Uncle Sam and the Saudi Split

Why is the House of Saud risking its hard-won relationship with Washington over the Palestine statehood issue?

Saudi Arabia, the Arab world's richest and most powerful state, is once again at loggerheads with the United States, its longtime patron, oil customer, and weapons dealer. The current split opened with the U.S. abandonment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in January and widened as President Barack Obama's administration haltingly embraced pro-democracy demands from the Arab street -- a trend the kingdom staunchly and unequivocally opposes.

Those differences are yet again on painful display this week at the United Nations, where Saudi Arabia will join other Arab countries -- and over 100 other U.N. members -- in supporting the recognition of a Palestinian state in the world body, a move the United States has committed itself to opposing strenuously on behalf of its closest Middle East ally, Israel.

But Saudi Arabia and the United States have been at odds for much of the last decade, over not just Palestine but also terrorism, energy policy, and the Iraq war. The question is whether repeated strains in the relationship starting even before the 9/11 attacks are leading toward a substantive shift in the kingdom's attitude toward its main foreign protector for the past seven decades. This is a question of major strategic importance for the United States given the kingdom's role as the world's top oil producer in terms of capacity (12.5 million barrels a day) and its No. 4 ranking in foreign exchange holdings ($540 billion). The Saudis continue to hold out against demands from some other oil producers for payment in currency other than the U.S. dollar, partly or totally. What would be the consequences if they agreed to a change in this policy? Is Obama willing to find out?

The United States and Saudi Arabia have always had trouble describing how they relate to each other. For decades, the core of the relationship was summed up in the cryptic description of "oil for security," meaning assured Saudi oil supplies at reasonable prices in return for assured U.S. security of the kingdom against its external enemies, be it Iraq, Iran, or al Qaeda.

In the early 1970s, the two countries coined the term "special relationship," even while Saudi Arabia steadfastly refused to become a "non-NATO ally" of the United States, like Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan, or sign any formal defense agreements. After 9/11, neither side spoke any longer about a "special relationship." It took four years to adopt the term "strategic dialogue," the same used to describe U.S. engagement with China, India, Israel, Pakistan, and Russia.

The deepening divide between the U.S. and Saudi policies toward the spate of democratic uprisings in the Arab world became painfully obvious in March over the fate of the Al Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain, an island 16 miles off the kingdom's eastern coast. Hundreds of thousands of Shiites, who constitute the vast majority of Bahraini nationals, took to the streets to demand first reforms and eventually an end to the centuries-old ruling Sunni dynasty. As U.S. diplomats urgently pressed the Al Khalifa monarchy to make major reforms, the Saudis sent in troops to help the ruling family crush the pro-democracy uprising.

Six months later, the United States and Saudi Arabia are still at deep odds over Bahrain, while the Palestinian issue is back at the center of their differences. The issue has periodically re-emerged as a bone of contention ever since the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty left the fate of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories unresolved. So have various U.S.-inspired Israeli-Palestinian negotiations ever since. There is probably more pent-up Saudi frustration with Washington over the unresolved Palestinian issue than any other in the relationship.

It is worth remembering that Saudi King Abdullah became so furious with President George W. Bush just before 9/11 that he wrote an angry letter warning that if Washington did not do something quickly to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Saudi Arabia intended to freeze its relations with Washington and go its own way. Bush scrambled to pacify the king, but the presence of 15 Saudis among the 9/11 hijackers so traumatized both countries that their relations effectively froze anyway.

King Abdullah then cast about for other political and military partners that could replace the United States, engaging in an exchange of visits with the leaders of China, India, Pakistan, and Turkey. But he soon discovered that none was likely, or even militarily capable, of coming to the kingdom's rescue the way the United States had done when Iraqi forces rolled across Kuwait to the Saudi border in August 1990.

While the prospect for a nasty U.S.-Saudi exchange over the Palestine issue looms large, both sides have to calculate whether either can afford a major rift with the Middle East in such political turmoil and Iran pushing full speed ahead with its nuclear program.

A rift now would, among other consequences, put in jeopardy six years of painstaking efforts to repair and repackage the two countries' post-9/11 ties. Those efforts started with King Abdullah's much-publicized hand-holding encounter with Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2005. After 22 years, Saudi Arabia sent a new ambassador, Prince Turki al-Faisal, to replace the worn-out Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and King Abdullah and Bush set up six committees to revive every aspect of the relationship, from expediting Saudi students' access to U.S. universities to deepening military and security cooperation.

King Abdullah had even higher expectations and hopes for a new U.S. Middle East policy when Obama came into office in January 2009 promising a "new beginning" in America's relations with the Muslim world and an immediate relaunch of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. His endeavor proved short-lived, however, and he lost his test of wills with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over continuing Israeli construction in the West Bank. From the Saudi perspective, Obama, for all his goodwill, had quickly failed to walk his talk.

The Saudi king has sent several subtle indicators of his mounting anger at Obama's announced intention to veto U.N. recognition of Palestine even as a nonvoting observer state. He has slowed the implementation of the Saudi plan to purchase $60 billion in U.S. arms, the keystone of a proposed new U.S.-Saudi military relationship for decades to come and a helpful "stimulus package" for the beleaguered U.S. economy.

King Abdullah has also done nothing to dissuade the Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas from a showdown with Washington at the United Nations. Nor has he signaled any difference of opinion with Prince Turki, the former Saudi ambassador to Washington, who warned in a recent New York Times op-ed of calamity in U.S.-Saudi relations should Washington veto U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state.

So once again the Saudis find themselves staring at a test of their tangled relationship with Washington. Is a U.S. veto of a Palestinian state worth jeopardizing the new security and military cooperation with Washington? However angry Saudi leaders are today, they have acknowledged again and again that when it comes to countering the threat from Iran, there is only "one game in town" -- namely, the military might of Uncle Sam. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has even suggested that the United States would be ready to establish a "defense umbrella" overt the Arab Gulf states to protect them against a nuclear-armed Iran.

Nonetheless, King Abdullah remains a man of high emotion and occasional spur-of-the-moment decisions, a character trait that could still produce an unexpected turn in the unsettled U.S.-Saudi relationship.



The Do-Nothing Strategy

It's time for Obama to realize that with the 2012 elections in the offing, expending any effort on a Middle East peace process is a losing battle.

Governing is about choosing. And a much-diminished American president has made his choice. Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking isn't and shouldn't be Barack Obama's top priority. Getting reelected is. And that means carefully husbanding his eroding political currency and expending it on matters domestic and economic. Despite all the kerfuffle at the United Nations this week, the last thing he needs to do is pick an unproductive fight with Israel or the Republicans on an Israeli-Palestinian peace process that has been dead for some time now.

The "sky is falling" crowd bemoaning the loss of American influence on the peace process ought to stop whining. There's no deal now that anyone can broker. The president is right to protect his political flanks. This isn't cheap or dirty politics; it's smart. If Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas forces a vote on U.N. membership in the Security Council this week or next month, Obama should veto it and sleep well that night.

Let's get the easy stuff out of the way. First, Palestinians deserve an independent state living in peace and security alongside Israel. They've suffered enough; their cause is just and compelling. Abbas is a good man who has eschewed violence and together with his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, has begun to create the infrastructure and institutions of statehood. The Palestinians' desire to change the paradigm by shifting from an arena where they have limited influence (bilateral negotiations with Israel) to the international arena where they have more is as understandable as it is unwise. Indeed, nothing that will happen in New York this week or next that will bring Palestinians any closer to realizing real statehood; it could, in fact, take them farther away.

Second, we can blame everything on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from morning to night -- but it would be an unfair and dishonest analysis. There's no doubt that Israeli settlement activity and inflexible positions on Jerusalem, borders, refugees, and security have made this Israeli government a tough and often recalcitrant partner in the peace process. Still, the last time I looked, this Israeli government is a legitimate result of political and coalition realities in a democratic polity; and, I might add, with 32 governments since independence (the average length being 1.8 years) it's also proving pretty durable.

To put the entire blame for the current impasse on Netanyahu just doesn't add up. The gaps on the core issues, particularly the identity issues -- Jerusalem and refugees -- have been unbridgeable for more than a decade now -- in Ehud Barak's negotiations with Yasir Arafat back in 2000 and Ehud Olmert's with Abbas in 2010. Furthermore, the current Palestinian polity is more Humpty Dumpty than an authoritative, cohesive political partner. A significant part of it (Hamas) sits in Gaza and competes with the one that sits in Ramallah -- not just over seats in a parliament, but on the basic issue of where and what Palestine should be. The current PA lacks a monopoly over the forces of violence, political strategy, resources, even people. And no Israeli government will be willing to make a deal with a partner that doesn't control and silence all of the guns of Palestine.

Third, while the long arc of history may smile kindly on the North African uprisings in regard to democracy, gender equality, human rights, and the rule of law, the so-called Arab Spring these days looks more like a winter in places such as Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain. Even in Egypt -- a success story -- seven months later, the vast majority of people seem less secure, less prosperous; and with the military reimposing emergency regulations, it may be that they're also less free to criticize their leaders. The Egypt-Israel relationship has also taken some serious hits, as the mob attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo this month attests. If that relationship goes south in a serious way, you can forget about Israeli-Palestinian peace. The fact is, the changes in the Arab world that Obama so breathlessly referred to in his General Assembly speech actually have added uncertainty and complications to Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

Fourth, there is no conflict-ending agreement now available to Israelis and Palestinians. The gaps are just too big, the suspicions too deep, and the regional environment too uncertain; and the capacity of an American (or any other mediator) to serve as an effective broker is just too implausible. The last thing we need right now is a cleverly worded French, American, or Quartet statement to launch a negotiation that will raise false hopes once again and lead to a collapse. Such an outcome would in many ways be worse than a General Assembly resolution upgrading the PLO to nonmember observer status -- further dragging down American credibility and reinforcing the notion that diplomacy and negotiation simply can't work.

Into this mix enters Obama, reeling in the polls and being battered by all sides. But the president isn't responsible for failing to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Bill Clinton under more auspicious circumstances couldn't. What Obama is responsible for, however, is raising expectations: focusing on a settlements freeze that was unachievable, backing down when Netanyahu refused to agree, and failing to make up his mind about whether he wants to pander to the Israeli prime minister or punish him. If it was simply a personal matter, Obama would probably choose the latter: He sees Bibi as a con man; he's deeply frustrated with his intransigence; and accordingly he has failed to create much of a relationship. Nearly three years into the Obama administration, we find ourselves with no negotiations, sagging American credibility, and no prospects of an agreement.

Did the president have an alternative? Could he have done things differently these many months? I have close friends, former colleagues whom I respect and admire greatly, who argue yes. He could've laid out a U.S. plan, been tougher with Israel, empowered Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to take control of this process (though I suspect her political instincts told her all along that this dog wouldn't bark and wanted to steer clear). In short, the president could have made Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking a top priority -- the sine qua non for any serious initiative.

I don't agree with any of this, of course. Neither Abbas nor Netanyahu would be willing to pay the necessary price required for a deal. But who really knows in the wonderful world of counterfactuals?

But here we are. It's September in New York. And as Ella Fitzgerald sang, a time for "dreamers with empty hands/they sigh for exotic lands." Add to this a level of hysteria, muddled thinking, perceived crisis, and unrealism that I haven't seen in three decades. This sad state of affairs is driven by a perfect storm of factors: the Arab Spring/Winter, growing Israeli isolation, Palestinian frustrations, and election-year calculations. It almost certainly won't have a happy ending.

The outcome is likely to be lose-lose for just about everyone. A veto would be bad for U.S. interests in the region; a false start to another round of negotiations might be worse. Actually, a General Assembly resolution (if it were properly crafted) might be the least-bad outcome; but that would require everyone to rise to a new level of enlightenment rarely seen on Arab-Israeli issues. The real crisis, of course, will come the day after, when the sad, grim reality -- the absence of a true conflict-ending agreement -- still confronts us all. And don't be surprised if the forces of history and conflict slowly overcome the forces of diplomacy.

Still, amid all the fog and confusion, the road for this American president has never been clearer. Foreign policy will do very little to boost his credibility. It will either be neutral or drag him down. Against the backdrop of diminished credibility, a failing economy, and polls indicating that 70 percent of the American public thinks the country is headed in the wrong direction, neither the killing of Osama bin Laden nor a successful policy toward Libya has done much to boost Obama's sagging prestige. His problem is at home, and it is strategic. He cannot allow himself to be diverted and distracted by costly fights with important domestic constituencies; nor can he give his Republican opponents easy issues with which to hammer him. Most American Jews will still vote Democratic, but in a close election (Florida is a recurring dream/nightmare) nothing should be taken for granted. In such a campaign, you can't afford to give the opposition any ground, least of all a way to mobilize its own base by raising money and exploiting highly combustible issues like Israel.

A veto, should it come to that, will be bad for American interests. The president's credibility in the Arab and Muslim world is already low. The United States is neither admired, feared, nor respected as much as it needs to be in a part of the world vital to its national interests. I'm not even sure that the Israelis respect the United States anymore. But at the moment, an unproductive fight over a U.N. resolution that means little, criticizing a close ally in Israel, or a risky initiative that alienates an important domestic constituency is just not a vital national interest. If you're a Democrat, frightened by the possibility of a Republican victory in November 2012, then increasing the chances of Obama's reelection is a vital national interest. And even for those Democrats who happen to dream of a Middle East peace, reelecting Obama next year -- not trying to cobble something together now -- should be the primary goal.

On balance, the president is right to attend to his domestic political interests at a time when there is little or nothing he can do to pursue the Arab-Israeli process. After all, that peace process, however grim its prospects may be, will be around for some time to come; Barack Obama may not.

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