By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 18, 2006
The Bush administration's policy of isolating the Hamas-led Palestinian government is based on a "twisted logic" that will end up only radicalizing the Palestinian population against a peaceful solution, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said yesterday.
Separately, Saud said the United States would release 16 Saudi citizens from the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, this week and return them to Saudi Arabia for possible trial and incarceration. Only nine of the 136 Saudi detainees have been released since 2003, and these appear to be the first that will be subject to the Saudi justice system.
Saud, who has served as foreign minister since 1975, made his remarks in a meeting with a small group of reporters in Washington on the eve of a regular meeting, known as a "strategic dialogue," held by the two countries' foreign ministers.
The State Department has labeled Hamas a terrorist organization. The United States has refused to deal with much of the Palestinian government or provide direct aid since Hamas won legislative elections in January and then took charge of most of the government.
The United States and the European Union have demanded that Hamas recognize Israel and meet other conditions before aid is restored, though in recent weeks the Europeans have pressed for some mechanism to provide assistance that would bypass government institutions controlled by Hamas.
Palestinian government salaries have not been paid for two months because of the aid freeze -- and because banks are reluctant to transfer Arab League funds to the Palestinian Authority for fear of running afoul of U.S. Treasury regulations. "You are not harming the government," Saud said. "You are only adding radicalism to the Palestinians."
Saud said that based on his discussions with Hamas leaders, a policy of "inclusion" and dialogue would yield a change in the Hamas position toward Israel but isolation would backfire. "We are arguing the point, needless to say, with them strenuously," he said, referring to U.S. officials.
"If you use inclusion, rather than exclusion, if you talk to them, they can be convinced of the advisability of pursuing the peace process, if they are assured of equal treatment" and not a bias toward Israel, Saud said.
"You are dissatisfied with the results of the election which brought Hamas government," Saud added. "Of course we always warned against elections, that sometimes they bring results that you don't want. That's why we haven't applied the system yet in Saudi Arabia."
Saud also warned that the "convergence plan" advanced by recently elected Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert holds the seeds for further turmoil. Olmert is coming to Washington next week intending to pitch President Bush and other U.S. officials on his idea of unilaterally withdrawing from much of the West Bank.
Rather than convergence, he said, "I would rather call it a policy of diversion -- trying to divert, move away from the vision of a two-state solution living peacefully together . . . moving away from the basics of the peace process."
Regarding the Saudi detainees, Saud indicated there had been long and difficult negotiations that had led to their release. "It took us how many years to get them back?" Saud said. "It hasn't been easy."
Some U.S. officials have expressed concern about releasing prisoners to Saudi Arabia because of allegations of torture and prisoner abuse there. Five Saudis were released in 2003 as part of a complicated agreement involving the release of Britons in Saudi jails, and another four have been released and were immediately freed.
Saud said these detainees would be tried under Saudi law if there was enough evidence to warrant a trial. "We will see what the proof against them is," he said. "If the proof justifies a trial, they will be put on trial."
Saud said the transfer would take place in the next two days. A military spokesman declined to confirm the prisoner release, saying such transfers are announced only when they are completed.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.