Friday afternoon, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, held a joint news conference with Secretary of State Clinton, describing the discussion they had just had as “frank, honest, and open” — diplomatic code words for disagreement.
Then he delivered in public his frank and honest message: no confidence-building steps for Israel, no endorsement of any step-by-step peace process, and no compromise on the uncompromising Saudi plan. “What is required is a comprehensive approach [i.e., the Saudi plan] that defines the final outcome at the outset.” Under the Saudi plan, Israel must agree to forgo defensible borders, hand over the Old City of Jerusalem, and recognize a right of return — and negotiations start after that. After it all gets implemented, there would then be (in the prince’s words) “complete peace and normal relations.”
Two weeks ago, Clinton delivered a major address at the Council on Foreign Relations that (in the version distributed the day before) stated that “those who embrace [the Saudi peace proposal] seem unwilling to do anything until the Israelis and Palestinians reach an agreement” — and that this was “not helpful”; there should be a “concrete” opening to Israel now to build its confidence in the process. In the speech as delivered, all the quoted words were omitted, leaving only the minimal request for an “opening” — with steps “however modest.”
But neither Secretary Clinton nor George Mitchell has been able to achieve even that, nor have letters, visits, and bows from Obama. On Friday, Clinton’s Saudi counterpart stood by her side and indicated there will be no opening, no steps, and no change in the required “final outcome.”
The Saudi three no’s are particularly noteworthy given the fact that Netanyahu gave the administration three yes’s: he agreed to the resumption of final-status negotiations without preconditions, he endorsed a two-state solution (as long as one of them is Jewish and the other is not militarized), and he expressed appreciation for the Saudi plan as long as it is negotiable. But the administration decided to spend its time reneging on prior understandings on a settlement freeze and seeking an absolute prohibition on any new buildings, even 20 units in Jerusalem, and losing the trust of the Israeli public — and getting nothing from Saudi Arabia in return.
Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said over the weekend at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles he does not think the Obama administration is seeking to undermine Netanyahu, and that to the contrary, the administration considers him the right person to negotiate an eventual deal (in a Nixon-goes-to-China sense). If that is the administration’s current view, it is good news. But it is hard to go to China (metaphorically speaking) if you haven’t been invited — and if the response to three yes’s is three no’s.
Given the lack of progress, perhaps the next step will be for President Obama to advise Saudi Arabia to engage in some serious self-reflection. Instead, the administration appears to be gearing up for a new media campaign. The answer for this administration always seems to be a speech.