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November 2006

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Pres. George W. Bush and Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar.

The President's Saudi Moment
Woodward tells the story.

-- M. J. Rosenberg

Bob Woodward's latest book, State of Denial," is loaded with new information about the Iraq war --- how it began and how it has been conducted. But it also includes some new information about the Bush administration and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As is well known, the Bush family is very close to the Saudi ruling family. They are so close that when then Governor George W. Bush was thinking of running for President, his father asked Prince Bandar, then Saudi ambassador to the United States, to come to Texas and essentially conduct a tutorial on Middle East issues for the future President.

As recounted by Woodward, Bandar provided a balanced look at the issues and personalities that constitute the Middle East conflict (including the Israeli leaders he knows). Bandar even told Bush to avoid taking stands that would turn the pro-Israel community against him but rather to do and say whatever was necessary to get elected.

That is how much the Saudis wanted Bush to win.

There is no evidence that President Bush is any less close to the Saudis today. Given America's ever-growing oil dependence, the Iraq war, and the Shiite-Iran surge, the Saudis loom larger than ever.

As for the Saudis, they need America more than ever as well.

As Woodward tells the story, the Saudis have repeatedly told Bush that they (like the Jordanians, Egyptians and other moderate Arab regimes) are in a precarious position these days. During the period covered by Woodward, the Palestinian intifada was raging and Arabs worldwide were enraged by the means Israel was using to suppress it. The Saudis, and the others, were under heavy pressure from the Arab street to take a stronger stand against Israel. In Egypt and Jordan, the peace treaties with Israel --- so vital to Israel's security --- became increasingly unpopular with the masses who view them as having done nothing for the Arabs while strengthening Israel's position.

The Saudis, who rarely, if ever, admit to any political weakness at home, told Bush that even they were feeling the heat. Bandar begged Bush to do something, anything, to help ease the plight of the Palestinians. Bush responded with his call for establishment of a Palestinian state and a speech outlining his ideas for how to go about establishing it. The Roadmap soon followed.

But then, nothing, or very little, happened, leaving the Saudis pretty much where they were at the beginning.

The precarious position of the Arab moderates has only become more so in recent months.

The reason is that radical Shiism is on the march.

Iraq, previously a state dominated by the Sunni minority, is now dominated by Shiites. The Iraq war reduced the previous antagonism between Shiite Iran and Sunni Iraq -- antagonism so bitter that the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980's cost a million lives. It has been replaced by a tentative alliance that very likely will become a full-blown one after the United States leaves. (In Israel last April, a group of Israeli professors and government officials --- right, left, and centrist --- told an Israel Policy Forum group that the US invasion of Iraq ?overnight ended a thousand years of Sunni hegemony and replaced it with Shiite hegemony.")

The Shiite drive accelerated during the Lebanon war. Hezbollah's military successes against the Israel Defense Force made Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, the heroes of the entire Muslim world: Sunni and Shiite. Sunni Muslims in places like Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Pakistan, who had previously barely considered Shiites to be real Muslims, now lauded Hezbollah for standing up to Israel.

According to the Washington Post, Sunnis throughout the Arab world are even converting to Shiism to express solidarity with Nasrallah. "Even the [extreme Sunni] Wahhabis and the Shiites are getting together," one analyst in Damascus told the Post. "Such a phenomenon. Who would have thought we would see it." It is a phenomenon that must be very unsettling to the Saudis, the patrons of the Wahhabi movement and about as shocking as if the ultra-Orthodox in Israel joined up with the Reform movement!

The restlessness that Bandar told Bush about three years ago has greatly intensified.

And that explains some recent developments.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington this week, the current Saudi ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal, said that ?America's standing in every Arab and Muslim country is at its lowest ever'' and that the United States can only change that by moving on the Israeli-Palestinian front. ``Because of the special relationship that America'' has with Israel, U.S. officials can urge Israel ``to come forward and be more contributive to the peace efforts."

That isn't new. The Saudis have been saying that for years although their position on how to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian agreement has moderated while their near desperation to achieve one has increased.

The new ingredient is that the Saudis now view Israel as facing the same threat they now confront: Shiite radicalism. While before they simply said that Israel should just do whatever the Palestinians want to end the conflict, now they are saying that they will work with both Israelis and Palestinians to craft a solution.

That is the meaning of the meeting which Yediot Achronoth reports took place two weeks ago between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and a top Saudi official. Yediot reports the meeting took place in Jordanian King Abdullah's Amman palace late at night, after Olmert was flown there along with Prime Minister's Bureau Chief of Staff Yoram Turbowicz, Mossad Director Meir Dagan, and Military Secretary Maj. Gen. Gadi Shamni.

The only details Yediot has are these: ?The main issue was the threat posed by Iran by its attempts to obtain nuclear weapons and spread Shiite terror in the region. Olmert and his hosts reached an understanding at the meeting that secret intelligence cooperation should be continued against the Iranian threats."

This is very significant. If these reports are correct, and most observers believe they are, the Saudis are working with Israel to defuse the greatest single threat to Israel's existence, that of a nuclear Iran. This is a development that would have been unimaginable a few years ago when Saudi Arabia was the de facto head of the rejectionist front.

It is also a development that requires new thinking on all our parts.

The Saudis are now considering re-submitting their Arab League plan for peace with Israel. Reportedly, the Saudis have amended it since it was first introduced in 2002. In its previous incarnation, it would have required Israel to relinquish all of the territories occupied in 1967 as a precondition to negotiations toward a peace agreement between Israel and the entire Arab League.

The current version drops the precondition and envisions negotiations under international auspices toward a final status agreement that would establish a Palestinian state, guarantee Israel's security and secure full recognition of Israel by all the members of the Arab League (that is, all the Arab states). In exchange, Israel would relinquish the ?67 territories which would constitute the Palestinian state.

This is a possibility that needs to be pursued, and now, while the Bush administration is in office.

The relationship Woodward describes between the Bush family and the Saudi royals needs to be utilized to advance one of America's most critical strategic goals in the Middle East: resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There is a unique constellation here which will not be around much longer. The Israelis and Saudis both have deep trust in the same US administration, the same President. And they both seem to have come around to the understanding that they face a common threat, the threat posed by Shiite radicalism.

In five weeks this administration goes into the final stretch of its eight-year term. That means it is legacy time. What better legacy could this administration leave on the foreign policy front than resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

A fantasy? Perhaps. But then so is the image of Prime Minister Olmert and Jordanian King Abdullah smoking cigars with the Saudis at the palace in Amman and discussing mutual threats. But that apparently happened.

President Bush should go for it. Eleven Presidents have had to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict and the negative impact it has had on US interests. Wouldn't it be a gift to the next President --- not to mention to Israelis and Arabs --- if the next one didn't?