Why the Saudis are disappointed

The approaching anniversary of the Reagan Middle East peace initiative, now effectively moribund, compels the reflection that American efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict are characteristically long on ideas and short on the political will necessary to advance them. The appointment of a new presidential envoy to the Middle East and a new assistant secretary of state for the Near East and South Asia will cause new ideas to be put forward and new expectations to be generated. If past evidence is an accurate guide, however, these expectations will not be realized. One of the consequences of such exercises is to damage American relations with moderate Arab states to which the US looks for support in advancing peace. The principal case in point is Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis share with the United States a vital interest in promoting a negotiated peace settlement. They view the Arab-Israeli conflict as the main cause of Arab radicalism and divisiveness and, therefore, as the principal threat to their security. Thus the Saudis reacted favorably to the Reagan plan, while hoping that it might somehow be merged with the revised Fahd plan which was accepted by an Arab summit consensus at Fez last September. Subsequently, they assisted US diplomatic efforts to effect withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon and supported the US-sponsored agreement between Israel and Lebanon last May. Even though some of the agreement's provisions troubled them, the Saudis hoped that a Lebanese accord would restore momentum to the stalemated Arab-Israeli peace process. But Lebanon has proved to be an indefinite and increasingly bumpy detour rather than a route back to the peace process. As a result, Saudi expectations have come to grief, opening the way to likely recriminations on both sides and a further souring of the already strained US-Saudi relationship.

Accusatory voices have already been raised in the US, alleging that the Saudis betrayed American confidence in them by undermining the Hussein-Arafat rapprochement in March and April and failing to exert pressure on Syria to leave Lebanon. On the Saudi side many, including senior princes, want a less close alignment with the US and its policies. They view Washington as an unreliable partner because it is unwilling (perhaps unable) to compel Israeli acceptance of American ideas, such as the Reagan plan, on how to advance the peace process. King Fahd may well feel obliged to distance himself further from the US and to focus his attention instead on building and maintaining an Arab political consensus as a secure fallback position. Such a move by Saudi Arabia would make Middle East peace still more remote and render more difficult US-Saudi cooperation on several other important issues that affect the security and concerns and economic interests of both parties.

In the short run it may be helpful simply to lower expectations on both sides. Indeed, Washington has quietly observed that there are limits to Saudi influence in the Arab world, especially in trying to alter Syrian behavior on issues vital to Damascus. For their part, the Saudis for some time have given an indication of revising downward their appreciation of the American capacity to engender real movement toward a comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

Nevertheless, lowering expectations is only a palliative that risks freezing the peace process through a paralyzing cynicism or sense of hopelessness. The US and Saudi Arabia both require meaningful movement toward peace to create the environment in the Middle East in which they can pursue their basic interests. Otherwise political forces hostile to each will be given full play. Thus, in the end, the US cannot escape the burden placed on it - a recognition by virtually all sides that the US is the only credible mediator of Middle East peace because it alone can influence the Israelis. That reality should persuade the White House that if it wants its ideas for bringing peace to the Middle East taken seriously it must place its full political weight behind them. If this is done, the Saudis, Jordanians, and other moderate Arabs would be far more likely to help generate serious movement toward a negotiated peace settlement. Without such support, the best of ideas put forward through the ablest of negotiators can only lead to further dis-appointment.

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