With pressure mounting for a diplomatic resolution to avoid war in the Persian Gulf, questions have begun to arise in Saudi Arabia, America’s staunchest ally in the gulf, about the wisdom of refusing to negotiate with Iraq.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz’s appeal Wednesday on international television to resolve the Palestinian problem side by side with the crisis in Kuwait sparked grudging admiration among many Saudis. A Saudi Foreign Ministry official said that the international community should consider convening a conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict, among other options, to induce a peaceful Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.
“What I am asking for here now is any kind of initiative that would bring the withdrawal of Iraq by the 15th of January,” the official said in an interview. “Bush has said he will not attack Iraq if Iraq withdraws. They want it in writing. Give it to them. They want to connect the Palestinian question, guarantee that they will deal with the Palestinian conflict in the way they dealt with the Iraqi occupation. Why not? This is in our interest, I think.”
The Foreign Ministry official cautioned that his views do not necessarily represent government policy, which has been adamantly opposed to any negotiations with Iraq or linkage of the gulf crisis with the Palestinian conflict.
But the fact that a senior Foreign Ministry representative is advocating negotiation and linkage is a striking example of the pressure Saudi Arabia is beginning to feel as the prospect of war grows.
This also expresses a widespread view among many Saudis that Iraq’s demands for addressing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip at the same time as Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait make some sense.
“A lot of people are saying now, the U.S. for the first time is not vetoing resolutions on the Palestinian question, and Saddam is responsible,” said one prominent Saudi intellectual who has vehemently opposed Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait.
“What Tarik Aziz was saying (about the Palestinian issue) was logical,” he added. “Saddam is evil. But the American policies in the Middle East are no less evil, and believe me, a lot of Saudis are saying this.”
Despite King Fahd’s recent comments advocating negotiations between Iraq and Kuwait after a full Iraqi withdrawal, Saudi officials say firmly that their views on the crisis have not changed: no negotiations before withdrawal, no linkage of the Kuwait and Palestine issues.
“There’s no talking going on, there’s no compromise, there’s no intention to talk to him (Saddam Hussein),” said one official. “There’s no deal to cut. Face-saving way out? We have to make it easy for him to get out? No. . . . Yes, there should be an international conference (on the Palestinian issue), but no, those issues should not be linked with the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.”
However, apparently reflecting a divergence of views within the Saudi government on how to respond to the crisis, the Foreign Ministry official interviewed this week said negotiations should be considered as an opportunity to avert war.
“As long as they will withdraw from now until the 15th, we should be open to negotiation,” he said.
“Any dialogue that will lead to Saddam’s withdrawal, I am with it,” he added. “What I am asking for here now is any kind of initiative that would bring the withdrawal of Iraq by the 15th of January. Anything that will be promised after the Iraqi withdrawal is acceptable.”
Many Saudis are beginning to say stridently that Iraq is at least correct when it says the Palestinian issue must be addressed in order to have any lasting peace in the Middle East--despite the bitterness the Saudis now feel toward the Palestine Liberation Organization, which has sided with Iraq in the gulf crisis.
“The chronic disease is the Palestinian problem, and a reasonable solution has to be found. You may not be able to find something to satisfy Likud (Israel’s conservative majority party) or George Habash (head of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), but you may be able, with the present makeup of the Security Council, you may be able to force it, literally force it, on them,” said a Riyadh businessman who is a close confidante of top government officials.
“If you took a poll around here today, the majority of the people would say, ‘To hell with the Palestinians, to hell with all the Arabs,’ ” he said. “But that’s not the kind of conclusion that stands up to further reflection. It’s not a matter of love and hate, it’s a matter of fundamental interests.”
However, most officials here, Western and Arab alike, appear overwhelmingly pessimistic about the possibility of resolving any of the present crises peacefully.
“I just don’t see how anything can be said on either side that would change the course we appear to be on,” said one Western diplomat familiar with this week’s talks. “There’s no variance at all between what they’re saying in public and what we’re being led to believe privately.”
One of the reasons the multinational alliance has held out against negotiations to avert war is because one of the fundamental tenets of the alliance is that there will be no reward for aggression, he said.
“If you start talking about fallbacks, then you start talking about stretching things out. One of the reasons we’re interested in deadlines is we realize the lifetime of this coalition is not unlimited,” he said. “There’s certainly a lot of odd bedfellows, and to expect that grouping to hold together for any long period of time stretches my imagination more than I’d prefer to have it stretched.”
“I don’t think there’s any way out right now,” he added.
The Saudis are expressing a similar view. The failure of talks between Baker and Aziz, said one official, “leaves us where we were six weeks ago. The Iraqis are not interested in getting out. They never were. Saddam Hussein has absolutely no intention of getting out. The only way to force the issue was to exhaust all options as quickly as possible and then give him no choice except to pull out or be kicked out. At that point, if he has any intention of pulling out, that’s when he’ll do it. But I don’t think he will.”
As Secretary of State James A. Baker III met Thursday night with King Fahd, sources here said that President Bush had already telephoned the Saudi monarch with the essence of Baker’s message Wednesday.