On Abdullah’s mind


How does Roger Cohen know what Saudi King Abdullah is thinking, or what he’s telling the Obama administration in private?

According to Cohen’s reading of the situation, in a May 17 online column in The New York Times,

The Saudis have been incensed by how U.S. policy has favored “the Persians” — as they refer to them — by removing Iran’s Sunni Taliban enemy in Afghanistan and ending Sunni dominance of Iraq. Despite U.S. prodding, the Saudis have not named an ambassador to Iraq and view the prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, as an Iranian pawn. Their strategic goal remains an “Iraq that comes back to be a solid Arab country,” as one Saudi official put it to me.

They also express frustration at the U.S. failure to rein in Israel, whose wars against Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in Gaza have stirred growing support for these Iran-backed movements. Anger on the Arab street is easily exploited by Iranian leaders using insurgent rhetoric.

My sources have a different reading of Saudi Arabia. They say Saudi Arabia’s leaders privately cheered on Israel’s fight against the Shiite power in Lebanon, Hezbollah, in 2006 and against the Iranian-backed Sunni militants in Hamas in 2009. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are supported by Saudi Arabia’s rival, Iran. The Saudi leadership’s primary displeasure over the 2006 and 2009 Israeli wars with Hamas and Hezbollah centered on Israel’s failure to defeat Hamas and Hezbollah decisively.

The Saudi leadership recognizes that the real battle lines in the Middle East are not between Arab and Jew, but between extremist and moderate. In this view, Saudi Arabia, an ally of the United States, is on the side of the moderates.

The Saudi people, of course, are another matter entirely. They remain opposed to Israel and all things Jewish (just see what the Saudi Wahhabis are teaching Saudi schoolchildren about non-Muslims).

If Cohen’s analysis is right, we ought to be reading in the coming days about his meeting with the Saudi king. Otherwise, I’d like to know who his sources are.

Cohen also describes in his column how the Arabs are opposed to Iran’s growing power — putting them in alignment with Israel. He writes:

Arabs and Persians enjoy cordial enmity; the cultural rivalry between the Sunni and Shia universes dates back a mere 1.5 millennia or so, to the battle of Karbala in 680 and beyond.

But recent developments have envenomed things to the point that Arab diplomats troop daily into the State Department to warn that the U.S. quest for détente with Tehran is dangerous.

That point will be made with vigor by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he meets with President Obama Monday. After all, when Israelis and Arabs make common cause, surely the danger is real.

But, Cohen then suggests, it isn’t: "Obama should be skeptical," he writes:

What’s really at issue here is that neither Israel nor the Arabs want a change in a status quo that locks in Israeli regional military dominance and the cozy relationships — arms deals, aid and all — that U.S. allies from the Gulf to Cairo enjoy.

American interests are, however, another story. They are not served by having no communication with Iran, the rising Mideast power; nor by the uncritical support of Israel that has allowed West Bank settlements to grow and peace to fade; nor by relationships with Arab states that comfort stasis.

Here’s what Cohen wants Obama to tell Bibi:

"The U.S. interest is not served by the Mideast status quo. Our interest lies in new region-wide security arrangements that promote a two-state peace, end 30 years of non-communication with Iran, and ultimately afford Israel a brighter future. You can’t build settlements and expect Iran’s influence to diminish.”

When Netanyahu demurs, Obama should add: “And you know what the Arabs tell me in private? That Israeli use of force against Iran would be a disaster. And that it’s impossible to tell Iran it can’t have nukes when Israel has them. They say that’s a double standard. And you know what? They may have a point.”

In Cohen’s mind, Obama should accept the growing power of the extremists in Tehran, who sponsor Arab attacks against Israel by Hezbollah and Hamas, rather than confront Iran.

Cohen believes the real problem in the Middle East is the Jewish presence in the West Bank. If only the Jews would leave that land, and if only they’d dismantle their assumed nuclear arsenal and lay down their arms, Cohen believes, the Arabs and Persians would leave the Jews in peace.

Sound familiar?

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