April 25, 2002
Saudi to Warn Bush of Rupture Over Israel Policy
By PATRICK E. TYLER
OUSTON, April 24 — Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is expected to tell President Bush in stark terms at their meeting on Thursday that the strategic relationship between their two countries will be threatened if Mr. Bush does not moderate his support for Israel's military policies, a person familiar with the Saudi's thinking said today.
In a bleak assessment, he said there was talk within the Saudi royal family and in Arab capitals of using the "oil weapon" against the United States, and demanding that the United States leave strategic military bases in the region.
Such measures, he said, would be a "strategic debacle for the United States."
He also warned of a general drift by Arab leaders toward the radical politics that have been building in the Arab street.
The Saudi message contained undeniable brinkmanship intended to put pressure on Mr. Bush to take a much larger political gamble by imposing a peace settlement on Israelis and Palestinians.
But the Saudi delegation also brought a strong sense of the alarm and crisis that have been heard in Arab capitals.
"It is a mistake to think that our people will not do what is necessary to survive," the person close to the crown prince said, "and if that means we move to the right of bin Laden, so be it; to the left of Qaddafi, so be it; or fly to Baghdad and embrace Saddam like a brother, so be it. It's damned lonely in our part of the world, and we can no longer defend our relationship to our people."
Whatever the possibility of bluster, it is also clear that Abdullah represents not just Saudi Arabia but also the broader voice of the Arab world, symbolized by the peace plan he submitted and that was endorsed at an Arab summit meeting in March.
Those familiar with the prince's "talking points" said he would deliver a blunt message that Mr. Bush is perceived to have endorsed — despite his protests to the contrary — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's military incursion into the West Bank.
Abdullah believes Mr. Bush has lost credibility by failing to follow through on his demand two weeks ago that Mr. Sharon withdraw Israeli troops from the West Bank and end the sieges of Yasir Arafat's compound in Ramallah and of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
If those events occur and Mr. Bush makes a commitment "to go for peace" by convening an international conference, as his father did after the Persian Gulf war, to press for a final settlement and a Palestinian state, the Saudi view would change dramatically.
But those close to the Saudi delegation said there was no expectation that Mr. Bush is prepared to apply the pressure necessary to force such an outcome.
"The perception in the Middle East, from the far left to the far right, is that America is totally sponsoring Sharon — not Israel's policies but Sharon's policies — and anyone who tells you less is insulting your intelligence," the person familiar with Abdullah's thinking said.
Western analysts see the prince as a blunt Bedouin leader whose initiative is regarded by many Arabs as a gesture worthy of the late Egyptian leader Anwar el-Sadat, who flew to Jerusalem in 1973 to sue for peace with Menachem Begin. Abdullah's offer, now the Arab world's offer, calls for recognition of Israel and "normal relations" in return for a Palestinian state on lands Israel occupied in 1967.
The Saudi assessment was apparently being conveyed through several private channels.
On Tuesday President Bush's father had lunch with the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, and the kingdom's longtime ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Their specific message could not be learned, but in the familial setting, where Barbara Bush was also the hostess for Princess Haifa, Prince Bandar's wife, the strong strategic and personal ties of the Persian Gulf war that characterized Saudi-American relations a decade ago was a message in itself.
Abdullah, in a luncheon today with Vice President Dick Cheney, was to convey the seriousness with which he regards the Thursday meeting with President Bush as a "last chance" for constructive relations with the Arab world.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, also flew to Houston to join in last-minute discussions before the summit meeting. A senior official in Washington said Mr. Rumsfeld and General Myers were dispatched to brief the prince personally on the American accomplishments in Afghanistan and in the broader war on terrorism.
"The idea was, if he thought we were strong in Desert Storm, we're 10 times as strong today," one official said. "This was to give him some idea what Afghanistan demonstrated about our capabilities."
United States military commanders in the Persian Gulf region have been building up command centers and equipment depots in Qatar and Kuwait in recent months in anticipation of a possible breach with Riyadh.
Saudi officials assert that American presidents since Richard M. Nixon have been willing to speak more forcefully to Israeli leaders than the current president when American interests were at stake.
"If Bush freed Arafat and cleared Bethlehem, it would be a big victory, show a stiffening of spine," the person close to Abdullah said. "But incremental steps are no longer valid in these circumstances," meaning that Mr. Bush would have to follow up with a major push to fulfill the longstanding expectation of the Palestinians for statehood.
The mood in the Saudi camp was that of gloom and anxiety in private even as Saudi and American officials went ahead with preparations for a warm public encounter with the Bush family.
On Friday, after his meeting with President Bush at his home in Crawford, Abdullah is to take a long train ride to College Station, the central Texas town where the former President Bush will be host at his presidential library. On Saturday, Saudi's Arabia's state oil company is gathering the luminaries of the international energy industry to dine with Abdullah and his party.
But the person close to the prince said that if the summit talks went badly, Abdullah might not complete his stay in Texas. Instead, he might return directly to Riyadh and call for a summit meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, to report to its 44 leaders, who represent 1.2 billion Muslims.
"He wants to say, `I looked the president of the U.S. in the eye and have to report that I failed,' " this person said. His message to the Arabs will be, "Take the responsibility in your own hands, my conscience is clear, before history, God, religion, country and friends."
The person close to Abdullah pointed out that Saudi Arabia's recent assurances that it would use its surplus oil-producing capacity to blunt the effects of Saddam Hussein's 30-day suspension of Iraqi oil exports could quickly change.
That Saudi pledge "was based on a certain set of assumptions, but if you change the assumptions, all bets are off," he said. "We would no longer say what Saddam said was an empty threat, because there come desperate times when you give the unthinkable a chance."
Abdullah is reported to be bitter over the White House's assertion that the president is taking a balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he wants to evaluate in person whether Mr. Bush understands how his actions are being perceived in the Arab world.
"This is not a mistake or a policy gaffe," the person close to Abdullah said, referring to Mr. Bush's approach. "He made a strategic, conscious decision to go with Sharon, so your national interest is no longer our national interest; now we don't have joint national interests. What it means is that you go your way and we will go ours, economically, militarily and politically — and the antiterror coalition would collapse in the process."