A new player has appeared in Israel's political environment in recent months: Saudi Arabia. After years of behind-the-scenes activity, Crown Prince Abdullah has come out with an initiative aimed at "saving the Palestinians" from Ariel Sharon's iron fist and dragging President George W. Bush into deeper involvement in the region.
The American press provides a multitude of reports about the Saudi activities. Last August the prince was furious with Bush, who had expressed firm support for Israel, and the prince threatened to cut off ties with the U.S. In response to the ultimatum, Bush sent a letter to Riyadh, promising to change direction. The Qaida attack on New York and Washington interrupted that plan, which was to include a first meeting between Bush and Yasser Arafat.
This week, Abdullah surprised again. In an interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, Abdullah spoke of a draft speech he has prepared for the upcoming Arab summit in which he would propose full normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for a full withdrawal from the territories.
The Saudis carry a lot of weight in the Arab world, and have significant influence in Washington, even after the erosion of their stature since September 11. Abdullah has good reasons for his sudden interest in the Palestinian problem. He is concerned about the stability of his regime, if the fires spread. It's relatively easy for him to shift attention to the Palestinian problem, given the blow Saudi Arabia suffered in American public opinion after September 11, when it became clear that not only is Osama bin Laden a Saudi, but so were 15 of the 19 hijackers.
Jerusalem has noticed something happening in Saudi Arabia, which has stepped up its pressure on Washington through its long-time Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan. Jerusalem has received reports that the Saudis have contracted a PR firm in the U.S., and they've begun meeting with dozens of congressmen who never interested them in the past.
But Israel knows very little about Saudi Arabia. There's no systematic intelligence collection, there's a modicum of understanding about basic processes and phenomena in the kingdom, but there's no deep penetration of the country. "We're simply not there," says one senior official.
The Americans refused in the past to provide information to Jerusalem about their friends in Riyadh. But that changed somewhat after September 11, especially on matters concerning terrorism. But even now, nobody in the Israeli establishment has any firm knowledge of how decisions are made by Abdullah or about his diplomatic initiatives. Nor is there any real information about Saudi aid to Hamas and similar organizations.
As opposed to Egypt, which maintains channels of communication with the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry, there are no contacts between Jerusalem and Riyadh. Even during the rosiest periods of the Oslo process, the Saudi Arabians maintained a chilly distance.
From their perspective, there's an interesting mirror image of Israel. Just as Israel sees the long arm of the oil emirates in Washington, the Saudis are convinced that the pro-Israeli lobby is behind all the media criticism of Riyadh in America. A very senior official in one of the previous U.S. administrations recently passed the message to Israel that it should lay off Saudi Arabia. It's not your enemy, he told Israeli officials. Saudi Arabia may be extremist in religion, but it is politically very moderate, and it's important not to act against it.
Officials in Jerusalem say there's nothing to worry about. The Saudis depend on the Americans and their stature in Washington is at a nadir. It's enough to track their activity through American sources. That's wrong.
Saudi Arabia's growing involvement, and especially the diplomatic initiatives taken by Crown Prince Abdullah, require a different approach by Israel, both in intelligence collection and in secret diplomacy. Just as the Iranian threat in the last decade required the intelligence community and the political echelon to devote resources and attention, so the threat - and potential - of the political opening in Riyadh require a new approach.
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