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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Saudi-Israeli footsie is a sign of need, not love

The apparent willingness of a senior member of the Saudi royal family to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jordan earlier this month was - more than anything else - an indication of just how threatened the Saudi monarchy feels.

Despite denials from both Olmert and the Saudi royals, diplomatic officials in Jerusalem have confirmed that a high-level meeting between senior officials from the countries did indeed take place.

"If you would have asked me three years ago, or five years ago, what country would be the last one in the region to make peace with us, I would have said Saudi Arabia," one diplomatic official said. "So if they are meeting with us now, it shows just how worried they are."

And what are the Saudis worried about? They are worried about a nuclear Iran, no less then Israel is. They are worried about Shi'ite extremism, no less than Israel is. And they are worried about al-Qaida, no less than Israel is.

Sources in Jerusalem said that on the three major issues facing Israel: Iran, Lebanon, and the Palestinians, the Saudis were currently playing a constructive role.

Regarding the Iranians, the Saudis are voicing their concerns - but still only in private - about the prospect of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. A nuclear capability would turn Iran into the neighborhood Islamic heavyweight, a status that Riyadh fears might threaten the rich Saudi oil fields somewhere down the line.

As far as Lebanon is concerned, the Saudis, according to Israeli diplomatic sources, were helpful in pushing through UN Security Council Resolution 1701. Furthermore, at least in the beginning of the war in Lebanon, the Saudis came out with unprecedented criticism of Hizbullah's actions.

And regarding the Palestinians, government sources said there had been a dramatic shift in Saudi policy since the height of the Palestinian violence in 2002 and 2003, when the Saudis reportedly provided Hamas with some 70 percent of the organization's budget and sent thousands of dollars to the families of suicide bombers.

Now, according to these sources, the Saudis are placing the "weight of the kingdom on the side of the moderates inside the Palestinian Authority." Given this, Gaza could quickly turn into a place where Saudi Arabia and Iran vie - through the use of their considerable wealth - for the support of the population, with the Iranians supporting Hamas and Saudi Arabia backing Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

Such a Gaza would become a laboratory for the larger regional struggle between the two countries, pitting pro-western, "moderate" elements against extremist, radical Islamic ones.

Which is where Israel fits into the puzzle. The Saudis are looking for strong, moderate players who can be quilted together to counter Iran, al-Qaida and Hizbullah. This moderate swath would run from the Persian Gulf in the east through Iraq (possibly) to Jordan, Israel and Egypt in the west.

"They are looking for moderate elements to serve as a counterbalance to the Iranians, and we fit the description," the official said.

But nothing comes for free. The Saudis want to take the Palestinian-Israeli issue off the agenda to deprive the extremists of nutrition, of an issue to feed off. By solving the Palestinian problem, the Saudis believe, Iranian influence in the region could be limited, and it would also be easier domestically for the Saudis to form a common front with Israel.

As of now, however, their formula for taking the issue off the front burner - the Beirut initiative of 2002 that has been undergoing a bit of a revival of late - has been totally rejected by Israel. The plan calls for a total withdrawal from the West Bank, east Jerusalem - including the Temple Mount - and the Golan in return for a normalization of ties with Arab countries. The initiative also calls for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue in accordance with UN Resolution 194, which calls on Israel to allow the return of Palestinian refugees and to compensate those who don't want to do so.

Diplomatic officials in Jerusalem said they have received no new directives on how to respond to queries about Israel's position on attempts to revise the initiative. Whether the Saudis significantly tweak their initiative to make it more palatable to Israel, and whether Israel does not reject it out of hand, saying instead that it might serve as a basis for something in the future, could be a good indication of whether the current Israeli-Saudi footsie will turn into anything more substantial.

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