By Paul Handley (AFP) – Aug 7, 2009
RIYADH — Saudi Arabia believes that Arab recognition of Israel should only come after a final peace deal with the Palestinians and not simply be a quid-pro-quo for freezing settlement expansions, analysts say.
Haaretz newspaper reported Thursday that Washington had proposed a one-year freeze last week to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as a way of persuading Arab states to move toward normalising ties with Israel.
The proposal was made by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell in talks last week with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the newspaper said, although the premier's spokesman dismissed the report as "mere media speculation."
Middle East experts say Saudi Arabia, which is mostly calling the shots of Arab diplomacy toward Israel, would be deeply reticent to reward the Jewish state for anything short of a final peace deal with the Palestinians.
In fact, says Robert Malley, the Middle East programme director at the International Crisis Group, Israel's desire for Arab recognition makes it more valuable as a final prize in the peace process.
"The ultimate signal for that recognition comes from Saudi Arabia," he said.
"It is very unlikely that they will expend their currency prior to the achievement of a final deal," he told AFP.
The Barack Obama administration has been pushing Saudi Arabia to make some gesture to Israel -- commercial openings, academic exchanges or overflight rights -- in exchange for a settlements freeze.
But in a July 31 media conference in Washington, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal flatly rejected such gestures.
He said Riyadh had already placed on the table its Arab Peace Initiative, which offers blanket Arab recognition of Israel for a two state deal with the Palestinians.
"Israel is trying to distract by shifting attention from the core issue -- an end to the occupation that began in 1967 and the establishment of a Palestinian state -- to incidental issues, such as academic conferences and civil aviation matters," he said.
"The question is not what the Arab world will offer," he said. "The question really is: what will Israel give in exchange for this comprehensive offer."
Awadh al-Badi, a foreign affairs expert at the King Faisal Centre for research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, said the Saudis believe that previous Arab gestures toward Israel -- recognition from Egypt, a peace treaty with Jordan, and various communications openings -- have not resulted in any improvement of the Palestinians' status.
On the contrary, Israel has continued to push Palestinians from their lands and homes, he said.
"The Arab world has for 10 years done what the Israelis wanted," he said. "There is nothing on the ground that proves Israel is willing to go all the way.
"The real issue is the Palestinians, and they are already talking to (Israel) directly," he added.
Riyadh feels it made a generous step by reviving its 2002 Arab Peace Initiative early this year, in the wake of Israel's December-January assault on Gaza which killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, analysts say.
"This is a major gesture for the Saudis to have made," former US ambassador to Riyadh Charles Freeman said in a July 28 interview with the Washington-based independent Saudi-US Relations Information Service.
"There is no predisposition whatsoever... on the Arab side to pay for what Israel, in its own interest, ought to do," he said.
"The American side is thinking that any gesture by Israel, of any kind, should be paid for with some gesture from the Arabs. You have the Arabs saying no, we've made it clear that we're not paying anything until something concrete happens."
There have been some Saudi-preapproved gestures in recent weeks from Bahrain, but minor. The Gulf emirate at the end of June sent a team of officials to Israel to retrieve several of its nationals seized by the Israeli military.
In July, Bahrain's crown prince wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post which criticised Arabs for not communicating to the Israeli people their commitment to a peace deal.
Hady Amr, director of the Brookings Doha think tank, says the Arabs need to do more to sway the Israeli street, including gestures of recognition that are easily reversible if the result is not a movement toward a peace settlement.
The Arab side should also undertake a vigorous public relations campaign, "so that it cannot be blamed for not doing everything in its power to promote peace."
This could include distributing their peace initiative in Hebrew and taking out advertisements in Israeli newspapers.
"Putting the Arab Peace Initiative back on the table is not enough," he said. "You have to sell."
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