Mitchell gets earful from Mideast

The din of Gaza followed Obama's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, as he conducted a listening tour. Arab leaders wonder why their peace plan remains untouched.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    OBAMA'S EARS: The newly appointed Middle East envoy for the US, George Mitchell, met Saturday in Riyadh with Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Nizar Madani.
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Winding up his week-long tour of the region, President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, met Saudi officials here over the weekend for an exchange of ideas on ending the volatile Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. Mitchell conferred with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud bin Faisal Saturday night and met with King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Sunday.

Specifically, the talks were said to cover the Saudi-initiated Arab Peace Initiative – first offered to Israel in 2002 – as well as how to counter what many Arab states regard as an alarming development: The increased involvement of Iran in Palestinian affairs, through its partners, Syria and Hamas.

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"Something needs to be done about Syria, Iran, and Hamas," said one Saudi source. "They believe that by doing what they're doing it's going ... to put them on top.… [We need] to counter it once and for all."

Arab officials and commentators have praised Obama's initial moves to improve US relations with the Muslim world. But Mitchell is no doubt discovering that there is also a deep well of skepticism that the new US president will succeed in breaking the deadly impasse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Consensus seems widespread among Arabs that Washington must, at a minimum, demand a halt to expansions of Jewish settlements on the West Bank if the US is to convince the world that it is serious about tacking the six-decade-old conflict.

"The vast majority remains skeptical about America's efforts to repair relations with the Arab and Muslim world," wrote columnist Samar Fatany in the Arab News, a Saudi daily.

After being "an accessory to the Israeli brutality against innocent Palestinian women and children for many years," she added, "we need to hear America apply its sense of justice."

Mitchell's visit comes at a time when feelings are running high in the wake of Israel's three-week military assault on Gaza that left about 1,300 Palestinians dead, including many women and children. Israel claims it was targeting Hamas militants, but its bombs also hit hospitals and United Nations-run schools.

In brief remarks during previous stops in the Middle East, which included Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Mitchell said that securing a sustained, workable cease-fire between Israel and Hamas was of "critical importance."

Egypt, supported by Saudi Arabia, is leading the Arab diplomatic charge to reach that cease-fire, but their leverage over Hamas is limited because of their contentious relations with the Islamist movement.

Cairo and Riyadh have blamed Iranian and Syrian-backed Hamas for its rocket attacks on Israel, which instigated Israel's attack on Gaza.

Now, apparently emboldened by Iran's support, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has called for new Palestinian leadership to replace the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization led by Mahmoud Abbas, who is favored by Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

On Saturday, King Abdullah called upon Palestinians to stop their "selfishness" and unite. "The competition between them is a big mistake," Saudi papers quoted him saying. "It will do them more harm than that done by Zionism. I appeal to them again to stand united in order to strengthen their cause."

Turki al-Sudairy, editor of Ar Riyadh newspaper, which reflects government thinking, said in a telephone interview: "Iran's meddling in Middle East affairs and the provocative acts of ... Hamas won't be stopped without a strong American stand on the peace process."

The Mitchell talks will include discussion on how to incorporate the Arab Peace Initiative into any new US approach to the conflict, according to a Saudi source.

Two weeks ago, frustrated by Israel's failure to respond positively to the initiative, King Abdullah told a gathering of Arab leaders in Kuwait that "Israel must understand that ... the Arab peace initiative that is on the table today will not remain there indefinitely."

Some Arab commentators were disappointed by President Obama's failure to unreservedly embrace the initiative. Announcing Mitchell's appointment at the State Department, the president said the plan "contains constructive elements" and urged Arab states to start "taking steps towards normalizing relations with Israel."

This was not received well by some Arab analysts, including Mouin Rabbani, in Amman, Jordan. To suggest that Arab countries should open diplomatic relations now, even before Israel accepted the Arab peace plan, was "an insult to Arab intelligence," Rabbani said in an interview.

But the Saudis have chosen not to dwell on that aspect of Obama's remarks. One source said that the Obama camp has been saying since last summer that it had "reservations" about the Arab peace plan.

Prince Saud bin Faisal told Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television station earlier this week that Arab states had "no reservations" about "respond[ing] to any questions posed by the American administration about the peace plan."

The prince's brother, former ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal, has been less diplomatic in recent days. In a widely noted opinion piece, published in the Financial Times, Mr. Turki wrote: "If the US wants to ... keep its strategic alliances intact – especially its 'special relationship' with Saudi Arabia, it will have to drastically revise its policies vis-à-vis Israel and Palestine."

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