Abdullah’s Chance and His Critics

Posted by Cutler on March 23, 2007
Arab League, Israel, Right Arabists, Right Zionists, Saudi Arabia

Saudi King Abdullah is making news with a proposal to revive his 2002 “peace plan” at an Arab League summit set to begin Riyadh on March 28.

In Thomas Friedman’s latest New York Times column, “Abdullah’s Chance,” he wonders aloud whether Saudi Arabia is becoming “the new Egypt.”

Friedman is understandably delighted by the news.  After all, Friedman had a hand in the 2002 peace plan.  At a minimum, he broke the story in his 2002 column, “An Intriguing Signal From the Saudi Crown Prince.”  But, as Friedman immodestly suggested in a radio interview on Tom Ashbrook’s NPR program, “On Point,” he deserves even more credit:

“I’m the guy who, you know, came up with the Abdullah peace plan in an interview with the King of Saudi Arabia” (19:40).

As the initiative comes back into focus, it might be worth situating the place of this scheme within the context of ongoing factional battles in Washington, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.

The Abdullah peace plan is properly understood as a diplomatic centerpiece for an “axis” that includes James Baker’s “Right Arabists” in Washington, the “Faisal” faction in Riyadh, and the center-right Kadima crowd in Tel Aviv.

Likely critics of such a plan might include a “rejectionist” axis, led by Vice President Cheney and his “Right Zionist” allies in Washington, the old “Fahd” faction–including Prince Bandar–in Riyadh, and the Likud party in Tel Aviv.

As Eli Lake reports in the Right Zionist New York Sun, Likudniks are already speaking out:

While that appears to be the view of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, other players within the government have been critical of Mr. Olmert’s seeming embrace of the Saudi initiative. In an interview yesterday with the Arutz Sheva news service, a leading Likud member of the Knesset, Yuval Steinitz, attacked the prime minister. “When you mention the other side’s plan and add ‘all is open for negotiation,’ it means that you are not going to stand firm on defensible borders in the Golan Heights or in Judea and Samaria,” he said.

A former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations under Prime Minister Netanyahu, Dore Gold, said: “Those who believe that redividing Jerusalem by advancing the Saudi plan will lower the flames of radical Islamic rage have absolutely no idea of what they are dealing with. Any proposal to give the Hamas government the hope of taking over Jerusalem will shoot up jihadism in the region by giving new hope to Al Qaeda affiliates that Jerusalem is within their grasp.”

The factional “shoe” has yet to drop in Washington.  But it will.  For all the talk of “departing hawks,” Secretary of State Rice is not out of the factional woods just yet.

No word yet from Riyadh, but maybe it would be useful to recall a little-noticed source of vehement dissent that arose when the “Abdullah plan” was first aired back in 2002.

Remember that famous Saudi “hawk”–Nawaf Obaidi–who made news with a Washington Post essay that threatened dramatic Saudi action to thwart Iranian regional ambitions?  In a recent post, I speculated that there might be reasons to link Obaidi to the Bandar crowd.

If so, then it might make sense to recall an extraordinary earlier Op-Ed by Nawaf Obaidi–”
The Israeli Flag in Riyadh?“–published in the Washington Post on March 2, 2002.

Considering the hushed tones of Saudi factionalism, this essay reads like a sweeping broadside against the man who would soon become King!

Will there be an Israeli Embassy next door to the Saudi royal court? Not any time soon.

The recent announcement by Crown Prince Abdullah that Saudi Arabia would recognize Israel if it returned to the 1967 borders… reveals the courage and vision of the Saudi leader.  However, to assume that the Saudi crown prince can dictate such an important policy is to gravely misunderstand the situation on the ground. In the Saudi kingdom, consensus is the coin of the realm, and in this case, consensus is going to be extremely difficult to come by.

Saudi Arabia has never been a one-man show, although pundits and policymakers in the West often paint it as a monolithic state. Through nearly a century of existence, leadership has been exercised by balancing the various centers of power in the kingdom: the senior Saudi princes, religious leaders and the public. No one institution has the authority to implement a policy as important as recognizing Israel…

Even if Crown Prince Abdullah is able to gain the support of a majority of the senior leadership of the royal family, opposition among the religious establishment and on the street is deep-seated and adamant. Since the announcement, reaction in the kingdom has wavered between astonishment and dismay…

Disgruntled religious extremists have a history of violence in the kingdom, and their ranks will only grow if the leadership is seen as abandoning long-held Saudi values. Thus, the royal family will be extremely careful about adopting any policy that widens the gap between themselves and their people…

For this reason, it is worth considering the wisdom of the manner in which this proposal was presented… Announcing it over dinner, without any details and to a journalist who is a longtime Saudi critic, only undermined any chance for broad-based Saudi and Arab consensus.

There are lots of flattering words thrown in along the way, but this certainly reads like a shot across the bow.

Does this mean that a possible Obaidi-Bandar faction in Riyadh is actually more hostile to Israel than the Abdullah faction?  No.  Absolutely not.

But it does mean that such a faction likely remains mistrustful of Adbullah’s “one-man show” and that they–along with their rejectionist allies in Washington and Tel Aviv–have a very different vision of the roadmap to a “new” Middle East.

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