Saudi Arabia Says It May Meet Israel (New York Times, Excerpt)
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JERUSALEM, Aug. 1 — Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said Wednesday that his country would consider attending President Bush’s planned Israeli-Palestinian peace conference in the fall, which would put Saudi officials publicly at the same table as their Israeli counterparts for the first time since 1991.
But Saudi officials said a precondition of its attendance was that the conference tackle the four big “final status” issues that had bedeviled peace negotiators since 1979: the fate of Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced to flee their homes in Israel, mostly before or during the 1948 war; the status of Jerusalem; the borders of a Palestinian state; and the dismantlement of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
“We are interested in a peace conference that deals with the substance of peace, not just form,” Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said at a news conference in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. “If it does so, it would be of great interest to Saudi Arabia.”
The Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, said later on Wednesday during meetings with Ms. Rice, who flew to Jerusalem after the talks with the Saudis in Jidda, that Israel welcomed the Saudi comments. But in a sign that the Saudi precondition may not be so easy to meet, she added that sometimes “it’s not wise to put the most sensitive issues out first.”
American officials who have been traveling through the region with Ms. Rice and Mr. Gates to try to woo America’s Sunni Arab allies to help out in Iraq and to embrace Israel, took heart from Prince Saud’s remarks. “We interpret this as positive,” a senior administration official traveling with Ms. Rice told reporters aboard her plane en route to Jerusalem, on condition of anonymity so as not to upstage the secretary of state.
If Saudi officials do sit down with the Israelis, it will be the first time they have both attended public talks about Israeli-Palestinian peace since the Madrid conference in October 1991. Saudi Arabia, which is the birthplace of Islam, does not recognize Israel, although Saudi officials have also urged the Bush administration to push hard to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli peace issue. There have been some unconfirmed reports of other contacts between Israeli and Saudi officials, including earlier this year.
Prince Saud also said that his country was considering opening an embassy in Baghdad and that he was “astonished” by recent criticism of its Iraq policy by a Bush administration official.
Prince Saud said he would send a diplomatic mission to Baghdad “to explore how we can start an embassy in Iraq,” a step the Bush administration has long sought, to add legitimacy to the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.
The Bush administration’s relations with the Saudis have been strained in recent months. Zalmay Khalilzad, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, said recently that some Arab allies of the United States in the region had been “pursuing destabilizing policies” with regard to Iraq.
Senior administration officials complained privately that Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab allies of the United States had given support and funds to opponents of the Maliki government.
Officials of Saudi Arabia, which considers itself the leader of the Sunni Arab world, have long had doubts about Mr. Maliki’s government, considering it a largely pro-Shiite entity that does not look after the interests of Sunni Muslims and is providing Iran, a majority Shiite country, with a bridge to expand its influence in the region.