WASHINGTON — In a rare joint appearance of high-level Israeli and Saudi Arabian officials, the kingdom’s Prince Turki al-Faisal and IDF Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror shared a stage Thursday night in Washington, debating ways to advance a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, while also expressing common concerns over the Iranian nuclear deal and growing instability in the region.
Their debate was generally very good-natured, albeit with some mutual signs of irritation, occasional rolling of the eyes and other such gestures from Amidror, and with both men sometimes twiddling their thumbs as the other spoke.
Al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to Washington, insisted that the Arab Peace Initiative, a Saudi proposal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that was endorsed by the Arab League in 2002, was the path toward reaching a final-status agreement. Amidror, a former national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urged the Arab world to form an “umbrella of cooperation” with Israel to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table.
“I can’t understand why the Netanyahu government doesn’t seek to grab that offer that was presented in 2002 and work with not just the US, but with the Arab world in establishing peace,” al-Faisal said at the gathering, hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “There is no requirement for divine revelation or Einsteinian genius to know what peace is — two states, mutual swaps, mutual recognition, and engaging with each other.”
While not addressing the specifics of the Saudi proposal that have been unequivocally rejected by the Israeli government, Amidror countered that the failure to reach a lasting accord was not Netanyahu’s fault. He cited past attempts by other Israeli prime ministers and said that “instead of giving Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] the key to the Middle East, we should think outside the box,” adding that the path toward an agreement was for Arab states to “cooperate with Israel instead of dictating to Israel,” which would mean bringing “both sides under an umbrella to negotiate.”
“Netanyahu doesn’t even recognize the two-state solution anymore,” al-Faisal retorted, referring to Netanyahu’s comments before the March 2015 election, in which he said a Palestinian state would never emerge under his leadership.
Shortly after the election, Netanyahu walked back his campaign promise — of a two-state compromise — telling NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, “I don’t want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution, but for that, circumstances have to change.”
“We need a serious negotiating partner from the Israeli side,” al-Faisal charged, “not someone who one day says ‘I accept a two-state solution’ and the next day he says he doesn’t.”
In response, Amidror pointed to US President Barack Obama’s framework plan, presented to Abbas in March 2014, to which, he said, the Palestinian leader never responded.
“The Americans put a paper on the table and said, based on this paper, we want both sides to negotiate. The prime minister said ‘I don’t like it. I have reservations. But if the Americans say it is a good paper, I’ll take it,'” Amidror recounted. “Then Abu Mazen, they gave him the paper, and Abu Mazen said, ‘I have to consult with my people in Ramallah.’ He is still consulting.”
The Saudi prince repeatedly denounced Israel’s presence in the West Bank and said that peace throughout the Middle East would not be realized until Palestinian statehood was achieved. “There has to be a lifting of the occupation,” he said. “The Palestinians have to have their own country.”
“Maybe your optimistic view of the Palestinians is too optimistic,” Amidror replied, criticizing the Palestinians’ unwillingness to negotiate.
Iran and the region
On the Iran nuclear deal, both former officials expressed concern about Tehran acquiring weapons capability. Al-Faisal said the Middle East should remain a “weapons of mass destruction free zone” and that “all options” would be on the table if the Islamic Republic began to move toward the bomb, including Saudi Arabia acquiring its own nuclear weapon capability.
Amidror said he thought Iran would work to build a bomb “toward the end of the agreement. In principle, the Iranians can go nuclear and from the Israeli point of view, this is a threat to existence, and we will not let this happen.”
While al-Faisal indicated a level of partnership, albeit quiet partnership, between Saudi Arabia and the Jewish state when it comes to regional threats, he circled back to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to suggest it obstructed Arab states’ ability to work with Israel.
“Cooperation between Arab countries and Israel in meeting threats, from wherever they come, whether Iran, is better fortified if there is peace between the Arab nations and Israel,” he said.
The two also presented similar positions on the situation in Syria, including the reign of Bashar Assad and the rise of the Islamic State.
“We all know what a monster Assad is,” al-Faisal told those gathered at the event, emphasizing a collective responsibility for the political and humanitarian catastrophe that has unfolded in Syria. “I blame us all for what is happening in Syria,” he said.
Amidror reiterated the Israeli position to remain out of the civil war, saying that “Israel seeks to avoid involvement in the sectarian conflict sweeping the Arab world,” but that “the best outcome for Syria is to become free and democratic.”
He contended that Syria was evidence that other conflicts in the region have taken a greater toll than the Israeli-Palestinian one. “The number of Arabs that have been killed by Arabs is greater than the number of Arabs that have been killed by Jews,” he said.
The two former officials also addressed the US role in the region. Moderator Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute, asked the panelists to discuss a recent series of interviews President Obama gave with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, in which the president articulated a vision of US retrenchment in the Middle East.
Al-Faisal said the “strategic relationship with the US will remain, from the Saudi point of view,” while stressing the main difference between the two countries was on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Amidror, similarly, said the difference between Israel and the United States was also “on the Palestinian issue.”
Amidror added that there was “no substitute for the United States of America in the Middle East” and that those “who think other countries can do what the United States used to do is a big mistake.”
Al-Faisal indicated he saw a change in the relationship and the US role in the region and said he believes “there needs to be a reevaluation and recalibration of the relationship.” He also expressed some empathy for the president’s position: “Americans feel too much used to be expected of them. And they shouldn’t feel obliged to take certain responsibilities that they did before.”
The two men shook hands at the start of the event, but the hand shake was not broadcast in the Washington Institute’s livestream coverage of the event. The evening ended with the two acknowledging that their meeting did not indicate a normalizing of relations between the two countries.