Israeli, Saudi debate Middle East issues

From left: Amos Yadlin, head of Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies; Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, former Saudi ambassador to the United States, and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius — acting as moderator — discuss Middle East issues on Monday. Photo courtesy German Marshall Fund
From left: Amos Yadlin, head of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies; Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, former Saudi ambassador to the United States, and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius — acting as moderator — discuss Middle East issues on Monday.
Photo courtesy German Marshall Fund

Israel’s Gen. Amos Yadlin and Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud have a lot in common: Both men served as diplomats in Washington — one of them as ambassador. Both were crucial to their nations’ intelligence-gathering capabilities. And now that they’re retired, both head think tanks devoted to regional peace and security.

But that hardly means the two adversaries agree on how to ensure that security.

On Monday, the Washington-based German Marshall Fund brought Yadlin and Turki together for a discussion titled “Israel and the Middle East: Seeking Common Ground.” The 95-minute debate, moderated by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, took place at the Sofitel Brussels Europe — only two days after a terrorist attack at the nearby Brussels Jewish Museum killed four people, including two Israeli tourists.

“In my view, there are very good reasons to have peace between Israel and the Arab world, first of course because there would be no more bloodshed,” Turki said in his opening statement. “The unfortunate experience in this city on Saturday has shown there are those who are willing to take lives for whatever purpose. We have many examples of that in our part of the world — whether it is Syria or Iraq. People simply go on with their lives while these tragedies occur.”

After both men praised Secretary of State John Kerry for his recent failed efforts to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together, Turki challenged Yadlin to explain why Israel continues to reject Faisal’s peace plan, under which the Arabs normalize relations with the Jewish state in return for a complete Israeli withdrawal “from all the lands it occupied” in 1967, including East Jerusalem.

“The kingdom’s offer of a peace initiative in 2002 still remains the most viable proposal that has come about since the dispute began several decades ago,” Turki said. “It’s still on the table but has never been taken up by Israel.”

Yadlin responded that the offer makes unrealistic demands of Israel.

“We have no problem with the Saudi peace initiative,” he responded. “The real problem was that the Saudi peace initiative became the Arab League dictate in 2002, at a summit in Beirut. It was modified into a take-it-or-leave-it kind of offer with parameters that we cannot accept — including a demand that we return the Golan Heights to Syria.”

Yadlin said he never had much hope that Kerry would succeed.

“Reaching a full comprehensive agreement is very difficult and unachievable as long as the two leaders in both countries cannot lead their people to do the necessary concessions,” he explained. “On the Israeli side, this means a two-state solution instead of a bigger Israel, based on the 1967 borders and partition of Jerusalem. That goes against the political position of our main parties and the history of our people. For the Palestinians, it means the end of conflict, the finality of claims, and that Palestinian refugees will return only to the Palestinian state, and limitations on their sovereignty. I don’t see the two leaders agreeing to that. This is the tragedy of the peace process.”

Turki, 69, is the youngest son of the late King Faisal. He headed Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Directorate for 23 years — from 1979 until his abrupt resignation 10 days before the 9/11 attacks in 2001. In July 2005, he succeeded Prince Bandar bin Sultan as Saudi ambassador to the United States, serving for a year and a half. Turki now chairs the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh.

Yadlin, 63, has a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard. The leader of a jet fighter squadron during the Yom Kippur War, he was one of eight pilots who bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. From 2004 to 2006, Yadlin served as Israel’s military attaché in Washington, and upon his return to Israel, he became head of Aman, the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate. Since November 2011, he’s headed Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

The discussion also touched on other issues, including the continuing bloodshed in Syria, withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Turki, asked what he thought of the current negotiations on halting Iranian progress toward enriching plutonium at its nuclear research facilities, said the six-party talks must be given a chance.

“The interim agreement is what it says it is,” he said. “We have to wait until there’s a final agreement before we can make a judgment on whether it’s a good deal or a bad deal. It’s a step. Until the July deadline tells us where we’re going, I don’t think anyone should applaud what has been achieved.”

The Saudi prince reiterated his call for a nuclear-free zone throughout the Middle East as “the most equitable solution” to halt a regional arms race. But Yadlin — who, like Turki, expressed hope that the Iranians would reach a deal — said he feared Tehran would eventually violate any accord it signed, regardless of what its leaders say publicly.

“Iran calls for the annihilation of the State of Israel, to wipe us off the map,” said Yadlin. “If this very radical regime will marry a very radical weapon, for a people that went through mass killing 70 years ago in a war that we were not involved in — based on hate crimes that we saw here in this city on Saturday — we have to be very worried.”

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