Despite Israel’s great political influence in Washington, the Obama administration may soon have to decide whether it will risk economic retaliation from Saudi Arabia by opposing Palestinian statehood in the United Nations. A Saudi cutback in oil production could send gas prices to $5 a gallon and sink the U.S. recovery, Lawrence Davidson writes.
By Lawrence Davidson
June 20, 2011
The Saudis do not like what President Barak Obama tells them, especially things that, to Riyadh’s ears, sound downright dangerous, such as advising the Saudis, and the rest of the rulers in the Arab world, to get out ahead of the region’s growing protest movements and make democratic reforms.
The Saudis have no tradition of democracy beyond the tribal advisory council. Before they were kings and princes, they were desert sheiks. So, Obama’s advice sounds like an erstwhile ally telling them to surrender. In the Bedouin tradition, strong leaders do not surrender without a struggle.
The Saudis have shown their frustration with Washington in a number of dramatic ways. One was their coming to the rescue of the Bahraini monarchy (more sheikhs calling themselves kings) and supporting the outright fascist reaction that regime has been practicing on its majority Shi’ite citizens.
The Saudis are Wahhabi Sunnis, the most conservative of Muslims, and they do not care what happens to the Shi’ites, whom they view as heretics. The Saudis suspect that the ones in Bahrain are acting as the pawns of Iran (which Saudis fear as a rising Shi’ite regional power).
Thus, the Bahraini terror seems a good and necessary thing in Riyadh, although many around the world, including this writer, find the Saudi approach to Bahrain despicable.
The second way the Saudis have shown their frustration with Obama is by pointing a finger at U.S. hypocrisy. This was done in a sharp, no-nonsense op-ed by Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal in the Washington Post on June 10, entitled “Failed Favoritism Toward Israel.” [Full text below.]
Turki has been the Saudi ambassador to both the U.S. and the U.K and has served as his country’s chief of intelligence. While he presently holds no government office (which is probably why he was the one who authored this op-ed), his sentiments undoubtedly reflect those of the Saudi government. So what did the prince say?
1. Referring to Obama’s speech on events in the Middle East, Turki noted that “President Obama … admonished Arab governments to embrace democracy” while he “conspicuously failed to demand the same rights to self-determination for Palestinians despite the occupation of their territory by the region’s strongest military power.”
2. Turki found equally depressing “the sight of Congress applauding the denial of basic human rights to the Palestinian people” when recently addressed by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
3. Taken together, the denial of such rights to the Palestinians, while calling for them for the rest of the Arab world was, in the Saudi view, a clear indicator that “any peace plans co-authored by the United States and Israel would be untenable and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will remain intractable as long as U.S. policy is unduly beholden to Israel.”
4. Thus, “in the absence of productive negotiations, the time has come for Palestinians to bypass the United States and Israel and to seek direct international endorsement of statehood at the United Nations. They will be fully supported in doing so by Saudi Arabia.”
If the Saudis have it all wrong in Bahrain, they have it all right on Palestine. But the message does not stop here. Turki proceeds to throw down the gauntlet, so to speak.
5. “American leaders have long called Israel an ‘indispensable’ ally. They will soon learn that there are other players in the region … who are as, if not more, ‘indispensable.’ The game of favoritism toward Israel has not proven wise for Washington, and soon it will be shown to be an even greater folly. …
“There will be disastrous consequences for U.S.-Saudi relations if the United States vetoes U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state.”
It should be noted that there is no legal basis for such a veto in the UN General Assembly, but the Obama administration could make things very difficult simply by twisting arms so as to get nations dependent on Washington to vote no on Palestinian recognition.
That, by the way, is what the Truman administration did in 1948 in order to get the necessary yes votes for Israel’s recognition as a state (the vote was a close thing). It would be sadly ironic if the Obama administration tried the same tactic to defeat the Palestinian effort.
6. Turki concludes, “We Arabs used to say no to peace, and we got our comeuppance in 1967. In 2002 King Abdullah offered what has become the Arab Peace Initiative. … it calls for an end to the conflict based on land for peace. … Now, it is the Israelis who are saying no. I’d hate to be around when they face their comeuppance.”
It would be dangerous to consider this a bluff. Turki is quite right when he says that there are others in the Middle East region who are more indispensable to the United States and the West in general than Israel. For instance, any and all of the oil producers of the area.
To demonstrate this, the Saudis do not have to repeat the oil embargo of 1973. All they have to do is cut back on production a little bit at a time and pressure the other Arab producers to do so as well. If they do that, President Obama will be campaigning in 2012 with gasoline at above $5 a gallon.
Nor will the price come down just because he loses to Mitt Romney or some other candidate in an elephant costume. It is unlikely to come down until the Palestinians have a just peace.
Against this reference to very real Saudi power we have Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s latest bit of legerdemain.
In a Rome press conference, the Prime Minister, backed up by the smiling approval of his Italian counterpart, Silvio Berlusconi, told the world that “the problem is not the settlements; the root of the conflict is the fact that the Palestinians refuse to recognize the existence of the Jewish state.”
Later on Netanyahu elaborated, “This is an insoluble conflict because it is not about territory. … Until the Palestinians agree to accept Israel not just as a country, but as a Jewish state it will be impossible to move forward.”
All Israeli leaders seem to have possessed this power to create illusions. Here Netanyahu manifests this by moving the peace process goalpost simply by the spoken word. This magic act seems to be underpinned by the spectators complete lack of historical memory and perspective.
So, Netanyahu is able to say historically incorrect things and get away with it. Here is what he left out:
1. In 1993, the Palestine Liberation Organization, then led by Yasir Arafat, formally recognized the state of Israel. At the time it was clearly understood what the “state of Israel” meant. No one was trying to play fast and loose by leaving out a descriptive term like “Jewish.”
Arafat himself later told the Guardian newspaper that it was “clear and obvious” both that Israel was and will be Jewish and the refugee problem has to be solved in a way that maintained that Jewish character.
2. Then there is the information revealed by the leaked Palestine Papers (January 2011). What they showed was that Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen) and his followers had offered the Israelis just about everything they wanted.
As I noted at that time, Abbas and his colleagues “were willing to accept the Bantustans, to give up almost all of Jerusalem, to turn their backs on 99 percent of the Palestinian refugees, to look the other way as the people of Gaza were slaughtered and to even serve as an ally of the Israeli occupation forces on the West Bank.
“By the time they were done there was nothing left that was worth fighting for. As the PNA’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat told U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell, they had done everything but ‘convert to Zionism.’ And yet, the Israelis scorned the Palestinian compromises.”
Now, one can say that Netanyahu is so narrow-minded and under-informed that he does not remember 1993 or Arafat’s subsequent clarification to the Guardian. But he must remember the capitulation described in the Palestine Papers. After all, it happened partly on his own watch.
So, what is it with him and his “Jewish state” demand? The only logical conclusion is that Prime Minister Netanyahu is a “confidence artist” and he thinks of the rest of us, particularly the U.S. Congress, as his “marks.”
Behind this illusion is the reality: the Israeli leadership is not interested in peace. Indeed, peace is to be avoided because it would necessarily stop their absorption of Palestinian land. This is really why it is “impossible to move forward.”
And The Winner?
What happens if the Saudis decide that the time really has come to exercise their immense economic power for the sake of the Palestinians? Can the power of the Israeli con artists successfully compete? Well, here are some things to consider:
1. Zionist power outside of Palestine is confined to a small number of locales. That does not mean it is not real, but it does mean that its basis is shallow. For instance, its twin pillars are Holocaust guilt and Lobby influence. The latter, at least in the U.S., comes in the form of political payoffs.
The Zionists also have media leverage but that influence is not as ubiquitous as it use to be. It is unclear just how long it would hold up in the face of serious economic counterweights.
2. Saudi Arabia’s power, on the other hand, is truly international and represents well founded, mass economic power. If the price of energy starts going higher and higher because the Saudis and other Arab oil producers cut back on production, the Zionists can’t do a thing about it.
And what are the Americans and the Europeans going to do? Invade Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, et. al.? That sort of thing happens in suspense novels and will only be advocated by fringe extremists of the John Bolton type. It is not likely to happen in the real world.
No. In this kind of confrontation, the Zionists cannot win. They are just not as indispensable as affordable energy. It is interesting that not much is being said about this in the U.S. media. Maybe the Zionists and their friends think that if they ignore the Saudis, they will just go away. Maybe they are praying for fusion power before September. Maybe they think it is all bluff.
Personally, I think it might just be Saudi Arabia’s moment. That it is Saudi power that can force a just peace on Washington and Tel Aviv. Let us hope so. For Palestine’s sake, I’m ready to pay per gallon whatever it costs.
Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.
Failed Favoritism Toward Israel
By Turki al-Faisal
Riyadh, SAUDI ARABIA
President Obama gave a rousing call to action in his controversial speech last month, admonishing Arab governments to embrace democracy and provide freedom to their populations. We in Saudi Arabia, although not cited, took his call seriously. We noted, however, that he conspicuously failed to demand the same rights to self-determination for Palestinians, despite the occupation of their territory by the region’s strongest military power.
Soon after, Obama again called into question America’s claim to be a beacon of human rights by allowing Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to set the terms of the agenda on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Even more depressing than the sight of Congress applauding the denial of basic human rights to the Palestinian people was America turning its back on its stated ideals.
Despite the consternation and criticism that greeted the president’s words about the 1967 borders, he offered no substantive change to U.S. policy. America’s bottom line is still that negotiations should take place with the aim of reaching a two-state solution, with the starting point for the division of Israeli and Palestinian territory at the borders in existence before the 1967 Six-Day War.
Obama is correct that the 1967 lines are the only realistic starting point for talks and, thus, for achieving peace. The notion that Palestinians would accept any other terms is simply unrealistic. Although Netanyahu rejected the suggestions, stating “We can’t go back to those indefensible lines, and we’re going to have a long-term military presence along the Jordan [River],” both sides have long accepted the 1967 lines as a starting point. In 2008, Ehud Olmert, then Israeli prime minister, told the Knesset: “We must give up Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem and return to the core of the territory that is the State of Israel prior to 1967, with minor corrections dictated by the reality created since then.” Last November, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Netanyahu declared in a joint statement that “the United States believes that through good-faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.”
One conclusion can be drawn from recent events: that any peace plans co-authored by the United States and Israel would be untenable and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will remain intractable as long as U.S. policy is unduly beholden to Israel. Despite his differences with Netanyahu, Obama is stymied in his efforts to play a constructive role. On the eve of an election year, his administration will no doubt bow to pressure from special interests and a Republican-dominated Congress, and back away from forcing Israel to accept concrete terms that would bring Palestinians to the negotiating table.
But U.S. domestic politics and Israeli intransigence cannot be allowed to stand in the way of Palestinians’ right to a future with a decent quality of life and opportunities similar to those living in unoccupied countries. Thus, in the absence of productive negotiations, the time has come for Palestinians to bypass the United States and Israel and to seek direct international endorsement of statehood at the United Nations. They will be fully supported in doing so by Saudi Arabia, other Arab nations and the vast majority of the international community, all those who favor a just outcome to this stalemate and a stable Middle East.
Obama has criticized this plan as Palestinian “efforts to delegitimize Israel” and suggested that these “symbolic actions to isolate” Israel would end in failure. But why should Palestinians not be granted the same rights the United Nations accorded to the state of Israel at its creation in 1947? The president must realize that the Arab world will no longer allow Palestinians to be delegitimized by Israeli actions to restrict their movements, choke off their economy and destroy their homes. Saudi Arabia will not stand by while Washington and Israel bicker endlessly about their intentions, fail to advance their plans and then seek to undermine a legitimate Palestinian presence on the international stage.
As the main political and financial supporter of the Palestinian quest for self-determination, Saudi Arabia holds an especially strong position. The kingdom’s wealth, steady growth and stability have made it the bulwark of the Middle East. As the cradle of Islam, it is able to symbolically unite most Muslims worldwide. In September, the kingdom will use its considerable diplomatic might to support the Palestinians in their quest for international recognition. American leaders have long called Israel an “indispensable” ally. They will soon learn that there are other players in the region, not least the Arab street, who are as, if not more, “indispensable.” The game of favoritism toward Israel has not proven wise for Washington, and soon it will be shown to be an even greater folly.
Commentators have long speculated about the demise of Saudi Arabia as a regional powerhouse. They have been sorely disappointed. Similarly, history will prove wrong those who imagine that the future of Palestine will be determined by the United States and Israel. There will be disastrous consequences for U.S.-Saudi relations if the United States vetoes U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state. It would mark a nadir in the decades-long relationship as well as irrevocably damage the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and America’s reputation among Arab nations. The ideological distance between the Muslim world and the West in general would widen, and opportunities for friendship and cooperation between the two could vanish.
We Arabs used to say no to peace, and we got our comeuppance in 1967. In 2002 King Abdullah offered what has become the Arab Peace Initiative. Based on U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, it calls for an end to the conflict based on land for peace. The Israelis withdraw from all occupied lands, including East Jerusalem, reach a mutually agreed solution to the Palestinian refugees and recognize the Palestinian state. In return, they will get full diplomatic recognition from the Arab world and all the Muslim states, an end to hostilities and normal relations with all these states.
Now, it is the Israelis who are saying no. I’d hate to be around when they face their comeuppance.
The writer is chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies in Riyadh. He was Saudi intelligence chief from 1977 to 2001 and ambassador to the United States from 2004 to 2006