As U.S. Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell arrives in Israel Sunday for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, after visiting Abu Dhabi and Damascus and before heading on to Egypt and Bahrain, Foreign Policy has confirmed that President Barack Obama has sent letters to at least seven Arab and Gulf states seeking confidence-building measures toward Israel, which Washington has been pushing to agree to a freeze of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
One former senior U.S. official who was aware of the letters said they had been sent "recently" to seven Arab states, including the leaders of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The letters reinforce "the Mitchell message re: the need for CBMs [confidence-building measures] in exchange for [settlement] freeze and to [get] peace talks restarted," the former senior official said by e-mail.
"These letters were sent some time ago," a White House official told Foreign Policy Sunday, when asked about them. "The president has always said that everyone will have to take steps for peace. This is just the latest instance of this sentiment."
The official declined to provide a date of the letters, but said, "they'd been reported before a month or two ago."
Israeli daily Ha'aretz previously reported that Obama had written Morocco's King Mohammed VI "expressing his hope and expectation the Arab states will take steps to end Israel's 'isolation' in the Middle East, and ... in bridging gaps between Israel and the Arab world."
Last week, a "Dear Colleague" letter supported by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was circulated by Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) and Sen. James Risch (R-ID) urging Obama to encourage Arab states to "normalize relations with Israel" and recognizing "the key role that Arab states can play in furthering the peace process." A House version circulated by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) and Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) had received 85 signatures as of Friday, a representative of AIPAC said.
Last Sunday, Bahrain's Crown Prince Shaikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa called in the Washington Post for Arabs to talk to Israelis. "Our biggest mistake has been to assume that you can simply switch peace on like a light bulb," al-Khalifa wrote. "The reality is that peace is a process, contingent on a good idea but also requiring a great deal of campaigning -- patiently and repeatedly targeting all relevant parties. This is where we as Arabs have not done enough to communicate directly with the people of Israel. [...] We must stop the small-minded waiting game in which each side refuses to budge until the other side makes the first move. We've got to be bigger than that. All sides need to take simultaneous, good-faith action if peace is to have a chance."
Mitchell's planned visit to Bahrain this week would seem to indicate Washington's interest in exploring ways to advance the crown prince's call for "simultaneous, good faith action." Saudi experts previously indicated to Foreign Policy that Riyadh was not inclined to show intermediate steps towards normalization with Israel in exchange for an Israeli settlement freeze. Instead, Riyadh wanted an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement to precede its Arab peace plan offer for normalization of relations between Israel and 23 Arab states.
Citing a Saudi official he interviewed on assignment in Riyadh last month, McClatchy's Middle East bureau chief Dion Nissenbaum reported Thursday that Bahrain sought permission from the Saudi king before publishing the carefully worded Washington Post opinion piece. Saudi King Abdullah cautioned his Bahraini counterpart "not to go too far in offering concessions to Israel," Nissenbaum reported.
"During his hurriedly arranged visit to Saudi Arabia last month, Obama asked King Abdullah to try to broker a new Palestinian unity government, to revamp his 2002 peace initiative and to consider some good-faith gestures to Israel, officials in Riyadh said," Nissenbaum wrote. "With Saudi Arabia apparently unwilling to take such steps, American officials have been approaching less-influential Arab nations that may be more amenable to Obama's overtures. Israel and the United States have floated a variety of ideas: Qatar might reopen the Israeli trade office it shuttered in January to protest Israel's military offensive in Gaza. Tunisia and other countries might allow Israeli planes to use their airspace. Arab leaders also might grant interviews to Israeli journalists, an Israeli government idea that the crown prince of Bahrain publicly endorsed last week, saying that Arab nations should ‘tell our story more directly to the Israeli people by getting the message out to their media.'"
"One of the main [reasons] Arabs are saying they can't go very far" in showing possible reciprocal gestures to Israel, said Daniel Levy of the New America Foundation, "is, [they say], ‘what worries us most, will you guarantee that the Israelis won't embarrass us?'" Levy explained that Arab governments are afraid they will show reciprocal gestures only to have Al Jazeera showing pictures of new Jewish settlement building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
When Israel's new ambassador to Washington Michael Oren was at the State Department July 17 for a "getting to know you" session, State Department officials raised with him among other topics Washington's opposition to Israel having recently granted permission for a 20-year old plan for construction of 20 Jewish apartments at the site of the old Shepherd Hotel in a Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem, JTA's Ron Kampeas reported.
The Saudis could point to the planned Israeli construction in East Jerusalem as an example of the reason Arab states feel they could be publicly embarrassed if the United States doesn't get Israel to agree to a settlement freeze first, a Washington Middle East peace activist who asked to speak anonymously said. "The Saudis could point to that and say, ‘President Obama, we believe you are serious; but until you have the Israelis under control, you can't expect us to act.'"
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.