Slate‘s John Dickerson has published an article, “Turki Dinner: A Revealing Evening with the Saudi Ambassador” that explores both the substance and nuances of Saudi Ambassador to the US Prince Turki Al-Faisal’s comments at a dinner I helped organize on Monday evening.
In his piece, Dickerson writes:
The Bush administration has been faulted for not acting quickly enough after the recent violence started, but Prince Turki criticized Bush for not acting to solve the tension long before the recent flare up began.
Two months ago, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, brought a letter to Bush from King Abdullah advocating the steps necessary for implementing Middle East peace. “The president expressed excitement and willingness,” said the ambassador, “but, alas, there was no follow through.” The inactivity contributed to the current crisis: “The decisions made yesterday bear their bitter fruit today.”
The president and his advisers have said that the current violence is helping clarify the choices for all Middle Eastern leaders. When Saudi officials first spoke out against Hezbollah’s actions, the Bush team pointed to their remarks as proof that the new Middle East they have promised was coming to life. No longer would the Saudis and other Arab states react with knee-jerk anti-Israeli sentiment; instead, they were speaking out against the extremists.
Monday night, Turki continued to criticize Hezbollah, dismissing their “reckless adventure under the guise of resistance,” but the criticism was not the sign of a new worldview. It was almost a rhetorical device, an obligatory sentence that prepared the way for his larger, full-throated condemnation of Israel and, by proxy, its American ally.
He placed the blame for the recent violence not on the extremists but on Israel, which he claimed was engaged in a “war on Lebanon” and a “siege of Palestine.” The Israeli “occupation of Palestine and Shebaa is the causus belli of all that is happening today in Lebanon and Palestine,” he began. He then went on to belittle Israel’s military: “Hezbollah and Hamas have captured three soldiers of the vaunted Israeli army, whose incompetence was clearly displayed by these captures. The same vaunted Israeli army has struck back with surgical accuracy in killing innocent civilians and U.N. observers in Lebanon and Palestine, further demonstrating their ineptness and brutality.”
Turki urged a return to the peace plan proposed by Abdullah in 2002 as offering Israel the most comprehensive solution, including an end of hostilities and normalized relations in return for total Israeli withdrawal from Arab occupied territories, including Jerusalem. “The United States must play the role of pacifier and lead the world to peace and not be led by Israel’s ambitions,” he said, characterizing the Bush administration not just as inactive, but as such a supine thing that it can be led around by Israel.
And remember, Saudi Arabia is our ally.
John Dickerson’s characterization of the Saudi Ambassador’s comments rings true to the evening — and the fact is that while Prince Turki did solidly condemn Hezbollah, and while I think his condemnation was more genuine than Dickerson gives credit for, the Ambassador essentially mocked Israel’s military and was a bit over the top in his clear disdain for Israel’s government — even giving room for fair criticism of Israel’s recent actions.
I found much of what Ambassador Turki said that night useful in the sense that one could see how a regional deal that included the Saudis as partner with Israel and the US — as well as buffer from less constructive parts of the Middle East — might be accomplished.
But I part company from the Ambassador on the mockery of the Israeli army and for not at least acknowledging that while Israel’s response to the provocations by Hezbollah and militant Hamas members has been dramatically overdone, the fact is that Hezbollah was developing a significant military capacity that was threatening to Israel.
There is something quite worrisome about the fact that Israel has not succeeded in quickly shutting down Hezbollah in a manner somewhat like the Israelis accomplished against three national armies in the Six Days War.
Israel, the Saudis, everyone in the region has been surprised by the quality of Hezbollah’s command and control structure and the sophistication of its weapons. An intelligence source of mine reports that Hezbollah hit an Israeli warship with a sophisticated Iranian-made missile — that strangely was modified to try and appear as if its markings and serial numbers were American made. (This has not been reported in the press, and I hope to have more on this story tomorrow.)
But Israel has a similar problem to the United States facing it now — no matter what the content of an eventual cease fire arrangement looks like.
The mystique of Israel’s superpower status in the region has been somewhat deflated.
The combination of a dramatic, massive response to Hezbollah and Hamas that has in both cases largely failed to either secure the soldiers who were abducted or to quickly incapacitate its enemies have emboldened some foes of Israel who now perceive Israel to be weak. America’s perceived weakness is a function of our floundering in Iraq — and now Israel is facing hard realities of its own that there are limits to the kind of power it has been deploying.
This is a real problem — because Israeli security is something that does need to be maintained.
Prince Turki acknowledged that Israel had seriously eroded Hezbollah’s military capacity — despite the fact that Hezbollah was enjoying significant political success throughout the Middle East because of the perception of surviving Israel’s onslaught. But Israel needs to find a balance between the substantive goal of declawing Hezbollah while at the same time behaving in such a manner that it does not undermine its political position or perception of its power in the region.
Israeli power and the perception of American guarantees of Israel are what compel the Saudis to keep trying to broker some sort of long term deal between the parties in conflict. If Israeli power lessens, and if the US is made to look impotent in the region (which occurred when the promised 48 hour cease fire by Israel was violated as soon as Condi Rice’s plane left Israel), that kind of long term peace won’t be pursued by the Saudis or any other Arab states.
I am thinking of inviting Israeli Ambassador to the US Daniel Ayalon to speak in my program as I think it’s very important to connect with Israel’s envoys about what is possible beyond the current conflict.
— Steve Clemons