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June 23, 2011

From a Saudi prince, tough talk on America’s favoritism toward Israel

Richard Cohen

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As best I can recall, I first met Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki al-Faisal at a private home in Washington years ago. I found him stern and humorless, sometimes even bitter. I have seen him since at international conferences and the like — never in the mood for small talk and exhibiting, sometimes in his glorious robes, not an ounce of Bedouin charm. Still, I was unprepared for the opinion column he published in Sunday’s Post. It read like a declaration of war.

Prince Turki is not now in the government. Yet he is a member of the Saudi royal family and was once the kingdom’s intelligence chief and its former ambassador to both London and Washington. The man is solidly credentialed.

He is also angry as hell, and he lets America have it. He starts by citing what he calls President Obama’s “controversial speech last month, admonishing Arab governments to embrace democracy and provide freedom to their populations.” Saudi Arabia, he wrote, heard what Obama said and took it “seriously,” and he noted, of course, that Obama had not demanded the same rights for Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Point taken.

But the same kingdom that has taken Obama “seriously” is an absolute monarchy that, among other things, bans women from driving cars. It is also a country that offers no freedom of religion but offers, for the occasional criminal, a public beheading. Given that Turki has spent a good deal of time in the West, it’s not possible that he was unaware that commentators like me would be picky about the lack of basic freedoms. He doesn’t care.

Indeed, that was the point. Turki — and by implication all of Saudi Arabia — has had it with the United States. The kingdom will not be lectured to. It is sick and tired of American favoritism to Israel — the exuberant congressional reception for Binyamin Netanyahu, for example — and the administration’s decision to oppose any effort in the United Nations to create a Palestinian state. In this matter, America is doing what Israel wants.

“In September, the kingdom will use its considerable diplomatic might to support the Palestinians in their quest for international recognition,” Turki wrote. “American leaders have long called Israel an ‘indispensable’ ally. They will soon learn that there are other players in the region — not least the Arab street — who are as, if not more, ‘indispensable.’ The game of favoritism toward Israel has not proven wise for Washington, and soon it will be shown to be an even greater folly.”

This is not your usual diplomatic language — and even for Turki it is rough. It shows, though, a not-surprising frustration in the Arab world with American policy tethered for the moment to a quite stubborn and unimaginative Israeli policy. Both countries are suffering from a surfeit of democracy. Israel’s governing coalition is held hostage by the right; America’s governing coalition is in the same fix.

Turki does not run out of wagging fingers. He says that those who think that the United States and Israel will determine the future of Palestine are dead wrong. “There will be disastrous consequences for U.S.-Saudi relations if the United States vetoes U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state. It would mark a nadir in the decades-long relationship as well as irrevocably damage the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and America’s reputation among Arab nations. The ideological distance between the Muslim world and the West in general would widen — and opportunities for friendship and cooperation between the two could vanish.” This from our ally, not to mention friendly gas station.

The tone of the column is both remarkable and ominous. It comes, as I said, from a man of little charm, but he is nevertheless a skilled diplomat and intelligence chief. While his vexation over the Palestinian problem is well-known, rarely has it been carried to this extent — and in such a public venue.

A Post opinion column is designed to get the attention of the American government. I’m sure Prince Turki succeeded in that. But I hope he also got the attention of the Israeli government, which for some time now has enjoyed Saudi moderation on the Palestinian question. That seems about to change — not the least because the Arab street that Turki expressly mentioned is demanding it and the Saudis will, if they have to, appease the street. This is the gravamen of Prince Turki’s piece and is why he ends it so ominously for Israel: “I’d hate to be around when they face their comeuppance.”

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M. Elmasry

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