Saudi Minister Rejects Incremental Steps Toward Mideast Peace

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal rebuffed the U.S. approach.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal rebuffed the U.S. approach. (By J. Scott Applewhite -- Associated Press)
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By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 1, 2009

Saudi Arabia praised the Obama administration Friday for its "early and robust focus" on the Middle East while rebuffing its efforts to push Riyadh to take confidence-building steps toward Israel.

"Incrementalism and the step-by-step approach has not, and we believe will not, achieve peace," said the visiting Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at his side. "Temporary security, confidence-building measures will also not bring peace."

Former Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell, President Obama's special envoy for Middle East peace, has traveled almost monthly to the region, seeking to coax the Israelis and Palestinians into peace talks while also encouraging Arab states to offer incentives to Israel to take bold steps, such as a freeze on settlement growth in the Palestinian territories.

Working on what amounts to a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, Mitchell has attempted to gather chits from various Arab nations to take partial steps toward normal relations, such as opening air corridors or granting some visas, if Israel at the same time takes steps on settlements. Obama has buttressed that effort by writing private letters to Arab leaders making the case for confidence-building measures.

U.S. officials insist they are making slow but steady progress behind the scenes. But the pressure on Israel to halt settlement expansion has generated a backlash there against the United States, while no Arab states have publicly revealed what they are prepared to do. Meanwhile, the Palestinians have hardened their position, refusing to talk to Jerusalem unless there is a settlement freeze.

Saudi officials have privately been highly critical of the U.S. approach -- even rejecting appeals from Obama when he visited Riyadh -- but Saud's decision to offer such a public critique, in Washington, raises the stakes for the administration. It could also be a form of public posturing designed to blunt the impact of future concessions by Saudi Arabia.

Saud insisted that Saudi Arabia would not take any incremental steps in relation to Israel, saying the burden was on Israel to make good-faith gestures. "Today, Israel is trying to distract by shifting attention from the core issue -- an end to the occupation that began in '67 and the establishment of a Palestinian state -- to incidental issues such as academic concerns and civil aviation methods," he said. "This is not the way to peace."

Saud called for defining the final deal "at the outset" and then launching into final-status talks.

In 2002, the Arab League, led by Saudi Arabia, put forward a peace plan that offered Israel full recognition in exchange for withdrawal to the borders it held before the 1967 war, including giving up East Jerusalem, which Israel had annexed, and a "just settlement" of the Palestinian refugee issue.

Saudi officials have refused to consider altering the peace initiative to suggest acceptance of land swaps to allow Israel to retain some settlements, though privately they say any peace deal acceptable to the Palestinians would be acceptable to Arabs. Saud appeared to acknowledge that when he said the negotiations should include "final-status issues, borders, Jerusalem, water, refugees and security."

Asked by reporters whether Saud's comments suggested a split with Washington, Clinton rejected that, saying there was "not a contradiction" between his remarks and the administration's approach.

"I don't see it that way," she said. "There is no substitute for a comprehensive resolution. That is our ultimate objective. In order to get to the negotiating table, we have to persuade both sides that they can trust the other side enough to reach that comprehensive agreement."

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