Today, one fact that the entire world agrees upon is that the civil wars in Iraq and Syria have reached a point that necessitates the maps of these countries to be redrawn. Indeed, this is so relevant that every day, a new map lands on the front pages of newspapers. Most recently, the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel published a map uniting the borders of Iraq and Syria and dividing it into three parts. Going a step further, it named these three countries as so-called Kurdistan, so-called Sunnistan, and so-called Shiastan. The region also includes two other candidates for division: Libya and Yemen. On the brink of separation, the two countries are struggling to survive. These prolonged civil wars have irreversibly brought people to the brink of division. In fact, it is high time to abandon such ambitions for maps. The map of the Middle East drawn by Gertrude Bell, Winston Churchill, Lawrence, Mark Sykes, General Edmund Allenby, Arthur James Balfour, Reginald Wingate and Harbert Samuel at the beginning of the 20th Century has brought nothing but conflict to the region for the last one hundred years. Obviously, however, people have yet to draw a lesson from this tragic mistake. Thousands of kilometers away from the region, everyone is busy drawing up arbitrary maps and devising plans to impose them. Meanwhile, millions of Middle Eastern Jews, Christians, Muslims, Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Maronites, Shiites, Wahhabis, and Sunnis do not wish to spend another century struggling with wars.
The map drawn by Robin Wright and published in The New York Times newspaper in 2013 revealed another imminent danger. According to this map, the Middle East’s biggest and wealthiest country, Saudi Arabia is to be divided into five parts. In this scenario, there would be a Hormuz Strait region, Eastern Arabia; in the Hejaz, Western Arabia; in a region near Yemen, Southern Arabia; and in the north, Northern Arabia is to be founded, while a Riyadh-centered Wahhabi Arabia is to be formed in the middle region of the country. It goes without saying that the intention of those who introduced this map to the global agenda, which is shaped after the geographical distribution of the pre-Saudi Kingdom tribes, is to break up Saudi Arabia.
Immediately after the introduction of the map, developments in this direction began to occur one after another. The civil war in Yemen, the country’s southern neighbor, escalated to a dire level, obliging a Saudi Arabian-led coalition to intervene. In Saudi Arabia, protests arose among the Shiites, who constitute 15% of the country’s total population, and a Shiite region located in the west of the country announced its desire to unite with Bahrain. In the wake of King Fahd’s death, an artificial atmosphere of crisis was created among his heirs. At this point, today Saudi Arabia finds itself besieged on all sides, just as Libya, Iraq, Syria and Egypt were before.
The 250-year history of Saudi Arabia is fraught with civil wars, political assassinations, and tribal conflicts of varying intensity. Since the 18th century, three kingdoms have been founded and destroyed; the currently existing Saudi Kingdom is the fourth one in the same region. The initial cause of these wars was Arabian tribes rejecting each other’s rule. Of course, England exploited this antagonism to their advantage.
The artificial borders drawn up at the Cairo Congress of 1921 were dictated to Saudi Arabia by means of military and economic coercion. Although Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 under the guidance of Sultan Abdulaziz, the internal strife within the country has seen no end. Succeeding Abdulaziz as the king, his son Saud was dethroned by the family council after 10 years of rule: King Faisal, who succeeded him, was killed by his nephew. Although during the reigns of the succeeding kings Khalid, Fahd, and Abdullah, disputes within the royal family were calmed, many incidents such as the 1979 Siege of Mecca, the Gulf Wars, and the emergence of al-Qaeda have hampered the proper establishment of domestic peace in Arabia.
Robin Wright includes the strife between the royal family members among the current causes of Saudi Arabia’s potential separation. When King Abdullah was on his deathbed, there were many provocations concerning the succession to the throne that could have led to discord. A nondescript social media account named “Mujtahid” reported a good deal of provocative news stories with the aim of setting the two potential candidates to the throne against each other. However, common sense prevailed and Salman bin Abdulaziz inherited the throne in conformity with the kingdom’s succession laws.
Economic welfare, which is seen as another reason hindering Saudi Arabia’s unified integrity, has also long been used. Saudi Arabia has about $1.5 billion dollars worth of investments in the USA and England. With the recently enacted compensation law coming out of the US Congress, Saudi Arabia is now facing a significant risk with a volume of $7.5 billion dollars at stake.
The Shiite-Sunni conflict is yet another destabilizing factor endangering the Arabian Peninsula. The movement known as “British Shiism” by Khamenei is exhibiting an extremely hostile attitude towards Wahhabism, and in this way, is instigating Wahhabis against Shiites. Additionally, the execution of the Shiite leader of Arabia al-Nimr at the beginning of this year brought Iran and Saudi Arabia to the brink of war.
There have been many provocations during the Yemeni Civil War as well, which put Saudi Arabia in a difficult position before the global public. In September, 140 people died and 535 were injured in one of the bloodiest attacks in recent years. This attack, which targeted innocent women, children and the elderly who had gathered at a funeral service to offer condolences, was blamed on the Saudi government as well. The US media constantly reports news of how Saudi Arabia funds terrorist organizations. Terrorist bombs explode and tragedies occur during the hajj period in Medina. Similar incidents occurring one after another make the country look as if it is under heavy siege.
The recently crowned king, Salman bin Abdulaziz is aware of the danger and is in search of new allies. Saudi Arabia wishes to partake in the recent alliance formed by the initiatives of Putin and Erdoğan. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad bin Nayef, made his intentions clear by stating: “Turkey and Saudi Arabia are being targeted, so we need each other’s support.” Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Russia attended the USA-Russia meeting held last week as allies.
For 200 years, the cartographers of the Middle East have intricately shaped the region in accordance with their plans. They imposed their own policies upon the region by holding sway over states, armies, clans, and political or religious leaders. Today, every state whose borders are in question is faced with a grave danger. No state or political leader can cope with this organized attack alone. Solid alliances built upon loyalty and trust are needed for the struggle against partition to be effective. Every state that has to wage an individual struggle will be an easy target. For that reason, “all ranks need to be closed urgently.” The only solution for the countries of the region lies in unity. The alliance between Turkey and Saudi Arabia will be the core of a heartfelt union that, before long, will gather other Muslim countries around it.
For now, Israelis are not allowed into Saudi, and Jews are at best grudgingly admitted. But with ties just possibly warming, a Jewish history dating back millennia might soon be more accessible
Saudi Arabia is not high on the list of Jewish travel destinations.
There has been no organized Jewish activity in the country for 70 years. Even though a Saudi delegation visited Israel last month, anyone with an Israeli passport is banned from entering the country, as the two countries don’t have diplomatic relations. As of 2014, Jews are now apparently, unofficially, allowed to work there, though not to hold prayer services.
Yet 3,000 years ago, around the time of the First Temple, there was a strong, vibrant Jewish community in the area of what is today Saudi Arabia.
And in the sixth and seventh centuries, there was a considerable Jewish population in Hejaz, mostly around Medina, Khaybar and Tayma. Hejaz makes up most of the western part of modern-day Saudi Arabia and is centered on the two holiest Muslim cities, Mecca and Medina.
The medieval Jewish traveler, Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela in Spain, during an 1165-1173 trek to the Holy Land, made his way to the far-flung Jewish communities that are now in the geographic area of Saudi Arabia.
He cataloged his trip, describing the places he visited and the people he met and providing a demographic rundown of Jews in every town and country. Tayma and Khaybar, where he visited, are two oases that became populated communities because they were along a key land route between the Red Sea coast of the Arabian Peninsula and the Nile Valley.
Historical sites pertaining to the ancient Jewish experience still exist. With the Saudis just possibly warming their ties to Israel — ex-Saudi general Anwar Eshki, who led the recent delegation to Israel, also met publicly in the US last year with Foreign Ministry chief Dore Gold — the day may be drawing near when these locales will be more accessible.
These are five top Jewish spots in Saudi Arabia, to savor online for now, and just maybe up close in the near future:
1) Khaybar is situated in a valley with natural wells that have irrigated the area since ancient times, aiding in the growth of dates known throughout the country. The oasis made Khaybar a regular stop along the incense trade route from Yemen to the Levant, which is why it was the home of the Jewish community at the time. Visitors can also stop at the Jewish cemetery, a 1,400-year-old graveyard without any headstones but known locally for its Jewish history.
2) There’s also the Khaybar Fortress, perched on a hill overlooking the oasis, which is at least 1,400 years old. The earliest accounts of its construction date from the Battle of Khaybar, when the Prophet Mohammed and his army invaded and conquered Khaybar. It was Mohammed’s nephew and son-in-law, Ali, who was able to unlock the gate of the fortress to allow the Muslim armies to finally conquer the fortress. It was rebuilt and reused several times, but is still usually referred to it as the Fortress of the Jews.
3) The Palace of the Jewish Tribe’s Head is also located in Khaybar, and was the home of the Jewish tribe of Marhab. The tribe was known to be wealthy from dealing in gold and jewelry, and the palace it lived in is above the town, about a ten-minute climb from the center.
4) In Tayma, which was often referred to as a fortified city belonging to the Jews, most travelers stop at the Al-Naslaa Rock Formation, located in the Tayma oasis. It’s considered to have one of the most photogenic petroglyphs, or rock art, depicting the life and times of ancient communities. Al-Naslaa is also known for the perfect, natural slit between the two standing stones. Experts say the cause of this perfect slit could be the ground having shifted slightly underneath one of the two supports.
5) At the center of Tayma is Bir Haddaj, a large well considered to be about 2,500 years old, dating back at least to the middle of the sixth century BCE. It wasn’t in use until the 1950s, when it was repaired and later restored to its previous appearance.
The well is mentioned in the Book of Isaiah as the place where the descendants of Ishmael’s son, Tema, lived: “Unto him that is thirsty bring ye water! The inhabitants of the land of Tema did meet the fugitive with his bread.”
There are also the famous Tayma stones inscribed in Aramaic that are now in the Louvre Museum. Thousands of other Aramaic inscriptions that have been found in the area are stored in the city’s museum.
Russia stands a pretty good chance of attracting the Gulf Cooperation Council countries’ support while resolving the Syrian crisis. For its part, Riyadh has signaled recently that it is interested in building close relations with Moscow regardless of a difference of opinion on the Syrian crisis.
Russia’s charm offensive launched by President Vladimir Putin in the Gulf back in 2012 has borne fruit, according to Samuel Ramani, a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford.
“Through stronger investment linkages and diplomatic overtures, Russia has attempted to carve out a more prominent geopolitical role in the Persian Gulf… Stronger relations between Moscow and Saudi Arabia’s closest allies have caused some GCC [the Gulf Cooperation Council] countries to be more receptive to Russia’s calls for a political solution in Syria. Saudi Arabia’s fear of being isolated from the Arab world’s consensus could cause Riyadh to eventually soften its belligerent anti-Assad approach and diplomatically reengage with Russia,” Ramani writes in his article for The National Interest.
According to the British academic, the dire prognoses that Russo-Gulf relations would tremendously deteriorate in the wake of Moscow’s involvement in Syria have been proven wrong.Ramani calls attention to the fact that despite obvious disagreements over Syria, Russia has bolstered economic ties with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman and Kuwait “to counter Saudi Arabia‘s hegemony in the Persian Gulf.”
Initially, Riyadh regarded Russia’s charm offensive as motivated by Moscow’s economic interests, Ramani notes, citing Mark N. Katz of George Mason University. Russia’s efforts to engage GCC countries on achieving a political resolution on Syria have caught Saudi Arabia by surprise.
Moscow has created a coalition together with Oman, Kuwait and the UAE to counter the Saudi-Qatari bloc, the British scholar explains.
Furthermore, given Russia’s “strengthening of ties” with Algeria, Iraq and Egypt, Moscow stands a good chance of swinging the balance in its favor during the peace talks on Syria.
“Should [Vladimir Putin] succeed, Saudi Arabia and Qatar could risk regional isolation if they do not moderate their intransigent opposition to Assad,” Ramani underscores.
The question then arises whether Saudi Arabia will retaliate against Russia. Hardly, Ramani suggests.Arguing with US analysts Jonathan Schanzer and Boris Zilberman, Ramani assumes that Russo-Saudi relations would rather transition into a “cold peace,” not hostility.
At the same time, in light of Ankara’s change of heart toward Moscow it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia would risk its relations with Turkey to strike back at Russia.
Meanwhile, signs continue to emerge showing Riyadh’s apparent intent to improve Saudi-Russian relations.
“Both sides are carrying on coordinating and consulting on the matter in order to converge approaches to the problem,” al-Jubeir said, as quoted by the Al Riyadh newspaper.
Citing al-Jubeir the monarchy’s daily Saudi Gazette wrote Monday that the Gulf kingdom is interested in building “best relations” with Russia.
“He [Adel al-Jubeir] said that a number of agreements have been signed between the two sides, including cooperation in the field of oil and energy and enhancement of joint investments in addition to constructive cooperation in the field of combating terrorism, noting the efforts being exerted to achieve the Kingdom’s Vision 2030,” the media outlet underscored.
Commenting on the issue, US expert on Middle East affairs Mark N. Katz recalled that in a July interviewwith Politico.eu al-Jubeir showed “a desire for improved Saudi-Russian relations” in exchange for Russia abandoning Bashar al-Assad and its Iranian allies.However, “this is definitely not what Moscow wants to hear from Riyadh,” Katz stresses in his opinion piecefor Lobelog.com.
Al-Jubeir’s latest statement that Riyadh still wants to improve Russo-Saudi relations may indicate the Gulf kingdom’s intention either to give its Western allies the shivers, or to create differences between Moscow and Tehran, the scholar suggests.
However, according to Ramani, Riyadh’s “hostility” toward Russia is overstated. In reality, “Riyadh’s overarching agenda is to reduce its security dependence on the United States and maintain Saudi Arabia’s position as the Arab world’s most influential country.”
“Therefore, Saudi Arabia is likely to respond favorably to Russian diplomatic overtures if Putin can build a broad-based Arab coalition around a political solution to the Syrian crisis that includes Assad,” the British scholar emphasizes.
Delegation from Riyadh arrives to push Arab Peace Initiative; ‘the Saudis want to open up to Israel,’ Meretz MK says
Retired Saudi general visited Israel this week, heading a delegation of academics and businessmen seeking to encourage discussion of the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative.
According to a report in the Haaretz daily, the delegation led by Dr. Anwar Eshki met with Foreign Ministry Director-General Dore Gold, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai, and several Knesset members from the opposition.
Such a visit by former general Eshki, who was once a top adviser to the Saudi government, is an extremely rare occurrence. “While this wasn’t an official visit, it was a highly unusual one, as Eshki couldn’t have traveled to Israel without approval from the Saudi government,” the newspaper report said.
The meetings with Gold and Mordechai reportedlty did not take place at official Israeli government facilities but at the King David Hotel.
The visitors also toured the West Bank city of Ramallah and met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as well as other Palestinian officials, the paper said.
Knesset members Issawi Frej and Michal Rozin (Meretz) and Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union) who took part in the meeting, said the Saudis were eager to generate Israeli discourse on the 2002 peace initiative, which promises Israel full diplomatic ties with 57 Arab and Muslim states after cementing a peace accord with the Palestinians.
“The Saudis want to open up to Israel,” Frej said. “It’s a strategic move for them. They want to continue what former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat started (with the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty). They want to get closer with Israel, and we could feel it clearly.”
High-ranking Fatah official Jibril Rajoub told Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen news agency that the Saudi visit was the second of its kind, the Ynet news website reported on Saturday.
Meanwhile Eshki told Palestinian media that he had visited “Palestine and Jerusalem, but not Israel.”
The visit comes as the Arab world, led by Egypt, is pushing for renewed peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Earlier this month Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry visited Jerusalem, where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu todiscuss the long-stalled peace process. Netanyahu reportedly expressed willingness to meet with Abbas in Cairo for talks hosted by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
Channel 2 News said Shoukry’s visit to Israel was coordinated between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whose peace initiative is backed by Sissi and much of the Arab world.
Netanyahu has rejected the initiative in its current form, but said in late May that it “contains positive elements that could help revive constructive negotiations with the Palestinians.”
Eshki has met with the Foreign Ministry’s Gold before. In 2015 the twoshared a stage and shook hands in Washington as they made back-to-back addresses to the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations think tank. Both espoused Israeli-Saudi peace and identified Iran as the chief threat to regional stability.
Ehski also told Israel’s Channel 10 News at the time that he and Gold had sat down together “to call for peace in the Middle East.” He said “Saudis and Israelis could work together when Israel announces that it accepts the Arab Initiative.”
There have been various media reports of clandestine talks between Israel and Arab powers, who have come to see the Jewish state as a possible ally against what they consider to be a far greater threat — Iran and its regional aspirations.
Netanyahu too has often spoken of growing secret ties with Arab nations, though experts have warned that the prospects of normalization of ties before peace with the Palestinians is achieved are dim.
Israel has been far more welcoming of the renewed Arab push for negotiations than that of Europe, with Gold saying this week that Jerusalem will likely boycott a French-planned international conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Paris, if it goes ahead later this year.
The Israeli government has repeatedly made plain its opposition, arguing that international conferences serve to harden Palestinian negotiating positions and insisting that only direct bilateral talks between Israelis and Palestinians can lead to progress in the stalled peace process.
Dr. Anwar Eshki, the senior Saudi official who regularly meets with Israelis, states in exclusive Yedioth Achronoth interview that there was never a better time for a peace deal, if only PM Netanyahu would announce his support of the Arab peace intiative in front of the UN.
“I want to tell you a story showing how we Saudis like to describe reality: a man is walking alone in the desert as the sun is setting. Suddenly he sees a large shadow behind him. The man seizes up. The shadow approaches him menacingly. The man pulls out a gun, turns around quickly and is set to open fire. Then, at the last moment, he recognizes that it’s his brother’s shadow. Now, imagine what would have happened if that frightened man walking alone in the desert had opened fire and shot, of course out of self-defense and killed his brother. Because of fear, suspicion. It would have ended in disaster.”
Dr. Anwar Eshki, a senior Saudi official in contact with Israelis whose identities he prefers not to disclose, and who has met the Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Dr. Dore Gold in conferences abroad, told me the shadow represents Israeli suspicion, the walk in the wilderness symbolizes the growing Israeli isolation, as well as his concern that Israel is about to miss a unique historic opportunity.
“I assure you, from personal knowledge, that there is now a real opportunity for peace,” he said in an exclusive interview with Yedioth Ahronoth. “Everyone around wants to reach an agreement. I can tell you that in the era of the former Saudi king, Abdullah, who formulated and published the Arab Peace Initiative, which was adopted by all the countries in the Arab world, there was no chance of reaching a comprehensive and true peace. Today, in the era of King Salman, it is possible. The circumstances have changed. The prospects and opportunities have improved immeasurably.”
Dr. Anwar Eshki with Director-General of Israeli Foreign Ministry Dore Gold (Photo: Kaveh Sardari / Council on Foreign Relations)
The interview with Dr. Eshki was held in the lobby of the luxurious Sheraton hotel in Doha, Qatar. It was not a coincidence that we met precisely in the lobby, for all to see. “I refuse all suggestions that I hold meetings behind closed doors,” said Eshki , Director of the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies in Jeddah. “I have nothing to hide. What I have to say I say directly, openly, without secrets and not behind the scenes.”
On Wednesday morning, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced their support of the Saudi plan – albeit cautiously and reluctantly – Dr. Eshki swang between “good step” and “the right move.” No more. “This is the first step, even if it was not taken the way I would have wished it would have been. Netanyahu should announce from the UN podium in New York that he accepts and adopts the 2002 peace initiative of the Saudi king, which offers Israel a full peace and full normalization with the Arab world control in return for a full withdrawal from the occupied territories. The Saudi initiative solves your conflict with the Palestinians.”
Over 14 years of upheaval and dramatic changes in the Middle East have passed since the initiative was placed on the table. Syria is almost nonexistent. A wave of revolutions and violence has swept the region. Leaders have come and gone.
“Even the leadership of Saudi Arabia has changed, and the new government is signaling to you that he is determined to achieve peace. We have common interests and we can easily designate common enemies.”
Did you pass the Saudi request on to Israel that Netanyahu should announce his support for the Saudi peace plan?
“It was passed on to your people two years ago.”
What answer did you receive from Jerusalem?
“More than once I was told that Netanyahu promises to declare that the Saudi peace initiative is the best solution to establish peace.”
But he did not announce it at the UN.
“Therefore Israel isolated itself. They have imposed a boycott on you, they have distanced themselves from you and are engaged in a struggle against you via BDS, as Israel did not keep up promises to make peace. As a result, Israel is now in bad shape.”
Suppose Netanyahu announced his support for the Saudi peace plan on the international stage. What would happen?
“Saudi Arabia will commence a procedure the goal of which will be to encourage Arab countries to begin implementing normalization with Israel, which will reflect positively on your relationship with Egypt, Jordan and other countries.”
You did not mention normalization with Saudi Arabia itself.
“Egypt recently returned two islands to Saudi Arabia (Tiran and Sanafir). We plan to build the King Salman bridge, which will link Africa to Asia and will be used for the transit of passengers, vehicles and goods. On Tiran Island, which stretches over 80 square kilometers, a free trade zone is being built exempt from taxes and duties. If Israel goes along with the diplomatic process and adopts the Arab peace plan, we shall invite Israel to present goods and sell what you have to offer on the island of Tiran. Such a move will have huge economic returns for you.”
How long will it take for the bridge to be built?
“It will take five years, but when Netanyahu makes the announcement, if he does, you will see officials from Saudi Arabia and Israel sitting down together. Unlike in the past, you will be surprised at how active Saudi Arabia will become.”
Dr. Anwar Eshki (Photo: Hispan TV)
Do you really believe the current Israeli government would agree to a full withdrawal from the West Bank?
“After Netanyahu’s statement (that “the Arab peace initiative includes positive elements”) it is possible to engage in a dialogue on the disputed issues and to reach agreements satisfactory to all parties.”
But it is not certain that the Israeli government is willing to pay the price of peace.
“If peace is not achieved during Netanyahu’s tenure, I’m telling you that peace will not be achieved at all. You and we will miss out on the opportunity, as this opportunity will not return.”
In a Bookstore, on the road from Cairo
Eshki, a young-looking 73-year-old, was born in Medina in Saudi Arabia. Bookstore, via Cairo. He is a retired general in the Saudi military, a graduate of the Military College in Riyadh, has a master’s degree in strategic studies and a doctorate in law from Golden Gate Bridge University in California, and has written 30 books on security issues and the Middle East so far. From 1985 to 2002 he served as Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s special adviser and as the Saudi ambassador in Washington. This is how he paved his way to conferences, lectures, international conferences and high-level meetings. But he started “conversing”, as he calls it, with the Israelis, only after the previous king revealed his peace plan.
How did your dialogue with Israelis begin?
“When I was still in the US, in 1982, I was already thinking about the peace process. I knew that we had to reach a peaceful solution. In the US I met Jews who thought like me, and after I returned to Saudi Arabia I started to attend conferences attended by Israelis. At first no contact was established, but I understood that an effort had to be made, and then, at the end of 2002, King Abdullah unveiled his peace plan and found to my delight that it coincided with my worldview. I was very encouraged during my first meetings with Israelis and Palestinians as well. I discovered that both sides fear their extremists who seek a violent solution.
“If at first I was cautious and reserved, the more meetings we had, the clearer it became to me that we had things to talk about. I meet Israelis with ties to the government. We meet at conferences and I hear what they have to say and I present the Saudi position. If I hear new ideas during these discussion, I pass them on to the necessary persons, and in this regard I must say that the Israelis have never lied to me. Trust has built up between us even if we do not always agree.”
Are you a messenger? A mediator?
“I have conversations and they know where I come from. My government has not asked me to negotiate, and the Israeli side opposite me has not received that mission either.”
As far as is known, only two people in Saudi Arabia meet openly with Israelis. One is Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of military intelligence and the Saudi ambassador in London, and the other is Dr. Eshki. About a year ago, Eshki met his veteran interlocutor Dr. Dore Gold at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, and they both shook hands in front of the cameras, revealing their relationship.
“I’ll tell you a story: A month ago I was in Egypt, and I stopped on the road between Cairo and Alexandria to freshen up, and entered a bookstore and found Dore Gold’s book about Saudi Arabia (“Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism published in 2003, which deals with Saudi Arabia’s financial and ideological support of organizations – SP.). This book presents the Saudis in a very negative light. But I can say that as a result of talks with Gold, and what he has heard and learnt from the Saudi side, he stopped attacking and criticizing us. I think he, and others in Israel, have stopped considering Saudi Arabia as an enemy. Some of my Israeli interlocutors even consider us as friends.”
Do you have to get approval from the Saudi authorities before you meet Israelis?
“I do not as I am not a government official and do not serve in an official capacity. I run an academic research center and therefore, at my request, my meetings are always open to all. As long as I am convinced that the meetings are positive and constructive , I will continue. If I was acting in an official capacity, this would not have occurred. I would have to ask permission to meet with Israelis. Overall, I see myself as serving the interests of my country. ”
After so many conversations with his associates, don’t you want to meet with Netanyahu himself?
“I think it wouldn’t be helpful. I would have to ask permission to meet with him, and this will make the process official. I would hate to lose what we have achieved so far.
“I reiterate: I consider all of my meetings with Israelis to have been “private conversations” and not “binding”. I have followed King Abdulaziz Salman’s policy according to which every Saudi citizen has to be his country’s ambassador who acts to achieve its interests in every domain.”
Green light from the palace
We met the day after Avigdor Lieberman’s being sworn in as Defense Minister. I asked Eshki if he was worried about the appointment.
“Put it this way: I am sorry about Ya’alon and the way he was dismissed. He came across to me as a sober military man and a restraining and balancing force. In Saudi Arabia’s eyes, Ya’alon knew how to connect security and government policy. But Lieberman’s appointment does not really worry me nor Saudi decision-makers. We know Lieberman’s worldview and I myself have written memorandums on him.
“I explained that his entry into the government has a positive and a negative side. The negative side: Netanyahu’s ability to maneuver politically will be limited as Lieberman might threaten to leave the government if something doesn’t please him. If Herzog had joined the government, it would have given Netanyahu flexibility in making decisions. He would have more room to maneuver. The positive side: if Lieberman agrees (to the peace plan – SP), the extremists in Israel will go along with him and will agree to it. They will not stand in Netanyahu’s way. They always explain to us that Lieberman is tough outside and soft inside. That he is moderate in direct dialogue, but flexes his muscles in public so as not to lose his supporters. It may be that he will oppose it, but it is Netanyahu who decides and I meet with Dr. Dore Gold, and I know that Netanyahu trusts him. I do not believe that the Israeli government will fall due to supporting the peace plan. 75 percent of Israelis want peace and they will make sure that this government will not fall.
So you will wait patiently until the UN General Assembly which convenes in September?
“If Netanyahu is prepared to support the Arab peace initiative and to get the process started, we will convene a special session of the United Nations or the Security Council in New York. I know that Israel has reservations about the peace plan. We’ve already received comments and requests for ammendments. Some of them can be solved.”
Are you referring to Israel’s reservations regarding the border demarcation, the status and fate of the settlement blocs, the Palestinian’s right of return and the status of Jerusalem?
“These are the primarily issues. And as with compared with the Saudi position of the previous king (who demanded Israel accept the plan as is – SP), today we can have meetings and deliberations to consider your requests.”
All in all, you are optimistic about the political process?
“I have to be optimistic as peace is a strategic objective for Saudi Arabia. And I’m optimistic as all the parties are not content with the status quo. There is no quiet. There is no total security. There is a feeling of sourness and vigilance. When peace is achieved, it will lead to social and economic benefits for the Palestinian side, and Israel will no longer be isolated.”
Until this occurs, Dr. Eshski travels around the world and adjusts his flight schedule, as necessary, to coincide with that of the Israelis who come to conferences in which they all try to bring together ideas that will yield peace.