The key figure in Middle Eastern diplomacy is Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi Arabian National Security Adviser. Bandar is the man behind the Mecca agreement between Fatah and Hamas for the establishment of a Palestinian unity government. He was also active in calming the rival parties in Lebanon, and has tried to mediate between Iran and the U.S. administration. Two weeks ago he brought President George W. Bush up to date on his efforts, and last week he participated in a meeting of intelligence chiefs from Arab states with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, which took place in Amman the day after the tripartite meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem.
There are many indications that the prince, who served 22 years as Saudi ambassador to Washington, is behind the quiet slide his country is making toward Israel since the end of the second Lebanon war. In September, Bandar met with Olmert in Jordan. The secret meeting was made public in Israel later.
Since their meeting, Olmert has on a number of occasions commended the Saudi peace initiative of 2002, to which Bandar contributed actively.
Israel opposed the Mecca agreement, but Olmert decided to soften the criticism and describe it as an "internal Palestinian agreement." The Prime Minister justified the decision, in part by expressing concern that strong criticism would be construed as an insult to Saudi Arabia and might lead it to alter its position on Iran.
Not first encounter
Bandar's meeting with Olmert was not the first encounter of the Saudi prince with the Israeli establishment. According to statesmen, senior military officers and former intelligence officers, Bandar has had contact with Israel at least since 1990. Bandar was careful to keep his distance from Israeli ambassadors to Washington, and opted for links to Israel that did not operate along the diplomatic channels. The Saudi prince, who is celebrating his 58th birthday, had dedicated his career to furthering stability in the Middle East, which is in the interest of the Saudi kingdom.
His talks with Israelis focused on two subjects: blocking strategic threats from Iraq during the 1990s and from Iran today, and furthering the peace process between Israel, Syria and the Palestinians. Saudi Arabia is particularly sensitive to the Palestinian issue. The weekly cabinet meetings in Saudi Arabia, which take place every Monday and are led by King Abdullah, always begin with a long report on the "Palestine situation," and only then does the meeting move on to other governmental affairs.
In a biography of Bandar, "The Prince", which was published four months ago in the U.S., there is no mention of his meetings with Israelis. But the prince does explain how his interest in Israel began many years ago. It started when he was undergoing pilot training in Britain in 1969 and met another pilot who presented himself as an Israeli. Bandar says he immediately felt hatred for the man who up to that point he had liked. But that feeling made him think, he says, that if there was a chance to get to know each other better, it would be possible to break the stereotypes. Indeed, Bandar made great efforts to meet many other Israelis.
Bandar began his diplomatic career with a huge fight against the pro-Israel lobby in the United States, AIPAC, which tried to torpedo the sale of AWACS early-warning aircraft to the Saudi air force. The Saudis won that round and since then Bandar considers himself a one-man lobby against the mighty AIPAC. Bandar reached the apex of his influence during the administration of the current president's father, George H.W. Bush.
The book also hints at the way Bandar's links with Israelis were forged. In the spring of 1990, Saddam Hussein threatened to "burn half of Israel." King Fahd was worried of a possible regional conflagration, and dispatched the prince to Baghdad. Saddam told him he would not attack Israel, and Bandar rushed to pass on the message to Bush and secure an Israeli promise that it would not undertake a preemptive strike. In retrospect Bandar said that Saddam had probably used him to secure his flank against an Israeli attack and embark on the occupation of Iraq in August 1990.
At about the same time it was reported that Saudi Arabia had procured Chinese-made surface-to-surface missiles. According to the book, Bandar was successful in assuring Israel through his American contacts that the missiles were not directed against it, and in return he received promises that Israel would not attack Tabuk airport southeast of Eilat.
Following the Gulf War in 1991, in which Saudi Arabia participated on the side of the U.S., the Americans initiated the peace process that began with the summit in Madrid. The Saudis participated but kept a low-key presence, preserving their links to Israel without making the ties official, like some of their Gulf neighbors.
At the time of the Oslo Accords, Bandar had a direct link to the Israeli embassy in Washington and held informal talks with ambassador Itamar Rabinovitch. During the peace talks under Ehud Barak, the role of the prince became very significant and he became involved in a number of moments of crisis. When the talks with Syria at the Shepherdstown Summit reached an impasse, Barak sent minister Amnon Shahak, who was a member of the Israeli delegation, for a meeting with Bandar. It did not help. Bandar later recalled that U.S. President Bill Clinton asked him to carry out a secret visit to Syrian President Hafez Assad to convince the Syrian leader that he should attend a "final opportunity" summit in Geneva. Assad agreed to attend, but the summit failed and the negotiations between Israel and Syria have been stuck since.
In late 2000 the efforts focused on the Palestinian track. Following the failure of the Camp David summit and the outbreak of the intifada, Bandar tried to pressure Yasser Arafat to accept the Clinton Initiative. In retrospect the prince considers Arafat's failure to accept the offer as criminal.
Following the 9/11 attack, the American agenda changed and the Palestinian leader, whom Bandar was trying to bring to Washington, was marked as being in the "evil" camp in the war against terror declared by the current President Bush.
At a University of Oklahoma conference on the Middle East in 2002, Bandar described the government of Israel as "fanatical" and accused Benjamin Netanyahu of being an "extremist and a failed political lightweight." Bandar also blamed Netanyahu for the incitement that led to the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, whom he called a "wise and brave man." The prince also called on Israelis to adopt the Saudi peace initiative instead of "violence, destruction and collective punishment of 3 million Palestinians."
Late in 2005, Saudi Arabia announced that Bandar was completing his tenure as ambassador to Washington and that he was returning to head the National Security Council. His father, Prince Sultan, became crown prince following the death of King Fahd and the crowning of Abdullah in his place.
During the first few months of his return to the Saudi capital Riyadh, Bandar disappeared from the media spotlight, and there was a great deal of speculation regarding his waning influence. But he seems to have reappeared, both in efforts to mediate between Iran and the U.S. and in meetings with the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani.
Israel has great interest in these talks. Americans and Israelis who have met Bandar describe him as one who exaggerates, and suggest that his stories be handled with care. But his American biographer, William Simpson, suggests that Bandar's efforts be given a chance. Describing his subject as a "prince of hope," Simpson says that the entire Middle East needs Bandar's diplomatic and mediation skills.