Is the king of Saudi Arabia - a country notorious for promising much more than it ever delivers - a man of peace?
Leading a recent U.N. General Assembly conference titled “Culture of Peace,” King Abdullah, also known as “the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” - a title that carries great importance in the Arab and Muslim world - sought respect back home, in the greater region, and in America. Addressing the assembly in an interfaith conference, the Saudi king promised to continue “extending our hand to all those advocating peace, justice, and tolerance.”
The Israelis, for one, smelled an opening. In his address to the assembly, King Abdullah skipped any reference to Middle East peace efforts - including his own so-called “Saudi initiative.” But Israel’s President Shimon Peres heaped praises on that vague 2002 Saudi blueprint, which later that year became official in Beirut, where it was dubbed the Arab Peace Plan.
In his speech at the assembly, Mr. Peres took pains to quote directly from passages of the Saudi-led plan. Naturally, he quoted those parts that Israel accepts: a declaration that peace is the strategic choice of all Arabs, and a generalized commitment that Arab countries will establish relations with Israel once it reaches an agreement with the Palestinians. Mr. Peres skipped some details in the Arab plan, including its demand for settling Arab refugees in Israel, and the call for Muslim rule over Jerusalem.
“The Middle East should be divided not by religions, but by those who want peace and those who do not,” Mr. Peres told me. He defined Arab moderates as those who “don’t want to see Iran dominate the region as a religious empire.” Those certainly include the Saudis and so, as he addressed the U.N. assembly, the Israeli president at one point dropped his prepared text and directly turned to the Saudi king, praising him as a man of peace.
Aides told me Mr. Peres saw great victory in the fact that King Abdullah even stayed in the assembly hall as an Israeli president made a speech there - a first for a Saudi official. Deals on the diplomatic choreography were struck in advance, the aides said: the king would avoid leaving the room during the Israeli speech, but he would not have to suffer the indignity of shaking Mr. Peres’s hand during an earlier informal dinner event for the conference’s dignitaries.
Some diplomacy was not preplanned, however. The lowest point at the conference - which was billed as an attempt to increase tolerance among faiths, and specifically to demonstrate that the monotheistic religions can overcome age-old animosities - belonged to the Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad. As the representative of Islam’s third holiest city, Jerusalem, he said at his speech to the assembly, he was certainly aware that the city is holy not only to his religion, but also to Christianity.
Often hailed as the embodiment of Palestinian moderation, Mr. Fayyad well knows that there is a third religion that does not only consider Jerusalem marginally holy but sees it as the heart of its faith. But in his speech he deliberately skipped any reference to such Jewish feelings. Rather than generous, his gesture toward Christianity seemed intended to signal to the region that despite all talk of compromise, there would be no Palestinian recognition of any Jewish rights or aspirations in Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, as he summed up the conference, the Saudi veteran foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, was asked if he was impressed by the way Mr. Peres acknowledged the Saudi peace initiative. “The disappointing part of the statement of the president of Israel is that he chose parts of the Arab peace plan and left other parts untouched,” Mr. al Faisal said. “It is not a peace proposal that you can divide into what is accepted and what is not accepted. It is a package deal, and it was presented as a package deal. And so I think we still have a long way to go to be able to say that Israeli and Arabs see eye to eye.”
In other words: peace is not made through grand gestures by great leaders, followed by tough negotiations over the details. It is a plan dictated by one side.
As Mr. Peres indicated, the Saudis certainly do fear a nuclear non-Arab and Shiite country near their borders. The Israelis hope that such fears of Iran would lead to peace advances toward the Jewish state, bringing whatever covert cooperation that exists between Riyadh and Jerusalem out on the open. But, much to the chagrin of Mr. Peres, the Saudis made no indication at the U.N. conference that they would advance relations with Israel in order to cement a regional anti-Iranian alliance.
The Palestinians frequently complain that while the Saudis publicly pledge large funds for their suffering brethren, very little cash ever ends up arriving in Ramallah. Oh well, they sigh, there is always the next pledge drive. Israeli hopes that a peace dividend would materialize during a U.N. ceremonial parley will have to wait as well.