"The choice once again is between rejectionism and courage, between endless war and leadership toward peace."

December 3rd, 2007

The Saudis' New PR Man

By Dan Senor
December 3, 2007; Page A20

The news out of the Annapolis Mideast summit last week was bizarre. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was spinning for the Arab League. Before the end of the first day he was tracking down U.S. presidential candidates and members of Congress, mostly strong advocates for Israel. Mr. Olmert wanted them to know that their skepticism about the conference was misplaced: It truly was an historic event, a real breakthrough.

What did Mr. Olmert cite as evidence? “The Saudi foreign minister even applauded after my address. That's never happened before.”

But in Saudi Arabia, coverage of Mr. Olmert's speech was scant. This after Prince Faisal announced his “no-handshake” policy. But I suppose this is better than Syria, where state-controlled television chose to broadcast a soccer game instead of the conference proceedings.

And to add further insult, Israeli reporters were kicked out of a press event for the arrival of Arab League foreign ministers (they had to cover it from out in the rain, while the rest of the press corps was given access).

This is a shame. Earlier this month, I was in Saudi Arabia where I found, in private conversations, many prominent Saudis expressing a willingness to engage Israel. One even cited Yasser Arafat's rejection of a Palestinian state (offered at Camp David in 2000) as the single greatest source of violence over the past few years.

As for the Saudi foreign minister's “historic” applause, the press found him clapping “politely.”

The contrast to the breakthrough of November 1977 could not be more stark. This is how the BBC reported Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem at the time: “[Sadat's] trip to Israel has stunned the international community. Israel and Egypt have fought four wars and Israel still occupies the Sinai Peninsula, part of Egypt that it captured in the 1967 war.

“The Egyptian leader's offer, in a speech to his parliament on 9 November, to travel to Israel was widely regarded as no more than a literary flourish. When Prime Minister Menachem Begin responded by issuing an official invitation nobody believed Mr. Sadat would accept. His presence in Israel breaks an Arab policy of not dealing publicly with the Jewish state created in 1948.”

And Sadat's speech was historic. He stood before the Israeli Knesset and declared: “We really and truly welcome you to live among us in peace and security.”

He criticized the Arab world's rejection of Israel: “We used to reject you. . . . We refused to meet with you, anywhere, yes. We were together in international conferences and organizations and our representatives did not, and still did not, exchange greetings with you. Yes. This has happened and is still happening.” Annapolis shows how right Sadat was, even 30 years later.

And he recognized Israel as the Jewish “home”: “I have chosen to present to you, in your own home, the realities, devoid of any scheme or whim.”

Following Sadat's speech, Begin addressed the Knesset too. And earlier that day the two leaders together visited Israel's Holocaust Museum. The entire visit was broadcast in Egypt. Sadat had nothing to hide.

In covering the event from Cairo, the United Press International reported: “The normally thronged streets of this ancient city were virtually empty. Millions of people sat quietly by televisions and radios in their homes and cafes, hanging on every word of Sadat's speech to the Israeli Knesset.”

UPI interviewed Samy Naggar, 24, an Egyptian medical student, who had “reservations” about Sadat's mission but came around after Sadat's speech: “This man has put his position in danger, maybe even his life, to defend the Arab cause. . . . I don't know whether it will prove to be a mistake in the end, but I do know that my respect for his courage and integrity has grown and I think other Egyptians feel the same way. If nothing else, the whole world should be convinced that Sadat is sincere in his desire for peace.”

In 1947, the Arab states rejected the United Nations' partition plan, then invaded to crush Israel in its cradle. In 1977, Sadat told the Knesset that he traveled to Israel even though “we were still in a state of war.” In 2007, 30 years later, the choice once again is between rejectionism and courage, between endless war and leadership toward peace.

At Annapolis, President Bush said, “Arab states should also reach out to Israel, work toward the normalization of relations, and demonstrate in both word and deed that they believe that Israel and its people have a permanent home in the Middle East.” A breakthrough would be if an Arab leader took such a bold step now, so that in 30 or 60 years the Arab world will not be looking back at yet another missed opportunity.

To read more of Dan Senor's analysis of The Middle East, click here.

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