Saudis want Obama to get tough with Israel


After working since January to revive its 2002 Arab peace initiative, Riyadh wants to confirm that Obama is willing—unlike former president George W Bush—to put muscle into efforts toward a two-state peace pact between the Israelis and Palestinians, analysts said. “The only thing that can move the Israelis is the Americans,” said Mansour Al Mansour, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies in Riyadh.

“If the US is determined to do it, with a strong president, they can do it,” he said.

The Saudis say they are hopeful of sealing a budding partnership with Obama’s administration after what some call the “lost years” of Bush. “Obama and his team are coming with a lot of credibility,” said a Saudi government policy advisor. “We are on the same wavelength.”

But the way ahead for the world’s leading superpower and a leader of the Arab bloc remains fraught with challenges.

The United States has to wrestle with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to accept the two-state solution or halt expansions of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

And Obama is likely to press The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia to make diplomatic overtures toward Israel and to add juice to efforts to pull rival Palestinian factions together, diplomats and experts in Riyadh said.

While strongly backing peace efforts, the Saudis have been weak at on-the-ground follow-through, such as uniting Palestinian factions in talks, a task which has been left to Egyptian mediators.

On the regional front, both the Americans and Saudis are struggling to come up with a workable strategy to deal with Iran, Riyadh’s Gulf rival which is suspected of seeking nuclear weapons.

Both sides agree, though, that a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians is a keystone to hemming in Tehran, the policy advisor said.

Obama will arrive in Riyadh tomorrow for discussions and a meal with King Abdullah, before heading to Cairo for a long-promised major address to the world’s Muslims.

The Saudis have warmed to Obama after relations became strained with Bush over the US “war on terror” and the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

They have been impressed with Obama’s appointment of former Northern Ireland peace negotiator George Mitchell, who has made two “listening visits” to Riyadh so far this year, as a special envoy for Middle East peace.

King Abdullah has actively sought to be certain he can trust Obama, even making a point of asking visiting Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva about the US leader’s character at a May 17 meeting, a Lula aide said.

Riyadh expects the Cairo speech will reiterate US backing for the two-state solution set out in the Arab peace initiative, for which the Arab League renewed its commitment at a March summit.

The initiative offers blanket Arab recognition of Israel in return for the creation of a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders, with both sides sharing Jerusalem for their capitals. Saudi foreign ministry spokesman Osama Nugali said it is too early to get excited about a possible peace deal, given Netanyahu’s defiance during his meeting with Obama last month in Washington.

“What we have been seeing is negative statements coming out of Israel, which are of great concern for the whole peace of the region,” Nugali said.

Obama and King Abdullah are also expected to address security issues, as well as Saudi-Iraqi relations, Pakistan, oil prices and the more than 200 remaining Guantanamo detainees.

Washington, which aims to remove all US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, has been perturbed by King Abdullah’s refusal to embrace Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki and to open an embassy in Baghdad, diplomats said.

Riyadh worries that Maliki is too close to Iran, and that when US troops withdraw the two countries could become a powerful Shia Muslim bloc in the majority Sunni region.

“We don’t believe that Iraq is viable without a substantial American presence,” said the Saudi government advisor.

Obama is also expected to urge Abdullah to accept some of the roughly 100 Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo into the Saudi rehabilitation programme for Islamist militants.

Officials of the programme have been reluctant, stressing that its success in turning former militants into productive citizens is deeply rooted in Saudi family culture.

“It’s a bad idea, because they didn’t grow up there,” Christopher Boucek, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington who has studied the programme, said.



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