Dear Friends: Princeton, New Jersey
August 3, 2009
Isn’t it amazing how little change takes place over the years in the attitudes and actions of the principal players on the Middle East scene? The article below contains snapshots taken at widely separate times: shortly before and after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and shortly before the invasion of Iraq thirty years later, in 2003. Sadly, we see that very little progress has been made over the intervening years. (Historians: Please take special note of the solemn promises made by President Richard Nixon to King Faisal in December 1972.)
What prompts me to send this to you today is the report last Friday that Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal (mentioned prominently in my report written 36 long years ago, in April 1973), has politely but firmly declined to accede to pressure from the Obama Administration to initiate significant new "confidence-building measures" as an inducement to the Government of Israel to cooperate in halting settlement expansion in Palestine.
Below is an op-ed that I wrote for the International Herald Tribune on Friday, November 29, 2002 -- about four months before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. It focuses primarily on events that took place almost thirty years before that.
International Herald Tribune 29 November 2002
It's time to keep American promises
by Raymond Close
The Mideast linkage factor
WASHINGTON Intelligence analysts and other experienced observers of the Middle East situation have been strangely negligent in failing to draw attention to the important linkage between two political and philosophical decisions of tremendous importance that will soon be faced almost simultaneously in the region, and which could determine the course of history there for many decades.
Within the next two months, Washington will have to decide whether to launch a war of conquest and occupation against Iraq, probably in the absence of clear evidence that would justify that action in the eyes of much of the world and a significant proportion of the American electorate. At almost precisely the same time, the people of Israel will be forced to choose between radically different strategies for the preservation of their national existence: either continued uncompromising and violent confrontation as articulated and practiced by Likud leaders, or an equally dangerous and uncertain path of conciliation and compromise now being propounded by the new leadership of the Labor Party.
These two subjects are linked in a manner that recalls significant events in the history of American foreign policy in the Middle East. Immediately relevant to the debate over existential issues that is already raging in Israel is the potentially ill-fated decision of the Bush administration to tackle Saddam Hussein without first restoring George W. Bush's credibility as a constructive influence on both sides of the Palestine-Israel confrontation.
Absent positive American support for the Arab-Israeli peace process, freshly constructive Israeli policies would be doomed. And likewise, without energetic and demonstrably evenhanded American support for a just settlement, negative and destructive elements on the other side, firmly committed to terrorism and violence, would kill all hope that correspondingly reasonable and moderate Palestinians might emerge as effective partners. The connection between other American regional foreign policy objectives and U.S. dedication to the Arab-Israel peace process has traditionally been referred to as the "linkage factor." But the concept has always been dismissed in Washington as a contemptible effort by enemies of the United States to manipulate American policy.
It has been advocated most vigorously by the Arab side whenever the United States has pursued objectives in the region that were perceived by Arabs to be a distraction from the pursuit of a "just and lasting peace" in Palestine. And, of course, it has been denounced vehemently in Israel whenever Arab interests were perceived to be developing a degree of independent credibility and leverage in relations with the United States.
Speaking from long experience in dealing with leaders of Saudi Arabia, in particular, I can certify to the sincerity and consistency of their commitment to the cause of justice for the Palestinians, and hence their persistent advocacy of linkage between that issue and other policy objectives initiated by Washington.
Today we see this manifested in clear indications from Saudi leaders that a more evenhanded American policy in Palestine is intimately related to Saudi Arabia's ability and willingness to participate in, and support without reservation, America's proposed "regime change" operation in Iraq.
Valuable lessons in understanding the linkage phenomenon can be drawn from a brief review of events as far back in history as the early 1970s, before, during and after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Starting in late 1972, about 10 months before the outbreak of the 1973 war, the late King Faisal began warning President Richard Nixon that other Arab states, led by Iraq and Libya, were beginning to put heavy pressure on him to join them in utilizing what became known as the "oil weapon" against the United States unless the Nixon administration took a more active interest in resolving the Palestine problem. These warnings from Faisal were earnest, and they were urgent. Washington ignored them. Faisal never gave up. He sent his oil minister, Ahmed Zaki Yamani, and others to Washington several times in the next few months to convey that message to everyone who would listen, inside and outside of government. The warning was ignored in most cases. In other instances the messenger was publicly denounced as a crude practitioner of "blackmail."
On April 17, 1973, several months before the Yom Kippur War began, I was informed by my official Saudi intelligence counterparts that Anwar Sadat had reached a decision to begin preparing for a major military assault across the Suez Canal, and that he had informed King Faisal of this decision in a letter received that day.
Sadat acknowledged unashamedly in this letter that he did not expect to win a war against Israel, but he explained that only by restoring Arab honor and displaying Arab courage on the battlefield could he hope to capture the attention of Washington and persuade Henry Kissinger to support a peace process.
The letter was read to me with King Faisal's express permission. In reporting this information, I included news that Prince Saud al Faisal, the king's son and present foreign minister, was being sent to Washington to convey again his father's deep concern, made much more urgent by the message from Sadat, that only a vigorous American peace initiative, urgently undertaken, could avert a regional Middle East war that would inevitably include the imposition of an oil embargo.
King Faisal considered including this message again in written form in a personal letter to Nixon, but he then thought better of the idea. He was tired of writing letters to the American president, he explained, recalling that the last time he had done so it had been three months before he received a reply. Prince Saud was therefore instructed to convey the message verbally.
Again, as usual, Washington paid no heed to this admonition from a wise and dignified gentleman, a proven friend of America for many years.
It was no surprise, then, that when the dire predictions came true six months later, Faisal stood resolutely, shoulder to shoulder, with his Arab brothers. Washington had again failed, through arrogance and ignorance, to appreciate the significance of linkage.
Another significant episode took place several weeks after the Yom Kippur War had ended, but while the oil embargo was still in effect. In a personal letter to King Faisal dated Dec. 3, 1973, President Nixon included the following remarkable passages:
"Looking back over recent years, I recall the many times Your Majesty has written to me of your concern and of your conviction that we should do more to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. You have always given me wise counsel, and in retrospect your advice was well taken and should have been heeded.
"The latest war, and the shadow it has cast over our relations with many of our friends in the Middle East, has demonstrated beyond any doubt that the situation which has existed for so long can no longer be permitted to remain unresolved. "The American people, while they feel a strong commitment to the security and survival of Israel, also harbor friendly feelings toward the Arab world and are well disposed to give responsible Arab views the attention they deserve. The American people have even understood how, in the heat of the recent war, the need to demonstrate solidarity with your Arab compatriots led Your Majesty to institute certain measures with respect to the production and supply of oil.
"With Your Majesty's cooperation, I am prepared to devote the full energies of the U.S. to bringing about a just and lasting peace in the Middle East based on the full implementation of Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, in the adoption of which my government played a major part. You have my total personal committment to work toward that goal.”
The last sentence was added by Nixon in his personal handwriting, with the word "total" underlined twice, and the word "commitment" misspelled. Crown Prince Abdullah has made it very clear that he will not countenance use of the oil weapon today in the way it was employed in 1973 and 1974. However, it is nevertheless certainly true that he has been attempting to influence U.S. policy by the most effective means at his disposal - the withholding of full support for American policy objectives unless and until he sees that the Bush administration recognizes at last the importance of linkage, and demonstrates its sincere determination to fulfill the long succession of American promises to pursue a just and lasting peace in Palestine.
For those of you who may be interested in pursuing this subject in a more specific and immediately contemporary context, I strongly commend a supurb explanation of the current Saudi position by Chas Freeman, former U.S.ambassador to Saudi Arabia, which I have included below. I have abbreviated the text somewhat to focus on the particular issue under discussion. Ambassador Freeman was responding to a series of questions from a reporter:
This is an abbreviated summary:
Question: Can you talk more about the idea of confidence building measures?
The Saudis and others feel that they have been repeatedly subjected to blandishments from well-wishers of Israel. Some were sincere efforts toward peace in the Middle East; some were disingenuous. People have said if the Arabs do something nice for Israel this will somehow get you something in terms of an Israeli gesture -- progress towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
In fact absolutely none of the gestures that have been made, including the very important one of the Arab League's Beirut Declaration of 2002 -- the so-called Arab Peace Initiative -- has resulted in any positive response from the Israelis. They have been content to pocket whatever has been offered and to do nothing in return.
There is no predisposition whatsoever -- in fact a lot of predisposition to the contrary -- on the Arab side to pay for what Israel, in its own interest, ought to do. Moreover, the matter at issue is much less than Israel pulling settlements out of the Occupied Territories. The United States is now simply asking Israel to stop their expansion. While that would be a very useful first step in getting back into a dialogue or process that could lead to peace, in itself it doesn't produce peace. It doesn't undo the damage that Israel has done to the prospects for peace by building settlements all over the place.
It's also quite apparent from Prime Minister Netanyahu's comments, for example about Jerusalem, that the current Israeli government, and probably the majority of Israelis as well, do not accept the premises that the United States is putting forward.
In the case of the Saudis and Arabs, they have offered what they believe is a very reasonable quid pro quo for peace in the form of a bonus to Israel for reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. They believe that it is in Israel's interest to do so. The Arabs are not prepared to make down payments, to bargain or to haggle over the details of what the Israeli and Palestinian peace is going to look like. That is something that Israel must do with its captive Palestinians, not the Arabs at large. I don't expect this position to change.
The Saudis in particular and the Arabs in general have already put a very generous offer on the table in the form of the Beirut Declaration. It is an incentive, a major incentive in their view, for Israel to reach agreement with the Palestinians. The Arabs believe that Israel ought to want to reach such an agreement. Their reward to Israel for such a self-interested agreement would be the normalization of Israel's relations with all the Arab countries including Saudi Arabia. This is a major gesture for the Saudis to have made. They neither asked for nor have they received any quid pro quo for it.
Nobody in the region outside Israel wants more “peace process;” they want an actual peace. So I think it's a basic misreading of Arab sentiment and the Saudi position to presume that somehow there are trade-offs to be done in return for some sort of Israeli inching toward a return to a “peace process.” But the possibility of such a trade-off seems to be the basic assumption in the Administration's policy. If that was the assumption of the president's staff and they went to Riyadh only to discover that this assumption was emphatically not shared by the Saudis, and was in fact rejected, that entirely predictable outcome would account for the reported sense on the part of some that things didn't go well. It is not, of course, that the United States cannot or should not ask help from the Saudis on peace in the Holy Land, it is that such requests have to be realistic. They have to take account of Saudi views if they are to have any chance of success.
The Saudis, for their part, in saying that things did go well, seem to have been referring to the fact that they were impressed by the President's sincerity and seriousness of purpose on this issue. They appear to accept that this is a man who understands the issues and is trying to find a way to deal with them. However, until the United States persuades Israel to accept and begin implementing the framework of peace -- the United Nations Security Council Resolutions, the “road map” and other agreements which call for Israel's acceptance -- until that moment I don't think there's any prospect of a quid pro quo from the Arabs.
So you have a difference of opinion. The American side is thinking that any gesture by Israel, of any kind, should be paid for with some gesture from the Arabs. You have the Arabs saying no, we've made it clear that we're not paying anything until something concrete happens.
Question: How do you account for the variance between what the Administration thought it could achieve in Riyadh – if one were to accept the premise of “The Cable” report – and what the sentiment was in the Kingdom toward a reciprocal gesture.
There are two broad issues. First, there's the question that many people have asked, "Can the same old people produce a new policy?" What you have is an amazing amount of continuity on this issue from one Administration to another in terms of people who are dealing with it. Dennis Ross has emerged as a symbol of this for all concerned.
Second there is frankly an issue of objectivity and effectiveness. Can a group of people, virtually all of whom have close personal ties to Israel and much empathy for the Israeli point of view but no such experience, ties, or feeling for the Arab world, can they accurately predict or gauge the political requirements of the Arab sides to this dispute as they do for the Israeli side? The evidence over the past twenty years is no, they cannot. That is to my mind part of the reason for the failure of the second Camp David process. The Bush Administration didn't even try until the very end and then it did so in a way that was almost farcically unrealistic.
We now seem to have another American diplomatic effort essentially focused on Israeli politics, and helping the Israelis make decisions that they ought to be able to make on their own, if they are really interested in achieving acceptance in the region. Acceptance is, of course, the issue. The State of Israel cannot presume that people in the region will accept or endorse its right to exist until they see that its existence is compatible with the cause of justice and consistent with their own interests.
Israel has certainly not recently been prepared to do anything to end that lack of acceptance by its neighbors. But Israel absolutely requires such acceptance to guarantee its existence as a state in the Middle East over the long term. So this is a major problem. It is pretty clear that the present government of Israel believes it doesn't need political acceptance from its Arab neighbors because it has the drop on them -- military superiority -- and a continuing blank check from the United States. So, in its view, it doesn't really have to compromise on the issue of a Palestinian state.
I would say the Netanyahu government has not just zero credibility on this in the region and more broadly in the international community, but it has actually less than zero credibility. That's because almost everybody believes it is acting insincerely and in a deceptive fashion. So in this context to ask the Arabs to do something for Israel just seems quite unrealistic.