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The Israeli-Saudi war of weakness

05/10/2004

Who better understands the relationship -- if that is the right word -- between Israel and Saudi Arabia: Robert Novak or Thomas Friedman?

My view is, neither. Here's why.

In his April 29 column, Novak, the veteran syndicated Israel-basher and champion of Republican administrations, put the best possible face on the portrayal of U.S.-Saudi cooperation in Bob Woodward's new book Plan of Attack.

Publicity about the book has overlooked Woodward's account of the Saudi connection. While the Israeli government and its ardent American supporters have waged a disinformation campaign against the kingdom, Prince Bandar bin Sultan -- a senior member of the Washington diplomatic corps -- actively collaborated in preparing for war. Early in 2003, he went to Paris to try to bring around an obdurate French President Jacques Chirac.
This remark echoes the Saudi rhetorical obsession with an alleged Jewish/Zionist "smear campaign" against the Kingdom. That pattern is in turn part of a more general Arab habit of blaming all crimes or misfortunes on the "Zionist entity."

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman took note of this phenomenon in his May 9 column, writing:

A week ago we were treated again to absurd Saudi allegations that "Zionists" were behind the latest bombing in Saudi Arabia, because, said Saudi officials, "Zionists" clearly benefit from these acts. Someone ought to tell the Saudis this: Don't flatter yourselves. The only interest Israelis have in Saudi Arabia is flying over it to get to India and China -- countries that actually trade and manufacture things other than hatred of "infidels."
Just as Novak was trying to make a point about a book, Friedman, too, was thinking about something other than patterns of Israeli-Saudi interaction. He was instead focusing on the social and economic dysfunction of the Arab world. So perhaps I am taking these casual side comments too seriously, but I believe they do represent common assumptions about the issue. They are polar opposites, and they are almost equally wrong.

"Patterns of interaction" is probably a better term than "relations." It's probably to be expected that Saudi and Israeli diplomats meet discreetly from time to time. Both sides had a seat at the post-Gulf War multilateral talks that started in Madrid and continued fitfully for a few years. But there is currently no official contact between the two sides.

Instead, the record is mainly one of limited conflict. Saudi Arabia has long railed against the Jewish State and offered financial support to various anti-Israeli terrorist organizations. The Saudi and Israeli armed forces skirmished in 1948 and again in 1973, and Israel has kept a wary eye on Saudi military modernization, particularly involving the basing of advanced aircraft near southern Israel or the deployment of long-range missiles. Israel occupied a few uninhabited Red Sea islands in Saudi territory from the June 1967 war until the withdrawal from Sinai.

In brief, the two sides are hardly mortal enemies, but they aren't too friendly, either.

But this litany of historical footnotes obscures the real Israeli-Saudi battlefield, which is Washington, DC. In their different ways, both Middle Eastern states depend on the goodwill and assistance of the United States; sometimes, the needs of one side conflict with the needs of the other. Clashes ensue. At different points in the 1970s, the two sides managed to advance out of their embassies and establish forward positions at opposite ends of Pennsylvania Ave.: Israel on Capitol Hill and Saudi Arabia in the White House.

The most important weapon wielded in these battles lately isn't lobbying clout or petrodollars. It's initimidation through weakness. Both Israeli and Saudi leaders have found that advertising the fragility of their own states -- each one a key U.S. ally in a troubled region -- is a good way to counter American positions they perceive as contrary to their own best interests. Often that means countering an American position taken at the behest of the other side.

For example, in late August of 2001, with the Palestinian uprising almost a year old, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah wanted to see the U.S. take some sort of action to produce Israeli concessions. So he wrote a letter to U.S. President George W. Bush, saying that U.S.-Saudi relations were at a crossroads, and without some new initiative, he would have to sever the old ties with America in order to preserve credibility with his own people. The letter reportedly stated, "I will not be the Shah of Iran."

Two months later, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon signalled the beginning of the end of his policy of relative restraint by giving a televised speech, which he delivered in English. The bottom line, Sharon said, was that "We will not be Czechoslovakia."

As it happens, Abdullah's gambit was more successful than Sharon's. But by the spring of 2002, a grave escalation in suicide bombings shifted the balance of fervor between the two sides. I'll discuss this development in a continuation to follow.

Analyst

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