherever you can mobilize to cope with this threat is OK, including Israel.”

As a result, Gilboa said the Saudis want to launch Arab-Israeli negotiations “to bolster this new alliance.” And, he said, since it is presumed the Israelis and a Hamas-dominated Palestinian government cannot reach an agreement themselves, “the only way to get out of this mess is to impose on the Palestinians — and maybe the Syrians — an Arab consensus approach. … If we can come up with an Arab position and the Palestinians don’t like it, it will be imposed on them. And this is what I think the [Bush] administration likes.”

But whether the Palestinians and Syrians can be forced to accept such an agreement is questionable.

Mordechai Kedar, a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and an expert in Arab affairs, expressed doubt that the Arab world will be able to sever Syrian ties to Iran. “For Syria to cut off ties with Iran at this time would be stupidity,” he said. “Iran is the most powerful force in the Middle East. Everyone is afraid of Iran these days, especially the Americans and the British. You can see it in their behavior after the kidnapping [of 15 British sailors and marines].”

Kedar said that the ruling Syrian leaders need Iran because the Assad family is from the Alawite minority, which in the past has clashed with the Sunni Muslim majority.

“The Iranians give the Syrian leadership legitimacy … a hechsher that says they are Muslims, and that is why the Syrians are so dependent on the Iranians,” Kedar explained. “That is why the Syrians cannot be bought to leave the Iranians. Even the Saudi money will not help.”

Kedar had harsh words for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for including Syria on her Mideast tour and meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“What she is doing is counter-productive because Syria should have changed its behavior before the first American lands in Damascus,” he said, adding: “It is a great mistake to think that if you talk to dictators you can appease them because dictators’ appetites grow with the meal.” Kedar said Pelosi did not have to travel to Syria to “tell us what the dictator wants. We know exactly what he wants.”

Steinberg, the Bar-Ilan professor, agreed. He said Sadat was “an expert at manipulation” and questioned whether Pelosi, “with no foreign policy experience, is the one who is going to have a breakthrough?”

Pelosi was accompanied on her trip by a bipartisan delegation of other House members that included Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the House’s first Muslim, and Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the House’s only Holocaust survivor. Kimche, the former head of Mossad, said the Pelosi trip is “not a disaster from our point of view,” noting that she could come back with new information on what Syria wants from possible future dialogue — information that would be helpful to Israel.

The Bush administration criticized Pelosi for going to Syria, noting that Damascus remains on the State Department’s list of terrorist nations.Steven Spiegel, a professor of political science at UCLA and a national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, said he wished the Bush administration would talk with the Syrians.

“Let’s test the waters,” he said. “Times are changing in the Middle East and Syria is worried about being left out of the new peace process and it doesn’t want a military confrontation with Israel. … Because of Iraq and Iran everybody is interested in seeing some action. The U.S. and the Arabs need it. This is an opportunity. You have to keep trying.”

Spiegel said that what is different today from 2002, when the Saudi peace plan first was proposed, is that the Arabs have set up working groups to develop the renewed peace initiative and that the Israelis may be included in those sessions.

“It would be ideal to have a dramatic step to kick things off, similar to what [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat did” with his 1977 visit to Jerusalem, Spiegel said. “But he immediately got into trouble [after he left Israel] because the spade work had not been done. So the idea of the working groups is to figure out the best way to go and then at some point to have a dramatic meeting to show that this is serious. … I don’t see the Saudi king moving without an indication from the working group.”