Saudi official: it's now or never for peace
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.
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."
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."
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.